Valuing Local Church Investment in View of Global Evangelism
Let’s call it the paralysis of empathy. It’s that feeling you get when, for example, you sit down to watch a show on TV and a commercial breaks in with the emaciated form of an impoverished child living in the slums of a third-world country. A plea is made for you to donate money to bring help and aid to these poor children, and your heart leaps with compassion for their sorry condition. Then you start to sink into it – the paralysis of empathy. That sense of overwhelming disparity between your condition and theirs, that feeling that more must be done, and yet that no amount of sacrifice will make a real difference. You perhaps careen between a passing desire to sell everything and give it to the poor, and yet you feel that such a gesture would be so diluted in the face of great need that it would accomplish little. So guilt sets in, and perhaps even anger at the seeming (and actual) wastefulness of our culture. Worst of all, many of us slowly wait out our experience until indifference or forgetfulness resolves the conflict.
The church faces this same struggle. We see the needs of foreign mission fields and hear the calls of those laboring among the harvest and watch the video presentations of people gathering in earthen-floored, thatch-roofed huts to worship. Or we read the accounts of saints afflicted by persecution in closed nations and the abuses they endure for the cause of Christ. With all this going on, how could a church be investing its resources in new pews, building projects, creative arts teams, or free coffee and snacks?
“Back to the early church model!” some cry. The ideal church is envisioned as a lean organization of passionate evangelists like Paul leaving behind simple house churches and then pushing ever onward to the ends of the earth. Resources are pooled, wealth is shared, edifice is scant, and evangelism is king.
But is this really a robust understanding of the church and its mission?
I want to suggest that a passion for local investment and a passion for global discipleship is not a balancing act or a tension. It is a battle plan.
The Church is engaged in four-dimensional warfare. We are not only engaged in making disciples to the ends of the earth, but to the end of the age. We are not merely concerned with the making of those disciples either, but with their maturity. For this reason, the spread of God’s church is not like a flame that consumes all its fuel in the center and burns in a ring ever outward. It is an organism that grows organically and by degrees and remains healthy only insofar as all of its members, from the oldest to the most recent, remain strong.
The early church understood this. Within two generations of the writing of Revelation, the church was already investing in building church buildings. Our oldest archaeological find is from the 240s (1). The Church realized that if it was passionate about evangelism like Paul was, then it needed strong, generationally vibrant churches like Antioch to which Paul returned time and again after his missionary journeys. They built churches because they were outgrowing houses. They built churches because they were becoming part of the culture. They embellished and enlarged their structures because they wanted to do everything as unto the Lord and even their architecture was theological (2). They did not see a beautiful building as the materialistic betrayal of the Gospel that we sometimes fear; they saw it as a blessing handed down from one generation to the next in which the people of God, the true Church, could cultivate future Paul’s who would go, and future Timothy’s and Tabatha’s, who would stay.
We do not need to fear the physical flourishing of local churches in wealthy nations if those churches instill a love for making disciples of all the nations to each generation of believers blessed to grow up in their midst. We can be grateful for the new pew upon which the next generation of soul harvesters is instructed in the ways of Christ. We can smile at the new buildings that declare outwardly the increase God is bringing inwardly.
A rich church which despises the nations is an abomination to God.
A voluntarily impoverished church which loves the nations is often impotent to act.
A local church deeply, richly, even lavishly invested in God’s mission for local saints and widely invested in God’s passion for new saints is the goal.
May future generations be able to observe of both the grace of God and the growth of the church:
Deep and wide, deep and wide. There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.