With over 3 billion people in the world who are classified as unreached, should churches really be that concerned with their own spiritual health? Sure, we want people to be committed members, to hear the preaching of God’s Word, and to give regularly, but should we really obsess over internal matters while thousands of people groups have little or no access to the gospel? Aren’t we wasting valuable time and energy?
We should always be on guard against the kind of inward focus that blinds us to the global scope of God’s saving purposes. However, it doesn’t follow from this that we should take God’s design for the church lightly. The One who commanded us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) also sent out apostles who, through the Spirit-inspired Scriptures, gave us instructions for what the church should look like and do (1 Timothy 3:15). Far from being a distraction, a church’s spiritual health is essential to its disciple-making efforts among the unreached. To illustrate this point, it may be helpful to think of two extremes that we need to avoid.
Extreme #1: the church’s health is irrelevant to its disciple-making efforts among the unreached.
Though few Christians would agree with this statement, I wonder how many actually see a close connection between a church’s health and its role in reaching the unreached.
For starters, consider a church’s preaching and teaching. If the gospel message communicated from your pulpit, discussed in your small groups, taught in your Sunday School classes, and shared with unbelieving neighbors is not biblical or clear, then the message you take overseas will be at best unclear and at worst deceptive. If, for instance, your church does not call people to repent of their sins when they put their faith in Jesus, then don’t be surprised if you plant churches overseas filled with nominal Christians. And if your church doesn’t put a high priority on helping people grow as disciples of Christ, then don’t be surprised if the “fruit” of your missions efforts doesn’t last.
To take another example, consider your church’s giving. If members do not see the importance of regular and sacrificial giving through their local church, then the church’s ability to support missions partners in hard-to-reach places will likely be very limited. Or it could be that much of your budget is devoted to programs that are peripheral to the church’s mission. Note: this doesn’t mean that all giving not designated as “missions” is wrong, nor does it mean that building new facilities, generously supporting pastors, hosting events, etc., is necessarily unwise. But it does mean that a church’s resources should be stewarded in accordance with biblical priorities.
Finally, consider the area of church leadership. Biblically qualified pastors are often hard to come by in areas where there is little gospel access. If your church chooses pastors primarily based on charisma and personality, do you think you will be likely to support the kind of faithful shepherds that are examples to the flock and that persevere in proclaiming God’s Word over the course of years and decades? Without this kind of leadership, churches can easily become spiritually malnourished and fall prey to false teaching. And if those who lead lack the character qualifications spelled out in Scripture—above reproach, sober-minded, self-controlled, etc., (1 Timothy 3:1–7)—their congregations will get a distorted picture of what it looks like to be a Christian. The church’s witness in the surrounding community may also suffer.
Extreme #2: the church needs to have a grade of A+ in every area before it even thinks about reaching the unreached.
For those who see the connection between the church’s health and its efforts among the unreached, there’s another extreme to avoid, namely, believing that your church can’t support or send workers among the unreached until you score a perfect 100% in every other area.
No church has “arrived.” That should be obvious to anyone who’s been a member of any local body of Christians for any amount of time. Whether it’s evangelism, church discipline, or the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, every church has areas where it needs to grow in biblical faithfulness. But that doesn’t mean the church should ignore its role in spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. Just as a church wouldn’t refuse to evangelize just because its giving was subpar, neither should a church that is weak in prayer neglect to support indigenous believers in places like Somalia and India. We can, by God’s grace, seek to grow in multiple areas at the same time.
By all means, if your church doesn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then don’t bother with sending workers to the ends of the earth. In fact, don’t even send them next door because what they’re sharing isn’t the gospel (and what you’re a part of is not a church, biblically speaking). On the other hand, if you’re simply acknowledging that your church still has room to grow in various areas, that shouldn’t keep you from seeking to support gospel work among hard to reach people groups. You’ll likely find that these two aims—health and mission—reinforce each other.
As your church continues to gain a clearer picture of the gospel, you’re likely to have a greater desire to make that gospel known. And as you see how a biblical view of church membership can fuel discipleship, you’re more likely to support missionaries who see the necessity of planting healthy churches. On the other hand, your support of missionaries among the unreached may encourage your own church to be more bold in evangelizing your own community. And hearing about the needs of persecuted believers might compel your people to give more generously for the glory of God.
Regardless of where you think your church is in terms of the biblical traits of a healthy church, don’t fail to see the connection between the church’s health and its role in the spread of the gospel among the nations. Healthy churches tend to plant healthy churches.
(To learn more about the biblical traits of a healthy church, go here).