As the people of a missionary God, we are entrusted to participate in the world the same way he does—by committing to be his ambassadors (see John 20:21; 2 Cor. 5:20). “Missional” describes the perspective to see people as God does and to engage in the activity of reaching them. The church on mission is the church as God intended, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and proclaiming the good news of redemption found in Jesus.
Small Matters in Mission
In today’s church culture, we seem to focus a larger percentage of our writings, thoughts, and conferences on larger churches and how they are reaching people for Jesus. Their pastors seem to be the go-to public figures for speaking invitations, and their model(s) of church growth are extolled as something for all churches to emulate.
But while there are many reasons to celebrate the things larger churches have already done (and continue to accomplish), sometimes we fail to overlook (at best) and neglect (at worst) the work that small churches can do and are doing. Small churches (250 or less members/attenders) make up the vast majority of evangelical churches in the United States.
Popular pastor and author Francis Chan left a church he and his wife had founded, a church that had grown to over 5,000 in its seven years of existence. Recently he went into detail on why he left:
I got frustrated at a point, just biblically. According to the Bible, every single one of these people has a supernatural gift that’s meant to be used for the body. And I’m like 5,000 people show up every week to hear my gift, see my gift. That’s a lot of waste. Then I started thinking how much does it cost to run this thing? Millions of dollars!
So I’m wasting the human resource of these people that according to Scripture have a miraculous gift that they could contribute to the body but they’re just sitting there quietly. . . . [T]hey just sit there and listen to me.
Today, Chan leads a small house church network in San Francisco called We Are Church. Chan disciples leaders in the network, two pastors per house church who work for free, and enjoys this smaller setting where everyone can make use of their spiritual gifts. Everyone reads the Bible for themselves. Chan does not preach. They meet in homes and pray and care for one another. The plan is to double the number of house churches every year so that in ten years, there would be over a million people committed to actively being the church.
Chan’s theology of gifting and service in the church is supported by Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul makes note that God gives spiritual gifts to each believer, and that believers are to work together for the good of the church. He immediately moves to the unity of the church and makes special note that members working together, exercising their gifts and not letting the supposedly more important gifts take center stage, leads to a healthy church. In Chan’s mind, it is difficult in a large church for each member to exercise his or her gift. The point is movement, which can happen in larger churches, but is essential in smaller churches.
In addition to churches, large and small, understanding the giftings of their members, all churches need to begin with an understanding of their identity as a church. The concept of sentness is critical to an accurate biblical understanding of the church and its relationship to the world.
Big Picture for Smaller Churches
Many people sit in small churches each week and wonder how to move forward. Let me suggest several big-picture ways to begin moving toward mission and then in the remainder of the chapter iterate ten very practical applications.
1. Develop a Global Vision
The church was created to be God’s witness to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8). Too many churches use this verse as a missions strategy, beginning in their own Jerusalem (their own town), and then moving to Samaria (the surrounding region or the US in general), and then to the ends of the earth (overseas missions). There are several issues with this line of thinking.
First, the point of the verse, and the book of Acts as a whole, and the whole Bible for that matter, is for the gospel to get to the ends of the earth. Second, there is a danger of focusing too much on our own “Jerusalems” to the point that there is nothing left—no money and no people—to send to the ends of the earth. Third, this thinking can leave missional engagement to someone else because it is not the first priority of the church.
David Platt stated in his book, Radical, that he felt a disconnect between following Jesus, who focused on a small group of churches, and pastoring a megachurch. Yet, God put him in a megachurch for a time.
Platt essentially reversed the geographic focus of Acts 1:8. He made global engagement the first priority and believed that mobilizing the majority of resources for the ends of the earth would result in a trickle-down effect to national and local engagement. People with a global vision see their own community in a different light because they own mission and take personal responsibility for the Great Commission.
How can a small church grow its global vision? Be in touch with global trends in missions. Be informed through relationships with missionaries on the field. Denominations typically can provide a listing of their missionaries along with prayer points for each. Contact a reputable mission agency and sign up for their prayer letters.
Hearing regular reports from those in the field brings a vitality to a local church. Finally, take personal responsibility for the Great Commission. Jesus commissioned the church, and all churches (Matt 28:19–20). The Great Commission is for everyone. Everyone can pray, give, go, or welcome those who have come here. Churches who take this seriously are typically churches ready to move globally and locally.
2. Pray Strategically
Do you really believe Jesus when he said “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2)? Churches who believe this passage will sense an urgency to understand the state of the world and pray strategically for the advance of the gospel. Pray for God to raise up missionaries, church planters, and gospel workers from within your own congregation.
Pray and seek ways to give more and to go more. Use prayer resources such as Operation World, peoplegroups.info, the Joshua Project, and the Caleb Project. Get a laminated world map the size of your dinner table and use it in place of a table cloth. You’ll be amazed at how often the conversation turns to local and global gospel issues because people are now looking at the world on a regular basis.
3. Preach Passionately
Simply putting before your church a list of ideas for mission will not result in long-term change. Developing a global vision and praying strategically will begin to replace the inactive bits of DNA in your church with missional DNA. For pastors, preach faithfully through all the Scriptures and don’t miss the thread of God’s heart for the nations that runs throughout the Bible. The identity of God’s people has always been geared toward mission. Let your people see that week after week from the Scripture. The following quote has often been attributed to missionary martyr Jim Elliot, “Why do you need a voice when you have a verse?”
Lead your people deeply into the Scripture and you’ll move them close to God’s heart, which is certainly missional.
In Part 2, I’ll begin to identify ways smaller churches can reach their communities and beyond for Christ.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.