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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Ed Roberts

Blog posts by Ed Roberts:

An Interview on Contextualizing Ecclesiology

9Marks: How long have you, an American, been living in an overseas context?

Ed Roberts: I spent one year in Latin America and 19 years or so in Asia, mostly Central Asia.

9M: Can you generically describe the kind of places you've been living in?

A Faithful Witness Whose Testimony Challenges Muslim Insider Movements

The Written Defense of the Rev. Mehdi Dibaj Delivered to the Sari Court of Justice - Sari, Iran December 3, 1993
A born Muslim who decided to follow and serve Jesus and paid the price with his life

 

Walking around with Muslims: Options for Showing and Telling the Gospel

 

 

Let's try to keep it simple today. We really only have three options when it comes to talking with Muslims about the gospel and Islam. Since Islam typically includes culture, religion, politics, and even economics, it can seem like a huge wall between us and our Muslim friends and acquaintances. Here are our options:

Critical Contextualization and Culturally Prevalent and Deep-rooted Sins

 

Appropriate or critical contextualization means that the Word of God is our controlling authority and that:

-we do not accept another's culture uncritically-the Word is our touchstone.
-we do not accept our own culture uncritically-the Word is our touchstone.

Clearly Uncomfortable with Contextualization

Some people are really uncomfortable with contextualization, even though we all do it and benefit from it all the time.   What is it, anyway?...well here's one definition...Contextualization is "the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God's revelation...and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts" (Hesselgrave and Rommen 2000, 200)

Blame it on the Building

House churches or
buildings is one hot, emotional topic in missions these days.

A housechurch can't be
a REAL church!
    In more than one Central Asian republic, local
Christians and their leaders seem to think that a church has to have a
dedicated building no matter how few persons might attend; it needs a salaried
pastor,  though usually the few local members cannot pay the pastor's
salary, much less afford the building; it probably needs a website too because, well, every church in that
city has a website. Sometimes they say the church building also needs a big, loud
audio system for the praise worship times. Where did they learn this?  Who taught them that a REAL church has to
have a building?  Surely they didn't read
it in the New Testament.   It's pretty
clear that the New Testament churches met regularly in homes, probably large
homes, and it seem that churches did not have separate, dedicated buildings like
synagogues, at least for a few hundred years.   Surely, they didn't have sound systems, did they?

And yet, throughout the unreached cities and regions of the world, you
will find not a few indigenous, first generation Christians who think that a church has to meet in a dedicated
building. Otherwise it's not a bona fide church. I've even heard pastors and
local believers say exactly that.  A church that only meets in homes cannot be a real church!Blame it on the
building!
   is another common refrain heard among workers trying to facilitate the planting of new churches among
unreached peoples.  I hear it often in Central Asia and I'm told in it's heard in other parts of Asia also.
 Church buildings are all bad; they're expensive! They are not reproducible.  The reason church planting isn't happening is
because of buildings.  If churches would
just meet in homes or storefronts, then they could multiply more rapidly and
the model would be reproducible.   Then, with some proponents of house church models, it starts to get a
little sloppy. A welter of problems that afflict Christians, churches or church planting
gets blamed on the building.  Do away
with buildings; meet in homes and you solve most of the problems in local
church life and church planting, or so the argument seems to go.  Plenty of books like this have been written. I've read many of them.          (This site is different...take a look...  Jim Eliff on why meet in homes )

    Unless we afford a normative function to the 
discernible NT pattern of churches meeting in homes (I don't), there is no prescriptive meeting place for churches. The NT
doesn't tell us where churches are to meet.  When they address local church problems, the NT writers like Paul, Peter and John  never suggest that the problem is because of
location or church meeting place. Never, as far as I can tell.        Instead  problems in early churches are addressed as due to deficient church leaders or
teachers (I Timothy, Titus), or failure in understanding and/or applying the gospel of
Jesus Christ (Galatians, Colossians, Romans, Ephesians, I Peter etc. )

     The church
is to gather for corporate worship and mutual edification and ministry.  Then the church scatters again to be Kingdom
salt and light.   In those
regular gatherings, there would seem to be both horizontal and vertical
dimensions, teaching, responding, giving, praying, singing, encouragement and
edifying conversation on a horizontal dimension.   Some aspect of spontaneity and mutual
participation in the regular church gathering would seem to be a fair way to
understand I Corinthians 14 as well as Paul's reminders to edify one another. (see
Peterson Engaging with God)

     Reading the NT, one gets the distinct impression that the
gatherings of the local church were to be an expression of genuine Christian
community, mutual edification and  even various
spoken word ministries by "non-teachers", as well as an opportunity for gifted
teachers to teach.      So, it would seem to
make sense that a church meet regularly in a location that facilitates rather
than hinders the purposes of that regular (weekly) gathering.  Thus, while meeting place is not prescribed
in NT, neither is it an entirely indifferent matter, but requires wise and prayerful choices.  A church's meeting place may interfere with that church's
accomplishing NT purposes or it may assist in the accomplishment of those
purposes.  

            Thus,  I suggest the way
forward is not Blame it on the Building nor is it A House Church Cannot be a Real Church.   Church planters need to
assist new believers (and in some cases assist local pastors and leaders) to discover
the New Testament purposes of the church's regular gathering(s).  This is the first and often missing step.  Foreign funds are raised, buildings get built
and the new church gets founded before anyone even takes the time to read the
Bible to discover what a church is to be and do and what the regular meetings
of a church should facilitate and accomplish.   Thus, the building and its maintenance etc. takes on a life of its own and gets confused with gospel purposes of the local church.  The proverbial cart (building) has been put before the horse (genuine, healthy, local church life guided by NT purposes for church and its gathering(s).  Has anyone else seen this happen? This doesn't seem to be a wise
course. 

             Or, conversely, some church planters in
their frustration with building-based churches which were not biblically ordered
or don't accomplish NT purposes, disdainfully reject all church buildings, thinking that
meeting in a house automatically accomplishes NT purposes. Of course, it does
not.   Furthermore, sometimes having a
publicly identifiable space, or shared building with a network of house
churches might actually help those churches accomplish NT purposes.      Blame it on the Building adherents may have
put on blinders that prevent them from seeing how God is at work using
building based churches or networks of churches to further His Kingdom. It's
almost like Blame it on the Building proponents 
have made buildings a first order gospel matter, something, clearly the
New Testament writers never did!  Imagine
Paul saying, "if anyone comes preaching to you about meeting in a building, let
him be anathema?"  or would he rather have said, "if anyone comes preaching who does not meet in a house, let him be anathema?"

    Where a church meets is a matter requiring wise, prayerful reflection on the Scriptural purposes of the church, and the context where the church exists or is to be planted.  A building may or may not assist in the accomplishment of those purposes.  Different kinds of buildings might be more or less helpful depending on the context.  And, in some cases, meeting in a dedicated building is neither possible nor wise because of the authorities or extremely hostile social context. If all these seems obvious, thanks for letting me re-state it.

      I think there's a need for more nuanced, biblical, informed, contextually alert, and less defensive conversation about building-based or house church models.      For example, which clear NT purposes should be facilitated in regular gatherings of the church and which purposes will believers intentionally fulfill as the church scatters?  In other words, what kinds of and how much mutual, participatory ministry does the NT expect to happen IN the assembly, and how much happens apart from the assembly? What guidance does the Bible give us on this matter?  How we answer these questions will affect how we approach the meeting place question, won't it? What do the rest of you think? 

Of cream cheese on red beards

I’m going to talk to myself for a few minutes. That’s what blogs are for, right? Can we say that missiology is the intentional, ongoing, purposeful, biblically controlled, serious and prayerful reflection on the doing of God’s mission in the world?   If so, what might missiological pride look like?  Missiological humility?  Why does it matter, anyway?
It matters because Scripture says in James 4 that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  The missiological task of making disciples and planting churches among “resistant” people is so daunting that only a fool would think he could do it without God’s grace.  It’s an impossible task, without God’s help!  But then the Scriptures give many warnings in Proverbs about pride, indicating that pride is always foolish, and that fools are frequently proud.  And Isaiah 66:2 reminds us that God esteems the one who is humble, contrite and trembles at His Word.  Sounds like a good place for a missiologist, missions partner, church planter or cross cultural disciple-maker to be… humble, contrite and trembling before the Scriptures, gracefully engaging this God-centered calling.  But how do I get there?  Perhaps first by considering what pride might look like…
Missiological pride is characterized by always wanting to teach, always being ready to instruct others. Proud missiologists are not so good at listening; they’re almost never ready to learn from others, especially from those without the necessary credentials.  Being quick to speak, slow to listen and quick to become angry…oops-is that what James 1 says? Missiological pride sometimes displays a kind of evolutionary optimism about the latest missiological trends.  Earlier ideas were weak; that’s why they “failed”!…The newer strategies and ideas are always truer and stronger, properly adapted to the current context, better able to survive, as it were. Or sometimes the opposite! Every new idea is wrong. If it was good enough for Carey and Judson, it’s good enough for me!
Pride is usually self-reliant-favoring pragmatic approaches. It looks for the correct technique and promotes reliance upon the mastery and consistency of technique rather than dependence upon the God of the gospel for the nations.  But sometimes a kind of prideful love of creativity keeps me from embracing the simple and repetitive aspects of being and making disciples of the nations.  
And, isn’t ethnocentrism a kind of pride, putting our clan or tribe or cultural group at the center instead of God who is Lord of ALL cultures and intends to bring every culture under His rule and reign.  What about Indigeno-centrism which assumes that the indigenous focus (insert UPG name here) culture does not need the corrective power of the gospel and need not be challenged by the values of the Coming Kingdom.  Ed, there you go making up words again… is that a form of pride?
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t have biblical convictions and hold tightly to those first and second tier doctrines, what we might call essential doctrines.  We should. To do so is wise, godly and not at all prideful.   But on third or fourth tier issues or non essential doctrines, biblical humility recognizes some room for accommodation, particularly when dealing with cross cultural application.  It’s not that non-essential doctrines don’t matter. They do. It’s just that we don’t have the same level of confidence that the Scriptures clearly teach only one acceptable position. 
Here are a few current issues calling for my missiological humility.   ·   

  • “House Churches” vs. churches that gather in dedicated public or rented spaces.
  • Use of Arabic names, Arabic words for prayer, etc.
  • Use of false religions’ scriptures/poems/artwork as evangelistic points of contact or bridges.
  • Many (but not all) translation issues.
  • The role of expatriate church planters in leading/pastoring churches in other cultures/languages.
  • Can foreigners pastor or elder or should they be in background?
  • The wisdom of sponsoring local indigenous church planters/pastors with funding and support from outside. Do we or don’t we?
  • The practice of contextualization-its limits and usefulness.
  • Orality and illiterate peoples…can we speak of an “oral Bible”?
  • Chronological storying vs. expositional teaching.

Let me hasten to add that missiological humility doesn’t mean I don’t discuss, persuade and argue these issues from biblical texts and principles. It does mean that I aim to do this with humility and a willingness to learn from our brothers and sisters and even change my point of view, as Scripture continues to inform my conscience.
So what might missiological humility look like?  Well, humility recognizes that I have blind spots, that we are all a bit ecclesiologically and missiologically ethnocentric…we are most comfortable with that to which we are most accustomed.  Awareness of our own cultural and ethnocentric assumptions is a mark of missiological humility.  Church planters, missions strategists and misson partners do well to invite others to point out their missiological blindspots and they welcome such input.  
Humble church planters know that there is probably some missiological cream cheese stuck to their chins, and are glad when another cp-er, practitioner or missiologist points out the left-over dairy product clinging to their contextualized red beard.  (see Mahaney’s Humility p. 124-5 for the cream cheese example)
Humility is willingness to admit what we do not know and to seek feedback from others.    Humble missiologists know that there is more than one way to plant a church and make disciples in a contextually appropriate way.  They know that sound, biblical, contextual churches don’t all look or smell alike.  Strategy and tactics may vary and still be biblical.
There is a lot to learn from one another, and humble practitioners, partners, church planters and missions strategists know that they need one another.  They’re putting to death the pride that says “I alone know; I alone have the insights; I alone have discovered the only strategy or tactics or approach that pleases God in this context.”
Honoring the efforts of those missionaries and strategists who’ve gone before, learning from their perseverance, dedication and devotion is another mark of humility.  Some of our forebears worked years-even decades with little or no visible fruit.  Missiological humility doesn’t accuse them of ignorance of the latest greatest methods and techniques. Instead it honors them and learns from them. Willingness to keep returning to the Word, with humble prayers for insight into how these particular words apply to the missionary task is another key attribute for missiologists…
Whew, that’s a lot to consider… I better stop…maybe next time I’ll tweet rather than blog to myself. EdR