My colleague, Jeff Straub, has published a plea in which he combines two of the great loves of his life: church planting and ice cream. He sees American Christianity as a magnificent, ecclesiastical ice cream parlor offering multitudinous varieties. Drawing from his personal experience of Atlanta, Georgia, he wonders whether we can continue to justify church planting efforts in North America when so much of the world has no gospel witness at all. Would we not use our limited resources most wisely if we put them where the need was greatest?
Dr. Straub and I certainly agree about the need for worldwide missions. The world’s most populous nation (China) has very little gospel witness and few New Testament churches. The Muslim countries have hardly been evangelized at all, even where the preaching of the gospel is permitted. The so-called “10/40 window” is home to billions (yes, billions!) of people who have never even seen a Bible or heard the name of Jesus. Most of Latin America remains under the darkness of unreconstructed Catholicism or the blindness of the most virulent forms of Pentecostalism. Though Western Europe used to have gospel churches, it no longer even remembers what that means. Vibrant churches have survived in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, but they are still a bare remnant, and their churches are rapidly being corrupted by American marketers. Dr. Straub is absolutely correct that for sheer numbers, North America is the capital of professing Christians. The rest of the world confronts us with a shocking need.
Should the pressing need overseas lead us to plant fewer churches in North America? Dr. Straub and I part company in our answer to that question.
True, North America does have a wide variety of organizations that call themselves churches, but they should not be compared to flavors of ice cream. One chooses a flavor of ice cream because of taste, but one chooses a church because of obedience. When people join a church, they enter into a solemn promise (a covenant) in which they commit themselves to a particular understanding of the nature of the church. The members of a church place themselves under a relationship of mutual accountability, promising to live according to a particular vision of what a church is and what it ought to do. It is not moral for one to enter such a covenant unless one actually agrees with it.
When one does not share an understanding of the church’s essence—its mission, its doctrine, its government, its ordinances, and its authority—he must not enter into a church’s covenant. I am not suggesting that such differences must lead us to denounce that congregation as apostate or that they necessarily invalidate its claim to be a church. Even a true church may become so defective, however, that it must be avoided by the Lord’s obedient children.
The purpose of missions (and missions is synonymous with evangelism) is not merely to present the gospel to lost people. The purpose of missions is also to initiate the observance of the ordinances, to instruct the Lord’s people in all the counsel of God, and to plant rightly ordered churches according to the pattern of the New Testament. When a church sends out an evangelist, the goal is to see the propagation of fully organized New Testament churches. The evangelist is an agent of a local church who is sent out under the ministry of that church to supervise the reaching of the lost, the instruction of the saints, and the establishing of churches.
On this understanding of evangelism, America has not been evangelized nearly as thoroughly as Dr. Straub implies. True, one finds plenty of professing Christians and plenty of supposed churches—especially in places like Atlanta. When one looks at those churches, however, one finds that the majority of them slipped into apostasy generations ago. Most of the rest are actively demeaning the gospel by frittering away their doctrinal heritage, supporting causes that undermine the truth of the gospel, or by making a mockery of the worship of the Lord.
I have some reason to know. In 1990, I moved my family to a city in the Bible Belt (not Atlanta) and commenced the search for a church. Of course, I did not expect to find an ideal church, but I did expect to find a church that shared some understanding of what the ideal should be. I was sorely disappointed. Visiting congregation after congregation led to the amazing conclusion that doctrinal aberration, toleration of sin, and corrupted worship were widespread among the supposedly fundamental churches of that city. In the end, I found myself planting a church in order to provide for the spiritual wellbeing of my own family.
For me, the problem was not simply that I could not find the kind of ice cream that I liked. No, I could not find ice cream that had not been adulterated, and I was not willing to feed my family on scrapings from the dumpster. I genuinely wonder whether the situation in Atlanta might be similar.
Even supposing that some acceptable churches exist in Atlanta, Atlanta is certainly not typical of North America. How many New Testament churches can we find in the urban centers of Boston, New York City, or Washington, D.C.? How many in the Mormon West? How many among the burgeoning Hispanic population and how many that have effectively drawn in other significant immigrant groups such as Somalis and Hmong? How many American communities are still de facto churchless, since they do not have a rightly ordered church within at least an hour’s drive?
The fact is that the number of New Testament churches in North America has plunged during the past two decades. Some have exchanged biblical preaching for psychotherapy and system theory. Some have traded away worship for amusement. Some have replaced evangelism with a political or social agenda. Many have simply closed their doors.
Worldwide evangelism rests upon a base of churches at home, and that base is shrinking. If we do not plant churches in the United States, and if we do not do it quickly, then within a generation the American missionary enterprise will topple under its own weight. The New Testament pattern is for churches to plant churches that plant churches. Evangelism abroad requires ongoing evangelism at home.
There’s not a flavor of ice cream that I don’t like. But if somebody unplugs the freezer, I’m not going to lick up the mess from the floor. I’m going to make some new ice cream.
Somebody has unplugged the vast majority of American churches, and the mess is unbelievable. We need a whole new generation of rightly ordered, New Testament churches. The time to plant them is now.
John Donne (1572-1631)
O ! might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourn’d in vain.
In mine idolatry what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste ? what griefs my heart did rent ?
That sufferance was my sin, I now repent ;
‘Cause I did suffer, I must suffer pain.
Th’ hydroptic drunkard, and night-scouting thief,
The itchy lecher, and self-tickling proud
Have the remembrance of past joys, for relief
Of coming ills. To poor me is allow’d
No ease ; for long, yet vehement grief hath been
Th’ effect and cause, the punishment and sin.