Originally delivered as a message for the Upstream Sending Church Gathering, this is a longer read. But you may find it worth your time (or at least skimming the emboldened parts).
So this was Plan A: me and my preteen friends were going to take our Wal-mart bicycles on a ten-mile loop through a state park. Of course we didn’t tell our parents where we’d be for the next five hours (it was the 90’s!). And of course we didn’t check the weather for the ensuing massive thunderstorm headed our way. Instead, when we were disastrously far into the trail, the wind began to howl, the rain fell in torrents, and lightning started bursting trees all around us. It was terrifying!
I remember at one point we took refuge in this small outcropping. We were dead silent as the surge surrounded us—all except for the youngest of the group, who was crying over and over, “We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!” To which his older brother Chris—to my surprise because of his historic lack of spirituality—shouted back, “Shut up Matthew—I’m trying to pray!”
Well eventually the storm subsided enough for us to brave the trail home (and that meant pushing our bikes most of the way because we had dented the rims riding frantically over roots and rocks). And when we arrived back to the thrashing rebukes of our parents, tails tucked between our legs, an eternal lesson was branded on our young hearts: when you commit to a ten-mile loop, there is no Plan B.
In surprising like fashion, when it comes to the question of why the local church matters in global missions, the answer most simply put is—because there is no Plan B. It’s not necessary! From eternity past the Triune God has fully and joyfully committed himself to this path. That’s what I’m going to argue for here, doing so in two parts:
1) God’s Plan A was to establish a people
2) God’s mission was to extend through that people
Now I would imagine this doesn’t come as a surprise to proponents of "sending church". What may be surprising, however, is how we are going to come to this conclusion. I think common practice would lead us to look to the book of Acts as our basis. And that’s fine. But there we will find that Acts is actually just a signpost to something even greater than a singular historical moment.
I’m going to be drawing much from Patrick Schreiner’s excellent little theology of Acts, The Mission of the Triune God. What he suggests there is that the overarching authorial purpose in Luke-Acts is—of all things—assurance for the church. Just think about how Luke begins his volumes: he says that he aimed
…to write an orderly account…that you may have certainty… (Luke 1:3-4)
Certainty of what? That all the remarkable things taught to us in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are happening according to the eternal plan of the Triune God. Which means a number of interrelated and glorious things. First:
God the Father Wrote It
Schreiner gives a lovely analogy, saying that if Acts were a play, then the Father would be the writer—he’s the author ”orchestrating all actions toward their pre-written and beautiful end.” Schreiner continues, “While many focus on the earthly sphere, everything in Acts moves according to the heavenly scepter.” It is God’s word that is said to increase and multiply, and God’s kingdom that is said to be proclaimed without hindrance. So if God the Father wrote the play, then:
God the Son Directed It
The heavenly scepter to which we referenced a moment ago isn’t just figurative language—it literally this moment rests in the physical hands of the resurrected and exalted Christ. Now we might justifiably say that Jesus is pretty much physically absent from the story following Acts 1—and this would naturally align with our Protestant lack of emphasis on the ascension and session of Christ, which is absolutely tragic to our missiology; but the focus in Acts is not on Jesus’ inactivity but the place from which he rules—a throne with all authority over all nations.
So if God the Son directed the play, then:
God the Spirit Enacted It
Proceeding from the Father’s promise and the Son’s finished work, the Spirit is like the main actor in Acts: he delivers the heavenly reign into the earthly realm. Scene after scene we watch as he comes in power to glorify the Son according to the Father’s will, accomplishing things that are absolutely unprecedented in the whole canon of Scripture.
Now, if you’re beholding with me the majesty of the mission of the Triune God, then this is the moment where we launch into a standing ovation. But there is one more aspect of the play yet to be acknowledged, the very end to which everything has been moving, and it is this: when it comes to the plan of the Triune God,
The Church Embodies and Extends It
Just as none of this is possible without the united work of each Person of the Godhead, none of it is necessary without establishing a people for God’s own possession. Schreiner describes it this:
The church is not a side story to God’s work in the world. It does not sit on the bench as the clock ticks on. Rather, the church is central to God’s plan. If people want to be caught up in what God is doing in the world, then the stage on which this play is unfolding is the church. The church is the hotspot where God works, where his glory is displayed. God came to rescue a people, teach them how to walk in his ways…and witness to the ends of the earth.
On one of our many adventures together Nathan Sloan and I decided we would forgo shelling out the big bucks for a Broadway show in New York City and instead proudly discover a “hidden gem” in the Off-Broadway variety. That meant we walked into a room with about twelve people and a stage about the size of a minivan. Now I will say, the three actors gave a noble performance, and even if they didn’t, the part with the fake gunshot would have snapped us back to attention. It’s just that the size of the stage didn’t really do any favors for the hard work of the writer, director, and actors.
But that is not the case for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His work plays out on a stage to which all earthly stages are but a hint, one that spans all ages and places, that fills the earth with his glory and confounds all spiritual powers. It is the church.
1) God’s Plan A Was to Establish a People
Acts’ assuring, surprising apologetic for this takes us to the foundation for all holistic missiology, the Pentateuch. What is God’s purpose, his mission for creating the world and crowning mankind with his image? Why does he abide with humanity despite a flood of evil and a tower of Babel? Why does he bind himself in covenant love to a pagan whose family is not unlike the Griswolds? Why would he give any concern to a slaves that he knew would worship other gods before their doorposts and clothes even dried from his salvation? If Genesis doesn’t sufficiently answer the question, then Exodus follows with astounding clarity. Consider this (Schreiner writes):
On Mount Sinai all Israel is gathered together, Moses ascended the mountain, the Lord descended in a fire, a great storm surrounded Sinai, and the law was given to Moses so that Israel could become a kingdom of priests.
In other words, they have been “redeemed by blood and had the Torah applied to their hearts, forming a new community.” This historic event would be remembered in Israel as the feast of ingathering, and would in future generations be the impetus for Jewish exiles to take the long pilgrimage back to Jerusalem. What is the more common name for this feast? Pentecost.
So that means the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is testifying something to us beyond simply a narrative. When we read of an ingathering in Jerusalem that includes
Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians (Acts 2:9-11)
our minds should be taken to Sinai where a new community was gathered (and Isaiah would promise a regathering). And when we read that
suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2-4)
our minds should be taken to Sinai where the Lord descended in fire and storm to fashion a kingdom of priests. And when we read that
they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need (Acts 2:42-45)
our minds should be taken to Sinai where the Torah was applied to their hearts in order for them to live out God’s law. If you make that connection, then what is Acts testifying to us? That God’s Plan A from the beginning was to establish a people.
Then we might ask, why the repeat in Acts? Was Sinai not sufficient? And the answer lies here: that
2) God’s Mission Was to Extend Through That People
Or in Schreiner’s words, God was on a “mission to glorify himself by blessing the nations through his chosen people.” And again here Acts transports us back to the Pentateuch. In Exodus the Hebrew word for “witness” appears in extremely important places: the ark of the “testimony” [witness] in the tent of “meeting” [witness] which contains the Ten Commandments—called the two tablets of “witness”. God witnesses to the world of his own presence dwelling with his people. But more than that, he calls his people as witnesses to him, a theme that Isaiah picks up in multiple places:
“You are my witnesses” (Isaiah 43:10)
“you are my witnesses” (Isaiah 42:12)
“you are my witnesses!” (Isaiah 44:8)
The privilege of this presence was never meant to be hoarded by Israel, but that’s exactly what happened when they failed to bear witness to it. So Isaiah speaks of a better witness in 49:6:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
This is where our minds are meant to go when we read these words of Jesus at the beginning of Acts:
“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Spoken to the twelve apostles, who represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the fullness of God’s covenant community, sent as witnesses to the presence of God dwelling with his people. Acts 1:8 is not meant to be primarily a table of contents for the book of Acts or a blueprint for missions strategy. It is, again, a testimony, assuring us that God’s plan from the beginning was for his mission to extend through his people, the church, to the ends of the earth.
Now, how does this answer our question of why the local church matters in global missions?
It essentially testifies on the basis of the revelation of the Triune God: the local church matters because there is no Plan B. It’s not necessary! From eternity past the Triune God has fully and joyfully committed to the ten-mile loop. He does not despise his people embodying his plan—he glories in it! That Upstream has to designate itself as a church-centric missions organization seems like something strange has occurred in modern missiological practice.
Now there might a number of rebuttals to that—let’s consider two of them:
First, wouldn’t it be sufficient to say that the universal church is actually what’s central in the mission of God?
As one missiologist suggests, the church universal is “the missionary of God”. In a sense yes that’s true, and we would do well to give greater emphasis to our participation in a global phenomenon. But the global church is to be expressed as local churches, unique spaces where a community can embody God dwelling in their midst, and extend it by bearing witness to it.
A second rebuttal to the centrality of the local church might be the stormy state of local churches.
It doesn’t take great observation to see many of them seemingly tossed to and fro by wind, rain, and lightning. To consider that global missions depends on them might rightly render us crying, “We’re gonna die!” or piously, “Shut up, I’m trying to pray!” But here my mind goes once again to Acts, now to the end of the book. The situation is quite the thunderstorm as Paul sits in a Roman jail. And yet we read,
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:30-31)
What is Luke’s aim here ending his second volume this way? Assurance. Nothing will hinder the mission of the Triune God through his people. They are his Plan A. And that’s why the local church matters in global missions.