Which are we? Local church or apostolic mission agency?
I have pondered this question for years. IS it God's will for all he does to happen in and through local churches? Or is there a role, biblically speaking, for mission agencies?
I have worked on the side of the mission agency, then served as pastor of a local church, and now am part of a movement that seeks to integrate the two. I believe God never intended His church to be separated from His mission.
A friend recently used a picture of a new plant tied to stick to give it support. Think of the plant as the local church, and the stick as the mission agency. The stick is there to give support to the plant until it can stand on it's own.
Some gifted great apostolic leaders are pastors as well, and many pastor/apostles prefer to do everything in and from the local church, with good reason, as I explain above. The danger for apostolic/pastors, or their blind spot, so to speak, is their lack of cross-cultural church planting. They assume the model of church that has been successful for them in their culture, works everywhere. In this context, the mission agency can play an important role of providing expertise, wisdom gained from years of cross cultural church planting. Even for a apostolic/pastor who has visited many nations, there is the danger of thinking they understand the culture and context of planting church planting churches.
I believe there is one God, one mission of God, and one people to fulfill that mission, the church. The local church therefore, is to be the primary apostolic agency in the earth today. There is a place for trans-local agencies and ministries, but they are biblical and empowering to the degree they are sent from local churches and are committed to planting new local churches.
Why is this important?
1. If we separate mission organizations from church communities, we have separated the mission of God (the great commission and the great commandment) from the people of God, the church.
2. Mission agencies and para-church organizations are practical structures that exist to serve the church and her God-given mission in the nations.
3. Missional activity that is separated from local churches are in actuality church people who don't acknowledge they are the church, so they don't function as church consciously and intentionally. This results in unhealthy mission organizations that are driven by goals and not community, and anemic local churches that are robbed of her apostles and evangelists.
4. Mission organizations that don't see themselves as church often draw away from local churches her apostles and evangelists; they model independence from the church, which has weakened local church communities. This reinforces the idea that to be apostolic you need to join a go-getting mission agencies or organization, which in turn weakens the church.
5. One of the freshest things happening in the church worldwide right now is the Spirit inspired trend of local churches and local church networks reclaiming the apostolic mission of God without being dependent on agencies and organizations. What is the role of mission agencies, then? To connect local churches to the harvest to plant more churches, to serve as bridges of God, providing cultural expertise and mission wisdom for local churches to engage in the great mission of God to reach the world with the transforming power of the gospel.
6. The local church is most natural structure for getting the gospel into the culture of a people, and therefore, the primary way God brings transformation to a city or nation. Missionaries come and go, but the local people stay. They are there, assigned by God to carry His good news throughout a city or nation.
7. Missionaries sent by agencies or by apostolic sending local churches are in effect, outsiders, sent to raise up locals, the "insiders". It is the local people, the insiders, that are best equipped by virtue of language, culture and being born in a place, that are the best ones to carry on the generation to generation work of the kingdom of God.
I believe that to the degree that we are holistic (local church and trans-local mission agency married in creative and empowering relationship) we are in sync with what the Spirit is saying to the church today. To the degree we separate these two dimensions of the church, the local church and the apostolic mission of the church, we are dualistic and unbiblical.
For more on this topic, I address this issue in greater depth it in my book, You See Bones, I See an Army: Changing the Way We Do Church. I also recommend Shaping of Things to Come by Hirsch, and the weightier Transforming Mission by David Bosch.