by Gary Corwin
It was not long ago that ministry adultery and family idolatry received a lot of attention in mission personnel circles as the most common shortcomings of the builder and boomer generations respectively.
It was not long ago that ministry adultery and family idolatry received a lot of attention in mission personnel circles as the most common shortcomings of the builder and boomer generations respectively. With the passing of time, however, some new idolatries have become apparent, this time within the ministry area. In each case, keeping the main thing the main thing seems to have morphed into making the “means” thing the main thing.
The three most important of these new idolatries include: (1) the elevation of breadth of participation above quality of contribution as the chief underlying value, not only in short-term missions programs, but in many local church missions programs overall; (2) the elevation of church planting per se above disciple-making among all peoples as the chief missional task of the Church; and (3) a laser-like focus on multiplication and movements in mission that too often neglects the importance of other mandates.
As the first of these idolatries is largely a mobilization issue that has been previously addressed in these pages, I will focus on the latter two. They both relate directly to that most basic of questions: What is our primary task in missions?
Our primary task is not church planting, as important as that is. We commit idolatry when we seek to make it more than it was ever intended to be. It is a wonderful byproduct, but we err when we begin to elevate it to the status of our aspiration and task.
What our aspiration should be is well stated in Psalm 67: “May all the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you.” And our task is to help fulfill the promise given to Abraham in Gen. 12:3, “all families on earth will be blessed through you.”
The Savior himself more explicitly states the goal in Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations [peoples]….” Interestingly, Christ never explicitly gave us the task of church planting (though it is certainly implied as the chief means in our disciple-making task). Jesus said he would build his church (Matt. 16:18).
The problem with an over focus on church planting, moreover, is that we will always tend to gravitate to the most receptive areas rather than the most needy ones. Everyone loves success, so if church planting is viewed as our primary task, piling churches up where that is easier, even if there already are many, invariably becomes the pattern.
The second form of idolatry centers on multiplication and movements. Again, the problem is not with the quality of the goal or aspiration, but its capacity to divert our attention from other essential activity when it becomes the primary focus. Multiplication and the development of a movement are the “spontaneous combustion” caused by the gospel that is the hope of every church planter. Nothing wrong with that, except when the worth of every activity or strategy is measured only against it. There are other important things as well, such as “…teaching them to observe all things…” mentoring exegetically and theologically capable leaders, showing mercy to the downtrodden, and transforming cultures by demonstrating the superiority of Christ and his ways in all the spheres of life.
Sometimes church multiplication goals can so absorb us as missionaries that we cross the line from being outside catalysts to becoming “control freaks,” leveraging resources as we deem best for the sake of sustaining a movement. Such artificial movement sustenance is not a good trade off for spawning a genuine indigenous movement. It’s not even a good trade off for genuine but slow indigenous growth.
Think of all that is lost to the glory of God when we move beyond appropriate “use of means,” as William Carey would have described it, to reliance on “proven” formulas for ensuring God’s blessing in a church planting endeavor. Just as the children of Israel were sadly mistaken to think they could presume victory over Ai because of their God-given victory over mighty Jericho, so we place our trust in our templates for success to our peril. God is pleased more by our humility and our dependence than by our schemes, and will not hesitate to remind us of that fact.
The antidote to any idolatry is a greater love, and a greater love grows out of a deeper understanding of its object. If we would be better ministers of the gospel, we must know God better. The most important thing we can do is to make the contribution God ordained us for without becoming a hindrance. Yes, we are his instruments, but we are weak and rusty ones at best. Nothing in our bag of tricks—be it good missiology, effective use of the social sciences, or even our own cleverness—is ever adequate to the task.
If we are to avoid idolatry, we need to remind ourselves constantly that it is Christ’s church first, and the local believers’ church second. It is not ours. We only get to help make bricks for the Master Builder.
GARY CORWIN is associate editor of EMQ and missiologist-at-large for Arab World Ministries, on loan from SIM-USA.
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