When we talk about ecclesiology (our understanding of the church), there are two levels to consider. The first is the abstract, presumably universal level at which we think about what the church is. The second is the practical level at which which we think about how a local church must embody that essence. One problem that has affected many churches is the assumption that the second level, that of application, is just as universal as the first. This belief leads some to the conclusion that the forms, styles, practices, and traditions of the church universal should be pretty much uniform throughout the church local. The expectation that the New Testament will provide those forms bolsters the assumption.
In this series, I will work through some of the factors we take into account as the church in Arequipa seeks to embody Christ faithfully in our context. I hope to show how we go about translating the first level into the second level.
To access all of the posts in this series, visit the "Church in Arequipa" tag.
My in-laws recently visited. My father-in-law, Steve, has the interesting role of being both parent and elder in our situation. Just before flying back to the US, Steve was sitting at our “dining room” table, fielding translated questions from the Peruvian church members and visitors. One of the church members, who has spent most of his life in traditional Church of Christ settings but has come to appreciate our style, asked how many members Cedar Lane has. “Close to five hundred,” Steve replied. “And do you meet in homes like we do?” continued the brother. “We have a large building where we all meet on Sunday morning, but we meet in small groups on Sunday evenings,” explained Steve. “So how does it affect you to meet with us in a home and share a meal as we do here,” asked the brother. He is still sorting through what this church model means and how others, such as a church elder, might feel about our strange “new” way of assembling on Sunday.
Steve answered in a variety of ways that I was happy the church could hear, but one point in particular is the topic presently. He observed that, although US churches including Cedar Lane are supporting the mission work financially, the way we meet means that dependency on outside funding is still not an issue. The church is independent in a way it would not be if the missionaries had rented or purchased church facilities. That is one of the principle reasons that we have been resolute in our unwillingness to go down the church-building path. No one would deny that every different mode of assembly has it pros and cons; and I’ve said repeatedly that this discussion is not about a one-size-fits-all conclusion. Thus, our express position has always been that the Peruvian church will decide whether and when it is best to acquire property and will do so with its own resources. In the mean time, our primary endeavor is to empower them to be the fully and confidently the church without a building. There is a mean time because most of the church members have very limited resources--a self-supported property is simply not possible.
This is why dependency is very, very real in so many places. In simplest terms, what missionaries can do with wealthy senders’ money, most local Christians could never do with their own resources. This fact has even contributed to a missions strategy centered on the resources of the wealthy. Consider these sobering reflections from Michael Landon, a former missionary in Brazil:
Before we moved to Brazil, we had a typical US tendency toward the middle class and had observed the work of the São Paulo Mission Team, which focused on evangelizing middle-class Brazilians. Moreover, we were strongly encouraged to focus on the middle class by Continent of Great Cities (CGC). At that time, the only way to get a visa to Brazil was through CGC, which required that we attend a class on Brazilian culture and history. While one important motive for requiring this course for all future missionaries was the opportunity to defend military intervention in Brazil (a military regime was in control at the time), the other major concern was to emphasize the importance of focus- ing church planting efforts on the middle class. In 1992, CGC defended this emphasis thus:
It is indisputable that we must reach people of all classes with the Gospel. With few exceptions, however, the poor will not provide the leadership or financial resources necessary for impacting a nation. The church—and especially the first, large, downtown congregation—needs the strengths found in the middle class. . . .
That is why the Continent of Great Cities encourages building the church around a nucleus of middle-class families without neglecting the disenfranchised.
When we emphasize a thrust toward the middle class, we can still win many of the poor and even some of the rich.
There is not space here to critique at length several of the positions adapted by CGC at that time, including the ability of the middle class to evangelize across class divisions; the need to first plant one large downtown congregation; and whether even the Brazilian middle class could provide the finances and leadership for a large, downtown church (given that the model itself may be more North American than was previously thought). Nonetheless, I definitely believe that it was a mistake to focus so much on middle-class evangelism. Even the article by CGC quoted above bases its argument on Randall Wittig, who was promoting a move from evangelizing the poor to evangelizing the middle class despite his admission that “a high degree of poverty encourages Protestant growth.”
I believe that many of my generation of missionaries from Churches of Christ in Brazil failed to see in their own work the extraordinary church growth that was occurring in other faith groups because we focused on evangelizing the middle class and on planting one large, downtown church. In fact, if one looks at the areas of Brazil that have had the highest growth rate among Churches of Christ, I submit that one would find that most of the growth took place among the poor in multiple smaller congregations. If I were to return to Brazil to do church planting again, I would certainly look for ways to plant numerous small churches in a variety of social levels. Most, however, would likely be among the lower classes, and most would probably be house churches that could be self-supporting from the very beginning.
Besides the concerns over church growth mentioned above, I believe that we largely ignored Jesus’ own model of work, where he was good news to all, but it was principally the poor who followed him. While there are sometimes valid reasons to focus one’s work, I believe it to be antithetical to the gospel for a whole generation of missionaries to Brazil to be focused on the middle class. (Michael Landon, “How Liberation Theology Changed My Life," http://missiodeijournal.com/md-2-1/39.)
Permitting economic strength to dictate an ideal “target” population is a mistake, and we will continue to proclaim good news to the poor, however humble their prospects. The critical observation, then, is this: to make a church dependent on outside resources in order to assemble is to make that congregation’s very existence contingent. What is worse, a congregation that is dependent in this way certainly has no viable model for planting new churches itself. Mission strategies that presume a building have often unintentionally made financial resources a requisite to evangelization and church planting for people groups that have no choice but to depend on others for those resources.
The issue is not whether American churches are really generous enough, because even if rich Christian could give enough for poor churches to presume upon unlimited funding, the problems remain. Rather, the issue is how the dynamics of the relationships between givers and receivers shapes the faith of each. It matters little if the dependent party says, “Let’s use these resources but not depend on them. Remember, we’ve got to be able to go on if they should become unavailable.” Awareness and intention are nothing compared to the dynamics of lived dependency. Of course there are healthy relationship models, of course I am generalizing, and of course the wealthy need to find ways to support the poor. But the negative-outcome scenarios are not hypothetical; over a century of missionary practice suggests that dependency is a massive problem the world over. Questions of dependency related to church buildings in a temple-oriented religious culture are, as a matter of historical observation, the most serious kind.
The literature on dependency is extensive, and dependency is more complex than just money (see, e.g., Robert Reese, “Western Missions and Dependency,” http://missiodeijournal.com/md-2-2/81). For example, dependency on the missionaries—which is where Cedar Lane and Shiloh Road are investing their money—is no less a problem for us. We wrestle with complex relationship dynamics there as well. But what we know we can do is remove one hurdle altogether by not financing a building. The missionary’s presence is necessary (at least, I like to think it is necessary), while a building is not. Taken with other factors discussed in the series’ previous articles, we have a fairly strong rationale for staying in homes and public spaces.