Have you ever returned to a familiar place only to find it different than you recall? That happened when I came back to my childhood home to help my family prepare it for sale.
I walked through each room, enjoying recalling a host of memories from my childhood. But as I tried to look at the space through the eyes of a potential buyer—one lacking the endearment prompted by nostalgia—I saw things differently. Undesirable characteristics I’d always overlooked became obvious.
The floorboards on the front porch sagged. The cabinets stuck when you tried to open them. While living there, we’d learned to let the floorboards squeak. We’d developed the habit of pulling harder on the cabinet handles. Such work-arounds were easier than fixes, and they became familiar practices.
But looking at my childhood home through the eyes of someone considering moving in, I realized the house needed some work. The same could be said for American evangelicalism. What we need is to take a fresh look at the American church through missionary lenses to see how it can better display the beauty of the gospel to the watching world.
My family and I came home to the United States in 2017 after living in the Middle East since 2011. With our eyes shaped by missionary training and experience, the evangelical spaces we’d grown up in looked different. We could see the hot-button, divisive issues facing American evangelicals, but we approached them from a different perspective.
With our eyes shaped by missionary training and experience, the evangelical spaces we’d grown up in looked different.
Take politics for instance. In countries where we’d lived, our brothers and sisters could never assume the government was interested in protecting their freedoms. While there were certainly negative aspects to this, they weren’t tempted to compromise their values to support a politician in hopes of protection. The freedom not to draw moral conclusions based on a party line is afforded to the church who serves at the pleasure of a higher authority.
Another example is the current discourse on sex and sexuality. Missionaries are trained to identify idols in the culture around them, and we all see the idolatry of sex flaunted in today’s America. But that idolatry isn’t limited to unbiblical sexual expression. A missionary trained to detect idolatry will also notice that it’s crept into the church. We’re right to keep sexual expression within biblical marriage. However, in many cases we fail to eradicate the culture’s idolatrous lie that sex will fulfill us. So we put crushing pressure on singles, inappropriate expectation on the marriage bed, and we often fail to demonstrate to the world that true human fulfillment is found only in Christ.
If the church is to be a missionary body, we must live a more compelling story than the world. This will mean pledging our unbending allegiance to King Jesus. It will mean finding our hope and satisfaction in him above all else and living it out in compelling contrast to the watching world. This is the missionary approach abroad, and it still applies back home.
I’m not convinced of this as a missionary who thinks he has all the answers. Instead, I’m reaching this conclusion as I continue to struggle to live on mission back home. I’m easily wooed back into familiar patterns and ways of living. I’m not always concerned about how my approach to these issues represents the gospel to those watching. I can become accustomed to pulling harder on our stuck cabinets, as it were, instead of addressing my own heart and habits.
Listen to Lesslie Newbigin
Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary who spent 40 years ministering throughout South Asia prior to returning to England for a second career as an academic, pastor, and author.
Newbigin’s writings stand out for his confidence the church is to be in a place and for a place. The church and its members can’t merely exist together in an enclave. To live out the gospel and the biblical story in a particular place, they must become students of that place. Just as missionaries study the language and worldview of their field, so too must Christians learn these skills if they intend to minister among their neighbors.
His perspective, unlike many returning missionaries, was marked by hope rather than dismissal. While he saw the decline of many churches upon returning home, Newbigin was convinced the gospel could still bear fruit in the West. But that fruit would come from a commitment to reapplying the whole biblical story—with Christ and his gospel at the core—to the whole of the church’s life.
Newbigin was convinced the gospel could still bear fruit in the West.
This attitude allowed Newbigin to speak hopefully while also offering criticism. It was the criticism of one who’d anchored himself within the church and wanted to see it flourish again. That’s my desire too. As I read his reflections regarding his return from the mission field, I find Newbigin articulating the same things my wife and I have experienced.
Toward a Missional Ecclesiology
Newbigin’s voice and encouragement can benefit contemporary American Christians amid the divisive issues we’re facing. These include challenges thrust upon us from the broader culture—addressing political tensions and changes in the discourse and ethics surrounding sexuality. And the issues we’ve brought upon ourselves—public ministries shipwrecking themselves and our tendency to devour one another on social media.
Today, many evangelicals who see the horror stories within our churches and the social minefield around us are tempted to either bury their heads in the sand or abandon evangelicalism as hopelessly lost. Along with Newbigin, however, I believe there’s hope yet for the future of evangelical churches in America. A missionary perspective is helpful for assessing some of the issues we see as we survey the evangelical house.
More than that, we need to take a missionary approach in our context. We need to develop a missional ecclesiology based on a deep conviction the church is inescapably missional in nature. Then we’ll be less interested in fighting one another or the culture and more concerned with fighting sin, with rooting out our hearts’ idolatries so we’re able to proclaim and embody a message of hope to those around us. To make the church a place others want to call home.