We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Six

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Sixth on his list of questions is:
"Is the church both locally and globally minded? At the risk of understatement, the world is always bigger than any local church. As many as 1.7 billion people in the world have little access to the gospel. The people groups of the world are now coming to the United States. The Hispanic population in the U.S. continues to grow. Burgeoning populations in the cities cry out for the gospel. Who will reach the unreached if the local church is focused only on itself?"
Of the eight measures of church health, this is the one that has the least to do with local churches.  While it seems logical and obvious that a healthy local church will be "locally minded" by the very fact of its locale, it is not obvious that it must be "globally minded" in the sense that Dr. Lawless means, namely concerned with global evangelism.  A healthy progressive congregation will "naturally"be concerned with global issues having to do with peace, justice, and the environment.  I'm not sure it has to be so concerned, but it is hard to imagine that it wouldn't be.  That concern is not, however, likely to be a missionary concern, which is what Lawless is really pointing to here.

One, in fact, can make a good case that it is time for Western churches to stop sending missionaries overseas and to pursue other ways to "partner" with overseas churches and agencies.  It is time to stop pushing 19th century global evangelistic agendas, partly because they are not particularly Christ-like in their attitudes towards other peoples and partly because churches in Africa, Asia, and South America are entirely able to take responsibility for outreach ministries in their own contexts.  We would do well to dispense with the evangelical agenda overseas.

On the other hand, mainline churches would also do well to embrace something of the evangelical agenda locally.  We have not enough devoted nearly enough of our time and energy to faith development.  Ask "typical" mainline church to name the "spiritual disciplines," and they are often hard-pressed to name anything other than "helping other people."  Churches do have a social responsibility to their community and especially to the poor and marginalized, but it is not the responsibility of a social service organization.  It is responsible, rather, for teaching, fomenting, and spreading the practice of Christian faith disciplines, which after all are about peace and justice through deeper relationships with God.  Our responsibility is to do this both within the church and with others be they of another faith or no faith.  We need soup kitchens, but we also need prayer groups.  And the prayer groups, study groups, and fellowship groups are actually more central to the work of the church than the soup kitchens.

In sum, while global concerns will usually "come naturally" to a healthy progressive church, in our time the need is for a local focus that shares Christ in action and, as opportunity allows, in word.  It is a local focus that promotes the development of the larger range of spiritual disciplines including prayer & meditation, the study of scripture, faith sharing, as well as the doing of good deeds.  Amen.