By Greg Petrie, District Representative, Northwest District
“Village Missions exists to glorify Jesus Christ by developing spiritually vital churches in rural areas of North America.”
That is the stated purpose of Village Missions—but what does a spiritually vital church look like?
Our Desire to Create Spiritually Vital Churches
I wonder if sometimes, in our well-intentioned desire to define spiritually vital churches—rural or otherwise, we are in danger of falling into some of the same errors as the religious people of Jesus’ day? They liked things well-defined and clear. They found comfort in concrete boundaries and criteria to reveal what and who is in or out.
“Godly people do this, but not that, therefore the community of faith must be delineated by this but not that.”
“This is our conduct. This is our vocabulary. This is our attire. This is our culture.”
“We don’t mind going out, as long as we can know when we’re in.”
What Do Spiritually Vital Churches Look Like?
We may tend to picture a healthy church as one filled with spiritually mature people. Consequently, those people attend every service and activity of the church. We think spiritually vital churches are full of harmonious families. Our worship is robust and no one chats, dozes, or allows their cell phone to go off during the sermon. We know our Bibles and can quote them as needed. Prayer meeting are rich times full of meaningful prayer. Fellowship is intimate and mutually supportive. Each one is plugged into a ministry and is exercising his or her spiritual gifts. We look how a church is supposed to look—in the world, but not of the world—and have many outreach ministries and events to prove it.
And yet, I wonder if this is the whole picture Jesus had of his church; at least how it looks at the margins. Maybe the edges are not to be so nicely hemmed, but rather a bit more ragged?
Maybe the church is to be a place where those who are, as of yet, outside the family are welcomed and loved as if they are family?
Mark records for us a scene shortly after Jesus calls Matthew (Levi), a tax collector, to follow him.
“Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with such scum?’ When Jesus heard this, he told them, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.’” (Mark 2:15-17 NLT).
Further Thoughts on Spiritually Vital Churches
I love this description from author M. Craig Barnes:
“When the church makes settling into a place its priority—whether that is a geographical place, structural place, or place in its history—it is because it suffers from temple envy. But from the beginning that has never been where we belong. We belong in Christ, and he has always been on the move. So must his church as he takes it into all the earth where he is about his Father’s holy business of finding the strangers and aliens and bringing them home. This means that the household of God is in a constant state of flux and change. What separates the pilgrim church from any gathering of nomads is not that our community is more settled and stable, but only that we have a holy purpose to our journey. That purpose is to be the home away from home, which not only offers approximations of Triune communion but also labors for approximations of the kingdom of heaven on earth. . . .
“The household of God manifests its love not only by following Christ out into the world to heal the sick of body and soul, and not only by its may strategies for peace and justice, but also by bringing the stranger and alien into its fellowship. When the church is successful in this mission, it will mean that at times the boundaries between the church and the world around it will be hard to find. This means there will be sinners in the church. That is threatening to those who take the church itself too seriously and worry about protecting its holiness. But the whole point of the incarnation was that not even God worries about protecting holiness, preferring instead to dwell among those in need of salvation. Sin doesn’t contaminate holiness, but holiness provides a means of redemption for sinners. Since the church finds its life in Christ, he is at the center, and a church defined by its center doesn’t have to worry about the boundaries.”
As I consider the 37+ churches we visit in our role as District Representatives, I realize that some of my favorite ones to visit are the ones that are the most ragged at the margins.
There is a core of faithful people that know and love Jesus and want to share that love with others—not only outside the walls of the church, but inside. The church is not so much a safe place for the Jesus-followers, but one for those who are searching, hurting, confused and lost. The church is a haven where they can be loved with the love of God and enlightened by the Word of God, which is “alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Heb. 4:12 NLT). That love and that Word will direct them to Jesus—the Word—who alone is the source of life, hope and wholeness.
Life in these churches can be a touch messy, unpredictable, and chaotic at times since everyone doesn’t know the rules. There may be moments of discomfort and embarrassment.
I recall one such visit. It was a Sunday evening service at the church. During part of the service the congregation sings some contemporary songs along with YouTube videos. The pastor asked for requests (a risky move in a church with fuzzy margins!). A teen girl—who was there for the first time (she had just moved to town that week)—requested a song none of us were familiar with. It was found on YouTube and played. It was a rap song that left the Village Missionary glancing at me wondering if his tenure as a Village Missionary had come to an end! “Of all the times for this to happen—the day my District Representative visits!” Let’s just say most of us there had our musical tastes stretched to places they had never been to before. Even with the lyrics on the screen, I had little idea what the artist was saying! Nevertheless, we made it through and the young lady was graciously affirmed.
We later looked it up for some translation and explanation, and found out that the lyrics were focused on the power and sufficiency of the Bible and that the artist was strong and outspoken in his faith in Jesus to a segment of the population most of us write off as unreachable. I can’t help but think that Jesus was quite comfortable Himself in that church that evening.
Village Missions seeks to develop spiritually vital churches.
While each one looks different, these churches show the love of Christ to those around them.