By Greg Petrie, District Representative, Northwest
Thinking About Serving the Church in Hard Places
I recently finished reading an excellent book entitled Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley (Crossway, 2016). As part of the 9Marks series, it stems from Mark Devers’s book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
Village Missions remains committed to the focus and approach to ministry we have held for 69 years. Our Village Missionaries “preach the Word and love the people.” This allows us to develop spiritually healthy churches in rural areas of the United States and Canada. I find it interesting, encouraging, and a touch humorous that what we have been doing all along is now new and trendy in some circles.
Recent years have seen an emphasis within the evangelical church on the issues of social justice and ministry to the poor and needy of society. (I feel that at least in part this has been a correction to the Church Growth infatuation in recent decades with equating successful ministry with planting churches in affluent suburbs.) McConnell and McKinley provide, I believe, a sound biblical evaluation of that emphasis proven by their own ministry experience. Their experience and focus lie in urban areas, but they draw many parallels and similarities economically and culturally in rural areas today—more than most would probably expect.
I took away two broad themes from their book.
The Essential Centrality of the Gospel and the Proclamation of God’s Word
This makes the church the church. It may be helpful to feed, clothe and house people. But what they need most of all is regeneration, to become spiritually alive for the first time, cleansed and delivered from the penalty and power of sin, reconciled with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Acts of kindness and mercy, while great, must preface the ultimate goal of the Gospel. The Gospel separates the church from other benevolence agencies. Poor people need to be made into disciples just like everyone else. It is an insult to their dignity to think that a hot meal and a blanket are enough for them, while we relegate the call and equipping for discipleship to those living in middle-class comfort.
Regarding the necessity of the preaching of the Bible they write,
The Vital Necessity of the Local Church
The second significant takeaway from Church In Hard Places is the vital necessity of the local church. “The local church is the way God intends to accomplish his mission in the world.” (p. 87). The authors bluntly assess the inadequacy of parachurch ministries to fulfill God’s mission for his kingdom apart from engagement with the local church.
In the local church Christ-followers connect and grow and submit to authority, accountability and discipline. It is in the local church where they are equipped to serve—and serve. In and through the local church neighbors see the change in lives of their neighbors. These are not people who come from the outside that for all they know have always been “good Christian people.” These are those they have seen and known, and now there is something very different about them.
Village Missions’ focus has always been on equipping and supporting the local church. One consequence has been that Village Missions tends to remain ‘in the background.” Many people in the communities (and even the churches) we serve might say “I’ve never heard of Village Missions.” You can be assured though that they know Pastor Charlie, or Pastor Chris, or Pastor Tony. What they see is the change in Sheldon’s life, or Bob’s life, or Tina’s.
Many of the places Village Missionaries serve may be called “hard places.” They are not only places where there is poverty, joblessness, inadequate housing, and even hunger, but the underlying issues of hopelessness, powerlessness, loneliness, loss of meaning and shame (p. 27). And yet, these are places that vitally need a church, an outpost of God’s kingdom to illustrate, demonstrate and proclaim his love, his Word, and the good news of Jesus Christ. Your support of Village Missions helps to establish and maintain the church in hard places.