The church has always played a central role in my life. I grew up in the church, I was saved and baptized in the church, I was equipped and sent out by the church, and I am currently supported by the church. The whole reason I became a missionary to the unreached was because they have no church.
And yet, despite all that, I forgot the church. I focused so much on bringing the gospel to the unreached that the church faded into the background, and I missed the very thing that God ordained as the means and the end of the gospel’s spread.
Of course, focusing on the gospel isn’t a bad thing! The Apostle Paul says the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). But I forgot Paul wrote these words to a local church (1:2). So focused on the gospel, I glossed over passages about the church. I elevated verses like “we preach Christ crucified” (1:23), but I ignored the context: Paul’s appeal for church unity (v. 10). I traced the golden thread of the gospel and forgot that the rope of Paul’s argument is the church.
To put it simply: I was a missionary who loved the gospel and didn’t understand how it connected to the church. Apart from occasional correspondence, the church that sent me had become something of a distant memory. My evangelistic passion in the present had pushed any plans to plant a church into the distant future. I lived in an ecclesiological no-man’s-land—in a city with no Christians, and no church.
The missionary team I worked with loved the gospel as much as I did. In some ways, we functioned as a quasi-proto-church: we gathered weekly to sing, pray, and listen to online sermons. But we didn’t have elders, we didn’t take the Lord’s Supper, and we didn’t practice church membership or discipline. Our team had remarkable unity and loved one another deeply, but we weren’t a local church.
And to be honest, I didn’t think that was a big deal. We were passionate about the gospel and proclaiming it to the unreached, and that was enough.
Then I met Mack Stiles. Or, I heard him speak to a room full of seminary students about an experience he had on the mission field that sounded eerily similar to mine. He described missionaries who were opposed to joining or forming a local church, and the sad consequences of such a neglect. He then went on to describe something I’d never experienced on the mission field: the joys of strengthening a local church, and how the gospel was advancing through the corporate witness of individual members.
I listened to Mack and grew frustrated—not at others, but at myself. I realized I had neglected the church, and then I realized I had no idea how to plant one. I knew a lot about the gospel, but very little about the church and its central role in the spread of the gospel, especially among the unreached. By the time I finished seminary, I was convinced that the church is both the method and the means of missions. I still had my gospel focus, but I would no longer forget the church.
But challenges remained: how could I start a local church on the field? Our team was busy, diverse, and transient. Our interaction with the few local believers was complicated because of severe persecution. Nevertheless, faithfulness to Scripture needed to overrule any fears, obstacles, and frustrations. We needed to start a church—not in the distant future, but as an immediate priority.
Sadly, I’ll never know what that church could have looked like. Shortly after I returned to the field, our team fell apart. The conflict that had begun in my absence seemed hopelessly complex. And yet, I often wonder if it could have been resolved, or even prevented, if we’d had a local church in place. Churches still have conflict, of course, but gospel remedies are best administered within the context of a local church (see 1 Corinthians). How might the gospel have advanced in our city if we had made the local church a higher priority from the start?
I recently had the privilege of meeting with Mack and recounting my missionary journey to him. I told Mack that I went overseas because I knew the unreached needed the gospel. But somewhere along the way, I forgot that they needed the church—and that I needed the church. And then Mack added: “And that the church needed the gospel!”
What a refreshing reminder.