Developing “Mission Communities”

By John Studebaker

Ever watch old episodes of “The Lone Ranger?” What an idyllic figure of American heroism! He was tough, independent, and never let anyone know his true identity.

It is probably not shocking to hear that God does not want us to be “Lone Ranger Christians.” As we grow in our walk with Christ, we learn why this is so. We begin to think constantly about those who do not know Christ and about how we can become a creative “bridge” to these people, modeling the grace and truth that Jesus himself exemplified. We also discover, however, that no one person can exemplify the complete life of Jesus. We need a circle of believers around us who are going forth into the world with us. We need, what I call, a “mission community” – a small group of believers who reach out to specific people and meet specific needs in this world as a means for sharing the grace of God.

The question I would like to try to tackle here, then, is just how the Holy Spirit fosters these diverse “mission communities” within churches. How does the Spirit develop these communities and how does he use them to reach the world around us for Christ?

A Biblical Model for Mission Communities

First, let’s examine the biblical notion of “mission communities.” The basis is found in John 15:26-27, where we discover that the Holy Spirit, who has the authority to glorify Christ in the world, also has the authority to send us forth as Christ ‘s witnesses. Here Jesus tells us that, after his resurrection and ascension, He will “send to you” the Spirit from the Father (15:26a). The Spirit “proceeds from” the Father to continue Jesus’ mission, and will “bear witness” of Jesus in the world, serving as Jesus’ authorized representative (15:26b). This Spirit is able to bear such a witness because he is “the Spirit of truth.” The result of sending the Spirit is that the disciples will “bear witness also” (15:27) to the world around them.

Then in John 16:12-14 we discover how this process will occur. Jesus’ speaking ministry will continue after his resurrection and ascension (16:12) because the Spirit of truth “will guide you (plural) into all truth” (16:13). By this Jesus meant that the Spirit would “open up” or explain and apply the truth of Himself to bodies of believers (to his immediate listeners this implied the inspiration of scripture; to future believers it implies the Spirit-endowed ability to understand the true meaning of scripture). These words were not given to individuals but to a small community of believers whom the Spirit would corporately guide into truth, as well as to all subsequent bodies of believers who would receive the Spirit of truth. The Spirit will also “glorify” Jesus by “taking what is mine and disclosing it to you” (16:14). The result will be vibrant communities that know and bear witness of the truth of Jesus.

Paul presents the Spirit in the same way in First Corinthians chapter two. In 1 Cor. 2:2 he says “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” How will the Corinthians come to know Christ?Paul tells us that the Spirit “searches all things, even the depths of God” and that the Spirit will “reveal them [these things] to us” (2:10-11). The Spirit will reveal God’s mind to the local Corinthian church body. The Spirit reveals God’s mind so that “we may know the things freely given to us by God” (2:12). Then Paul says, “these things we also speak” (12:13) to those in Corinth who are seeking God.

Do you see the flow here? In each passage the knowledge and truth of God moves from the Lord Jesus Christ to the one Holy Spirit to the many disciples. The Spirit makes Jesus known within believing communities (i.e. the local church), and then this body bears witness of Christ in the world.

First Corinthians 12 points out that the Spirit specializes in communities, and particularly in bringing unity out of diversity. In 1 Cor. 12:7-10 Paul lists those gifts that “manifest” the Spirit throughout the body. The “one and the same Spirit” distributes these gifts “to each one individually just as He wills” (12:11). Why does the Spirit do this? In verses 12 and 13 we learn that the diverse body is unified for two purposes. First, the unified body is a demonstration of the “oneness” or headship of Christ over the body (12:12).” Paul continually stresses unity in diversity in order to overcome divisiveness owing to different valuations being assigned to different gifts” (Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body [New Haven, Conn.: Yale, 1995], 87). Second, the Spirit “baptizes” believers into the one body so that they can “drink of one Spirit” (12:13). In this way, the Spirit “fills” the body with the presence of Christ. As a result, each member is to take responsibility for the welfare of the whole (12:14- 26). So Paul sees diverse bodies of Christ as dynamic expressions of Christ’s unity and wholeness. It is such bodies that will be fully equipped to witness to the fullness of Christ in the world.

What Sort of Authority does the Holy Spirit Give to Believers for their Mission?

We tend to think of Pastors as those equipped to do the work of ministry, and as having a certain “spiritual authority.” But what about all other Christians—do they also have some sort of “authority” in this world?

When the Holy Spirit creates a fellowship around Christ’s lordship, this fellowship actually becomes an authorized “sign” of Christ’s future kingdom within the present world. Since the Spirit has the authority to represent Christ in this world, the Spirit-filled community possesses a “ministerial authority” to demonstrate that the eternal, almighty God is “present” today in and through the salvation He provides (this is not to be thought of, though, as a “magisterial authority” such as that which is possessed by a political body).

Such an authority is made clear in Isaiah and Acts:
(1) Isaiah is one of the first to present a vision regarding the believer’s ministerial authority. Isaiah 32:15-16 tells us that the Messiah’s final restoration of all things would be brought about by the Spirit, and Isaiah 59:21 that the Spirit would be given to the entire body so that each believer might speak truth boldly and thus play a part in bringing forth this restoration.

(2) In Acts we first read that, through the Spirit’s empowerment, the Church is given an authority to witness to Christ’s salvation (1:8). Then we read stories—particularly those involving Peter and Paul—that demonstrate the power of this gospel of salvation in real-world settings. This salvation liberates people from sin and bondage and transforms people into the image of Christ, thereby demonstrating Christ’s authority in this world.

In these passages the Holy Spirit is presented as the “governor,” so to speak, of the ministry performed by the body. Based on such a notion, many former missionaries are encouraging churches today to revitalize the Spirit’s governing role. Roland Allen, for example, asks us to trust the Holy Spirit with the growth, structure and guidance of churches, as he did while planting churches in foreign cultures. We should not think of the Spirit as a small child with a new toy too complicated and dangerous for Him to handle. Allen argues that Paul’s unwavering trust in the missionary Spirit who governs the Church stands in stark contrast to the modern Western church growth model, which tends to focus on human methods and effort.

In applying such a “method” in today’s churches, it is particularly helpful to remember (as we saw in 1 Cor. 12) that the body is structured around and built upon all believers, rather than just a few leaders. Whereas the Old Testament focuses on the Spirit’s enabling of specific individuals for specific situations and needs, the New Testament paints a portrait of gifts, abilities, and individuals functioning together for the benefit of all members and their effectiveness in the church.

What About the Authority of Church Leaders in fostering “Mission Communities”?
The thorny question of church leadership, and their authority, seems to create intense debate in church circles. Many denominations have split over this issue alone. We hear often of those leaders who have abused their authority through ego and legalistic control. Is there a biblical model that can grant an authority to church leaders while keeping certain boundaries upon it?

Simply stated, Church leaders are not to “establish authority” but to fulfill their “functional authority” (i.e. their offices as pastors, elders, teachers, etc.) in submission to the Spirit. They honor the Spirit’s governing authority by encouraging a diverse body to develop within the unity of Christ, by protecting the gospel, and by participating in the Church’s execution of its ministerial authority. While Christ is head of the Church, the Spirit is her governor. Because of their fallen nature, leaders can easily forget this governmental pattern when attempting to “organize” or “grow” the church.

Rather than seeking to attain “power,” leaders are to see themselves standing within the Spirit’s governing realm and acting as servants within this realm. Leaders do not stand outside the Spirit’s realm in order to aid in its establishment but inside as participants in the enjoyment of the Spirit’s effects with the entire body of Christ. Calvin affirms that this authority is delegated by the Spirit to the ministry that is appointed:

Whatever authority and divinity is attributed by the Holy Spirit, in the Scripture, either to the priests and prophets under the law, or to the apostles and their successors, it is all given, not in a strict sense to the persons themselves, but to the ministry over which they were appointed, or to speak more correctly, to the word, the ministration of which was committed to them.

Though church government is fallible in applying Christ’s Word, Christians must submit to it (Heb. 13:17; 1 Cor. 4:21; 2 Cor. 13:2, 10). Human church government is an authority to be exercised by those with recognized and appropriate gifts (Acts 20:28-9; 1 Tim 5:17; 1 Cor 12:28) and respected and submitted to by church member in so far that their leadership’s words and actions correspond to the pattern of divine authority (Heb 13:17; 1 Cor 4:21; 2 Cor 13:2, 10; 1 Thes. 5:12-13). Service, not power or prestige, is the purpose of church officers, as of all believers.

As for specific “offices” in the church, we must first acknowledge that all Christians can be rightly said to hold “office,” since all are in the body of Christ and gifted for his service. The governing authority of the Spirit anoints every believer with a “ministerial authority” to build up the body and to witness to Jesus’ redemption.

As servants labored together for the benefit of the church, the early Church enjoyed the fruits of such Spirit-led leadership:”Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (9:31). The gifts associated with special leadership offices need public recognition in order to be used effectively (the gift of “Pastor-teacher” for example). This recognition by the community allows gifts and offices to become conjoined in the Spirit’s act of calling.

The work of officeholders is to foster the gifts of the community and harmonize them for the common good, to “oversee” the administration of the church, and to further its mission. The Spirit, however, is the Church’s true “Governor.” Cumming asserts:

The actual Rule of the Holy Ghost within the Church, which is under His control . . . at once opens up regarding what we might call the Business of the Church. There is, for one thing, the question of its government. . . . ” He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:8-12). All these are “governments” set over the Church by the authority and decision of the Holy Ghost.

Acts 13:2 demonstrates the Spirit’s “administration” through his choosing of specific leaders: “While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'” The precious truth here is that we must commit the selection of leadership to the Holy Spirit, because through these leaders we are, in a sense, putting ourselves under his direction (cf. Heb 13:17). As “functional authorities,” their offices and duties are to be placed under the care and charge of this great Administrator. This precedence is first presented at the “Council of Jerusalem,” which was called to consider the question of Jewish rites and ordinances.

The structure and guidance of the local church is primarily provided through the Spirit’s governing authority in selecting, anointing, and gifting her leadership (Rom 12:6ff.; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4:8-11; 1 Cor 12:28-30). As churches submit the selection of leaders for specific offices to the Spirit’s guidance, they are invoking the Spirit’s governing authority in terms of the Spirit’s witness to God’s sovereignty and Christ’s rule. Such a submission can often be a bit unsettling for the church, particularly churches that have operated according to rigid procedures and methods. Such a commitment may also result in a certain level of unexpected disorder, occasional excesses, abuse of gifts, and exposure of immaturity-the same problems encountered by Paul in Corinth. First Corinthians 12-14 provides no better example of the challenges wrought by an abandonment to the Spirit’s governing authority. This passage makes plain that the Spirit’s authority does not fit neatly with our preconceived notions of “Church.”

Mission Communities and Church Transformation
Though some Christians understand their authority as believers to be involved in their church’s “mission” in the world, it is quite another thing for Christians to begin seeing themselves as those personally commissioned by Jesus. Such a perspective requires a transformation in the mindset of the church. It is more than a transformation from an inward focus to a more outward focus (though this is essential). Even more important is a transformation from a “missions agency” mindset to the specific way of thinking and living that results when a believer views his or her own life-mission within the greater context of God’s big plan for the world.

The American missionary movement began in the late 1800s with the YMCA. Over the years this movement has waxed and waned, being highlighted by various “awakenings” to missions and by thousands of sermons preached proclaiming the need to go into the world and reach lost people for Christ. These movements were somewhat “faddish.” For awhile “missions” became the thing to do; going overseas as a missionary became somewhat “more spiritual” to than to stay in one’s own country. Even today we sometimes adopt this idea. We have missions emphasis week, missions conferences, special outreaches, etc.

These are all good things. However, when we see ourselves and our mission as a part of something bigger – God’s eternal plan for the world – everything changes. A plan that begins in creation and moves continually toward the time when “all things will be summed up in Christ” (Eph. 1:9-10). When people get a vision of what God is doing in the world and place their own life in this greater picture – their own story in this grand story – they tend to get motivated, and to start asking, “What IS my specific place in God’s plan?”

Jesus gave the answer in Matthew 28:18, “All authority has been given unto Me. Go therefore and make disciples…” Since we are to “make disciples” of Jesus under His authority, we can look at Jesus Christ as the King who is looking to inaugurate His Kingdom and commissioning servants to prepare people for this kingdom. A “commission” occurs when someone personally sends you on a mission. This is a shift in our thinking, from the church as a whole receiving a commission to each Christian receiving a personal commission.

How do we make this shift? First, we ask the Holy Spirit to allow us to look closely at our present lives, asking Him to show us the life He would have us to live. This includes our PURPOSE (why am I here?), my MISSION (what is my unique calling in this world), and my VISION (how do I see myself fulfilling my mission?)

Then we must shift from a professional ministry focus to a community ministry focus. The “mission agency” or “mission department” mentality usually viewed everyone as the same. They provide opportunities to “reach the community,” engage in short-term mission activities, etc. These are all good, but they mostly take aim at accomplishing the goals of the department.

The solution lies in “commissioning.” Each believer has been given a unique assignment, which (again) is best fulfilled in a “mission community. Specific giftings imply specific commissionings. As God calls each believer to fulfill their own unique “mission” the church body is able to discover those things God is calling it to do … something very specific and exciting and glorious as a part of what He is seeking to accomplish in the world.

This view of the Great Commission transforms our mindset about our church’s mission. This is what LifeBridge seeks to do – bring forth a radical transformation within the church. We call this “the LifeBridge Adventure.” What is that? From being safe and passive to active cooperation with the Spirit of God. From a program or technique orientation to a community of persons who know and live their calling.

It is our calling as pastors and leaders to equip each person to know and fulfill their mission – to know that God has a specific calling for my life, whether it be overseas or in my own neighborhood. The applies to all Christians, and all aspects of the church – not just those “called to missions.” What are the eternal purposes of God that permeate every committee and every aspect of the congregation?

What if the Great Commission was at the core of the church’s identity? Rather than sending a few people and allowing most people to remain content, what if we, as James Lapp puts it, “put everyone on notice that we, as a church body, are called by God to be about the unfinished ministry of reconciliation in the world”? Lapp explains,

A sending church tends to be motivated by stories of unusual and graphic need or reports of exceptional success by missionaries. A sent church ministers out of an inner call and commitment to the mission entrusted to God’s people.