I would like to invite you into a thought-experiment with me. Imagine that tomorrow you wake up and all of our church buildings are gone. And not only the churches, but all of the parish offices, Catholic schools, and so on, along with everything inside of them. Every physical resource vanished, and every person who works for the Church left with nothing beyond what the average American possesses.
If you were tasked with advancing the evangelizing mission of the Church in your region and this was your starting point, how would you go about it? What strategy would you form? What would it look like to invite people into “The Church” with no church to invite them to?
A CASE STUDY
As it turns out, we don’t have to stretch our imaginations too hard to envision this scenario – something like it has actually taken place in recent world history. In their book The Church as Movement, authors JR Woodward and Dan White relay that when Mao Zedong took power in China in 1949, he initiated a strategy to eliminate Christianity from the nation.
As a part of this systematic persecution, Mao banished all foreign missionaries and ministers, nationalized all church property, killed all senior leaders, either killed or imprisoned all second- and third-level leaders, banned all public meetings of Christians with the threat of death or torture, and then proceeded to perpetrate one of the cruelest persecutions of Christians on historical record.
What was the result of this persecution? When it began, there were an estimated 2 million Christians in China. By the early 1980’s, just a few years after Mao Zedong’s death, the Christian population in China had exploded to an estimated 60-80 million people.
The big question is, what was the cause of this explosive growth in China? We can answer this question from a variety of perspectives. We might look at it from a spiritual perspective and say that the sufferings and martyrdoms of that persecution fueled the growth of Christianity in China as it has many times in the past. I have no doubt that this was a significant factor.
But while acknowledging the spiritual dynamic at play, we shouldn’t omit asking tactical questions as well. What Woodward and White propose is that the loss of nearly the entire institutional framework of the Christian Church in China required them to adopt entirely different methodologies, and these methodologies are part of the reason for thirty years of explosive growth. Instead of institutions, people once again became the principal carriers of the Christian mission, and a viral movement of evangelization emerged.
KEEPING THE MAIN THING THE MAIN THING
This is, in fact, the way that evangelization always happens. When all else is stripped away, the vital core of evangelization is exposed to plain view: it is a grassroots movement of disciples making disciples. This is how the Church lived and grew in its first 300 years of existence, and this is where successful growth occurs today.
It’s not a question of whether we should or should not have buildings, schools, etc. The question is whether our institutions support and enhance this core work of evangelization, or if we have allowed our institutions to replace people as the primary drivers of the Church’s mission.
If you are part of a ministry team, consider setting aside some time to creatively engage in the thought-experiment at the beginning of this article. Here are some questions to further that conversation and apply it to present practices:
- What is our core disciple-making strategy?
- Do we depend more on programs or people to make disciples?
- Do we have a strategy for turning disciples into missionary disciples?
- Do our organizational structures advance or impede our people’s calling to be the primary drivers of evangelization?