Online Church—Are There Ramifications for Ecclesial Movements?

The Covid-19 breakout placed the global church in a unique situation. Churches were forced to utilize social media or sources like Zoom to maintain connections with their congregations. While the church should be thankful for technological opportunities, we should be aware of possible hindrances to long-term “isolation.” Albeit, platforms such as Zoom can be highly beneficial and should be praised for their ability to sustain connectivity. 

Covid-19 may have exposed humanity to a virus, but the impact that it has had on the church could be costly regarding ecclesial movements. No one would argue that social media platforms performed as a much-needed service and presence of stability during a time of instability. The leap to online church was not difficult for most Western churches. Many evangelical churches were already broadcasting services over the same networks—they seemed prepared (as much as prepared can be) for the situation. However, now there seems to be a select few that desire to never look back upon the congregational gathering. While I have significant doctrinal issues with “neglecting the gathering the of the saints” (Heb. 10:25), I have more significant practical problems.

I believe sustained online church strategies will quench the guidance of the Holy Spirit, create reproducible disciple-making obstacles, and hinder the innovative pioneering needed for ecclesial movements. With that stated, I primarily desire to focus on the latter of the three in this short article, hoping to write about the former at another time.

So, let’s address the question: what may be two apparent ramifications for the long-term online church regarding ecclesial movements?

Collaborative Apathy

Corporations spend billions of dollars in research and development (R & D). For the most part, organizations utilize the collective collaboration of innovative thinkers and analysts to make important decisions about their products and marketing. Subsequently, Covid-19 disrupted the flow of analytical in-person collaboration. Corporations were forced to use social media or tech platforms to unite their employees like the church.

As Covid restrictions were universally lifted, corporations analyzed data and noted a reduction in their financial overhead. Online employees were not utilizing corporate buildings—hence corporations began to sell off their office space. Perceived as a winning solution—remote work thrived. Businesses envisioned a paradigm shift of savings and streamlining.

Why is corporation data relevant to ecclesial movements? We know that culture has shifted from the church to the marketplace. People are the workplace as much as people are the church—basically, the same people! The people who work from home are also the same people watching online church services. There’s an ease of isolated lifestyles—drinking the money coffee is solace, reporting to work or watching a church service in pajamas, or hitting mute and eating crunchy cookies—yet perhaps it produces a collaborated yet individual apathy of collective motivation. 

A recent study of US employees indicates that 75% of those surveyed preferred working remotely at least once a week—while 40% stated that they would leave their job if required to full-time in-person work.[1] While people choose to work from home, those preferences weigh on faith and worship preferences. What happens in organizational and leadership culture tends to overflow into the church.

A recent Lifeway Research study indicates that pastors view disciple-making strategies and technological skills as two of the most prominent areas of needed development.[2] The correlation between online church and culture is evident—pastors feel the pressure of trying to connect with congregants. While refraining from using “lack of gathering” terminology, the reality is that online church is producing a collaborative apathy among believers. While technology is a good tool for the church to utilize, it has also relegated the essential nature of the communion and fellowship of the saints as optional. However, this is not the most significant ramification of online church.

Hindering Innovative Pathways

A study involving Europe, Asia, and the Middle East found that “videoconferencing inhibits the production of creative ideas.”[3] I would love to confess, “I told you so,” but I don’t want to be that guy. Yet, the study is not surprising if one understands that people are created in the image of God. As image-bearers, people were made for relationships.[4]Within relationship building is communication. Communicative attributes are not solely verbal but very much non-verbal. 

            The manner in which someone rolls their eyes at a new thought or concept, the shifting of weight in a chair, sounds, sighs, and grunts all provide clues and insightful feedback when discussing essential concepts. With the conference call on Zoom, many of those vital non-verbals escape notice—especially when microphones are muted or a screen video feed is briefly turned off. However, non-verbals are not the only suppression of collaborative idea generation.

            One study notes the dilemmas between eye focus, video conferencing, and in-person collaboration. The video-conferencing participants only view what they see broadcasted from their colleague’s narrow screen. In-person collaboration requires sharing the same space and “visual scope.”[5] The reality is that “idea generation … requires cognitive focus and analytical reasoning … virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation,” recognizing that “videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus.”[6]Understanding that the research and analysis of the extensive studies by major corporations may not be producing the outcomes they expected. Before corporations begin mass sell-off of office space, some conclude that innovative pioneering occurs best in person.

            How might this information directly reveal the hindrance to creating innovative pathways for church multiplication strategies? While the Holy Spirit can direct an individual through a video feed as easily as in-person, human relationships thrive and were designed to use the five senses (touch, smell, see, hear, and taste). Perhaps the sense of taste seems ridiculous, but coffee and donuts or shared meals are still the number one way gospel conversations occur. 

            The online church could be hindering congregants from having idea-generating conversations. One may argue that these conversations are not occurring in person either, but they cannot be cultivated or experienced without human interaction. Historically, the most remarkable church movements were established and sustained through human interaction, idea generation, and strategic gospel multiplication.

Conclusion

I believe it is wise for the church to look into some of the corporate research. While the church is not a corporation, it is a body of believers that manifests the power of the Holy Spirit and the collective love of Christ. If the church is to reach neighborhoods and communities, strategic divine ideas are essential. We should not neglect our innate senses, design for a person-to-person relationship, communication, and life-on-life.


[1] Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N. & Davis, S. J. “Don’t force people to come back to the office full time.” Harvard Business Review (24 August 2021).

[2] Marissa Postell, “Pastors Say They Need to Develop Disciple-Making, Technology Skills,” Lifeway Research, https://research.lifeway.com/2022/03/29/pastors-say-they-need-to-develop-disciple-making-technology-skills/

[3] Brucks, M.S., Levav, J. “Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation.” Nature (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04643-y

[4] Matthew Fretwell, Multiplying Jesus: Missionary Preparedness (Dubuque: Kendall Hunt, 2022), 64.

[5] Brucks and Levav. 

[6] Simon, H. A. A behavioral model of rational choice. Q. J. Econ. 69, 99–118 (1955).

Examining the Difference Between Missional Communities and Microchurches

In a recent article, I posted the differences between house churches and microchurches. Since then, I have been asked about delineating between missional communities and microchurches. While the objectives are a bit different and each unique, delineation is not exactly the purpose. The objective of delineating between church planting strategies is for gospel engagement alignment. 

            One disclaimer, for more in-depth study on the subject, one of my recently published books, Multiplying Jesus: Planting Churches describes these strategies in more detail. The book examines and explores the pros, cons, procedures, and steps for each church planting model, as well as provides a biblical and theological underpinning for church planting. For the purposes of this article, the examination will be as brief and concise as possible—illustrating the major differences.

            With that stated, and to reiterate the opening remarks, the purpose of strategic church planting models is not to indicate the superiority of one over another, but how to align vision and mission for gospel engagement. Strategies are tools that must have implementation and application. Since we have already surveyed microchurches, we will first address and spend more time describing missional communities.

Missional Communities

Mike Breen defines a missional community as a “group of approximately 20 to 40 people who are seeking to reach a particular neighborhood or network of relationships with the good news of Jesus.”[1] I would define missional communities as a measurable expression of a reproducible kingdom movement that exists for regional gospel-saturation. With committed oikos’ that thrive and learn together for spiritual growth in Christ, missional communities are made up of a network of believers impacting a specific area or community. 

            Examining the above diagram, there are two sets of “homes.” The darker shaded black represents a missional community, while the lighter shade is households that are not within the “community”; those homes represent believers or non-believers. The solid and squiggly black line represents the community street that separates particular neighborhoods. While a microchurch may consist of several households of people that gather together (in community)—their mission is “micro,” it is defined as reaching something, someone, or someplace (more elaboration below). Yet, the missional community has an objective to saturate an entire community with the gospel (everyone). They may have multiple outreaches, events, and expressions of church that are variously aligned.

For instance, the missional community breaks bread together, lives life together, takes care of one another’s needs when assistance is needed, supports missions, community, neighborhood outreach, social justice endeavors, and worships together. Missional communities tend to have multiple elders that serve as pastors. While each home is a household, the community serves and exists as a whole. This means that two or more households may create an oikos for devotions, baptisms, Lord’s Supper, and worship. It is possible to have several different oikos’ within a missional community. For example, out of 12 homes in a missional community, maybe there are 3 collective oikos’. Without delving into a rabbit hole, one might observe the difference between a missional community and a house church, too. 

A house church can have members that travel into a community and worship within a particular oikos. It is possible for a house church to have believers from other communities that believe in their mission and vision. Additionally, the house church does not need to focus on their specific neighborhood—they may focus on their city, region, or even abroad. Whereas, missional communities are focused on the people that live within their explicit community. Basically, the missional community desires to see all blue homes (diagram) turn to black, participating in the community gospel-saturation mission. However, just because the homes are blue does not mean that the people inside are non-believers. Those people could be part of a microchurch within their region, traditional church-goers, a house church, or any other ecclesial observing formation.

            Looking at some of the benefits of missional communities, it is apparent that disciple-making would arrive at the top of the list. The principles of missional communities are highly attractive to people that are seeking spiritual growth, intimacy, open and honest accountability, and spiritual transformation. As well, people that are seeking companionship, true friendship, and a more communal aspect of life will become excited with this strategy. 

Actively and intimately growing with others is appealing. When a member of the missional community becomes sick and needs care, more than a pastor or deacon visit; the missional community mows the grass, buys groceries, cooks meals, and eats with the family (not merely dropping off), they help alleviate lost income (if needed), or any other need. The missional community is immensely connected to another one in prayer, fasting, devotion, and the navigation of the daily rhythms of life. A person with cancer, a teenager with problems, a dying pet, the loss of job, or the death of a loved one would not be able to be hidden from a missional community. They do life together, every day.

Microchurches

Having examined microchurches in another article, we will keep this brief. Recall that micro does not signify small but rather the fine-tuned vision and mission. A microchurch has one objective mission that encompasses gospel engagement—the goal is not saturating an entire neighborhood or community (unless they live within a cultural ethnic enclave), but a focused mission to a particular people, place, or thing. 

            The common misunderstanding with microchurch is defining it. In a recent conversation with Warren Bird, we discussed how many contradictory definitions were being promulgated. Even among well-known evangelical individuals, there is a misconception that micro means small and intimate. Some evangelicals identify microchurch with micro-expression. 

            However, a micro-expression of the Kingdom is a broad missiological term that surveys the many different ecclesial forms. Missional community, house church, microchurch, oikos, and any intimate or disciple-making fellowship can exist as a micro-expression of the Kingdom. Yet, microchurch is defined not by the overall intimacy or fellowship size but by the unified mission that exists within the covenant cruciform community of believers. For instance, in the previous article, the development and mission of a microchurch were described by the prodding of the Holy Spirit to call a skateboarding church planter to seek a person of peace (another skateboarder) within a specific culture or subculture (in this case, skateboarders). In turn, the skateboarding person of peace lives within the daily rhythms of his or her life with other skateboarders (skateboarding subcultural enclave). The microchurch only focuses on reaching and making disciples among skateboarders—that’s it—their mission is micro.

Conclusion

As stated earlier, delineating between missional community and microchurch is not to examine the superiority of one model over another, but to assist in gospel engagement. Strategies help church planters stay focused. Maintaining mission-focus is not only vital for planters but for everyone invested and involved. Regardless, can a microchurch decide to be part of a missional community, or vice-versa, a participating missional community oikos decide to become a microchurch—absolutely—they can. The strategies are not denominational or doctrinal, but ecclesial. Models help cultivate movement. 


[1] Mike Breen, Leading Missional Communities: Rediscovering the Power of Living  on Mission Together (Pawleys Island: 3DM, 2013), 6.

Urban Church Planting: Engaging Ethnic Cultural Enclaves to Cultivate the Cultural Oikos.

Research has demonstrated a decline within the Western Church for several years. While statistics have shown that 80–85% of American churches are either dying, declining, or plateauing, those numbers are nearly a decade old (Malphurs 2013, 200). Unfortunately, the statistical data has not improved. A recent Barna Group study that included 34 denominations discovered 1.5 churches closed for every church that opened (Barna 2021). Subsequently, the United States receives over three times more missionaries than any other country worldwide (Matsuo 2014). J.D. Payne suggests that “God is the Divine Maestro orchestrating the movements of some of the world’s least-reached peoples into Western countries” (Payne 2022, 168). Thus, America is the mission field of the world, while within her borders, its Church is in decline. 

With that stated, America is in a historically unique situation. While the United States has always been a beacon of hope to all people groups, it is currently receiving more foreign-born peoples than ever before, gathering 44 million per year (Connor and Budiman, 2019). From Census data, The Center for Immigration Studies found that one in eight people living in the United States is an immigrant, and one in five is between the ages of 40 and 64 (Hagey 2007). Within the American Church’s midst exists the ethnē of the world. 

A recent New York Times article noted that if America’s current immigration trend continues, it will exceed the immigration influx of Europeans that arrived at Ellis Island in the 1890s (Gabeloff and Jordan 2022). While American missionaries once circumnavigated the oceans to reach the unreached, the people of the nations are here. As President Jimmy Carter once declared, “We’ve become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, and different dreams” (Carter, 1976). The American Church has the opportunity to shape the world by cultivating gospel reconciliation among its minority and diaspora communities. 

As Western Christianity gravitates toward enculturation and stagnation, it is presented with a paradigm-shifting opportunity to re-establish and cultivate missional movements that reach multiple diaspora cultures. Likewise, for the American Church to effectively cease its steady decline, it must redevelop itself, refocusing its attention as a global Church participant. David Bosch affirms, “The Christian faith must be rethought, reformulated and lived anew in each human culture, and this must be done in a vital way, in depth and right to the cultures’ roots” (Bosch 2009, 452). The American Church must reevaluate its thinking regarding the unregenerate among its communities and how it views itself within the global Church. Additionally, how the American Church recognizes and engages culture for multiplicative reproduction needs realigning.  

Migration and Ethnic Enclaves

Enoch Wan asserts, “Urbanization is one of the global trends of diaspora” (Wan 2010). One study noted the increase of diaspora communities becoming essential developmental actors that improve socio-economic and cultural connections between the origin country and their hosts (Gamlen 2014, 180-217). Countries that mobilize diaspora for specific international training, business development, or cooperative assignments are not only becoming increasingly more relevant but a form of long-distance nationalistic mission. 

Many countries, including China, India, the Philippines, Israel, and South Korea, recognize and implement the practical applications of using vast diasporas for economic, community, and organizational developments. For instance, foreign governments utilize specific student or working Visas for their people to study engineering or medical procedures abroad. Contracted diaspora gain a robust education through diverse cultural perspectives and practices. 

Connected to the trending global migration, contracted diaspora, and urbanization is the aspect of settlement choice. Studies show that migrating peoples tend to gravitate toward largely populated areas and ethnically group together. For example, one population survey in Minnesota noted that 97% of the members of Hmong descent lived within the same region (Xiong, 2017). Not exclusive to the Hmong people, research specifies that ethnically concentrated enclaves formulate due to immigrants of a particular origin settling into areas where others from the exact origin live (Cheswick and Miller 2004). For that reason, it is imperative for local churches to effectively exegete their cities and communities to understand and engage the cultural and demographic shifts occurring. 

Therefore, in researching migrating people groups, several commonalities exist: (1) urban environments are the chosen settlement (Singer 2013), (2) overcrowded, multi-family, and multiple generational family housing is the norm within diaspora people with the additional trend pertaining to all racial groups (Cohn and Passel 2018), and (3) migrating peoples create ethnic cultural enclaves. By definition, ethnic enclaves are concentrations of people that share culture and ethnicity within a distinct geographic location.

Cultivating Cultural Oikos from Cultural Enclaves

As a practitioner, studying demographics can be beneficial. However, exegeting the neighborhood or city is better. Learning to exegete or interpret culture is just as crucial as biblical studies. One method for the Church to exegete community is by examining existing data. Another method to exegete community is for churches or organizations to deploy small groups that collect data by walking, observing, and recording. This last method can be tedious but more thorough and complete.

            Regardless, for this scenario, utilizing the microchurch model will be an effective strategy. The microchurch planter feels the call of God and the prodding of the Spirit to reach a particular people group (if you want to know more about microchurches, click here). After establishing a relationship with a couple, they become his “persons of peace.” For decades, missionaries have utilized the person of peace concept (Lk. 10:6). Jesus instructed his disciple-making apostles with their marching orders, declaring, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him” (Lk.10:5–6). As missionaries sought out the person of peace within a community, they rightly sought out hospitable and influencing type individuals that provided an opportunity to reach a village or people group.

            There is a straightforward relationship between strategic church planting and immigrant overcrowded living, settlement, and housing. The comprehension that diaspora and migrating people create concentrated ethnic enclaves, dwelling within multigenerational and multi-family dwellings, relates to the attraction of utilizing the microchurch cultural oikos strategy. Biblically, the Greek word oikos refers to a household or dwelling. For church planting strategies, the organizational attributes of the oikos help cultivate intentional reproducible gospel reconciliation. Cultural enclaves can produce cultural oikos.

            As the microchurch planter reaches and connects with his persons of peace, he has two developing scenarios. First, he can become the planter/elder/pastor to cultivate gospel reconciliation among the people group that he feels called to reach, or second, he can become the catalyst planter, discipling the persons of peace couple, so that they can be the elders/pastors of the microchurch. Regardless, without the persons of peace, reaching the ethnic enclave may not be easy. 

            In the diagram below, the planter becomes the lead elder, discipling the persons of peace. As they are discipled, they reach the cultural enclave, being invited to gather with the lead elder and couple. As the same nationality, ethnicity, and race, the cultural enclave is connected to the persons of peace. The persons of peace begin reaching others in their community enclave, in turn, cultivating the development of a microchurch cultural oikos

Nevertheless, the closeness and constant communication within these dwelling places represent a cultural oikos in which greater opportunity for gospel saturation and reconciliation exists.

            Subsequently, as someone more catalytic, helping the persons of peace become indigenous microchurch planters has similar features. The catalytic planter disciples the persons of peace in the same manner as the first strategy; however, he does not engage the microchurch plant as a participant. The catalyst’s role is to help cultivate as many microchurch cultural oikos’ as possible, by discipling persons of peace to engage their cultural enclaves.

Nevertheless, the goal is reproducible disciple-making. The missiological term cultural oikos only helps identify gospel engagement strategies. Understanding that diaspora and migrating groups are not models but people with deeply rooted rituals, ideologies, and beliefs—for the microchurch planter, the person of peace is vital. As one missiologist noted, “For many of these people groups, Christianity is viewed as a competing political and religious force that threatens to break up families and communities. These people need to be reached through a gospel movement emphasizing God’s blessing to heal and strengthen families. Many of these people groups have deep roots in their traditions, which can make it difficult for them to choose the gospel” (East West, n.d.). Gospel movements provide reproducibility and healing, restoring and reconciling the image of God, back to God. While a difficulty exists to infiltrate some traditions, rituals, and roots, the person of peace becomes the archetypal biblical Roman Centurion or Philippian jailer (Acts 10:2, 16:21). These reconciled men served as influencers among their people and became the gateway for their cultural enclave to become a cultural oikos to receive gospel reconciliation. 

The primary content of this article was presented at the Evangelical Missiological Society Southeast Conference, March 19th, 2022. If you’d like a full copy of the article “Planting Urban Microchurches: Utilizing the Cultural Oikos to Cultivate Gospel reconciliation Among Minority and Diaspora Communities,” please feel free to contact me.

Good News! American Trends Show Smaller Churches

Over the last decade, the churches in America have witnessed an overall decline in size. A recent Lifeway Research study indicated that twenty years ago, churches of 100 or smaller constituted 45% of all American churches—today, that number has increased to 65%.[1] While some analysts may view the statistics as doom and gloom, I always look at things either realistically, innovatively, or optimistically. I believe we can do all three.

            As a missiologist, recognizing the continued trend of American churches becoming smaller is not a bad omen. The smaller churches paradigm opens five missional doors to propel the church for more significant cultural impact. Those five effectual doors are church multiplication, community outreach, missional giving, disciple-making, and gospel-reconciliation among diaspora. 

One of the reasons for this article is not merely to present facts and figures or theoretical knowledge but to encourage and embolden the smaller church (and pastor). For far too often and far too long, small church pastors have been viewed as less anointed, skilled, favored, gifted, or even called. Small church pastor, and small church bashing, need to cease! The church growth movement has failed in producing disciple-makers and in multiplying. 

            For clarity, you may be inclined to deduce that smaller churches mean greater Christian decline—but the Lifeway data does not make those distinctions, nor are they factors concerning innovative pioneering and church movements. To be clear, every major church movement through ecclesiastical church history occurred through smaller churches—yet, as Americans, the “bigger is better” motto consumes evangelical thinking. The Western church must view itself as a global church partner (co-laborer), not an imperialistic superior.[2] With that stated, let’s examine the five practical missional opportunities for the trending small church.   

Multiplication

Yes, multiplication is the first and most significant opportunity for smaller churches. Everyone knows that simple is reproducible; the complex is not. Smaller churches have always been viewed as multiplicative. However, missional and communal have become synonymous with small groups or house churches. While house churches and microchurches are aspects of a smaller church, generally, they are viewed as an anomaly or part of some niche evangelical fringe. We want to focus on actual evangelical congregations of smaller than 100. 

            Conferences and books have exploited the small church pastor into thinking they are not good enough; that if they do not break the 200 person-barrier, they are somewhat incompetent and should feel shame. That’s a straight Satanic lie. Neither the big church nor the small church is wrong—both can be and should be utilized, but we need to see the beauty and significance of the small church. The global church must applaud the small church pastor equally as the megachurch one. Frankly, I’m glad that this trend is occurring. Why? Multiplicative church movements will not happen by attempting to utilize the large church methodology—it just won’t. I have nothing against larger churches; I attend one. Yet, I’ve been a planter and small church pastor—it’s time to celebrate and rejoice about the small church.  

            Thus, the research indicates that American smaller churches have grown exponentially from 45% to 65%. The research is not demonstrating that Christian decline caused the smaller church movement. On the contrary, linking the other factors of higher per person financial giving, increased fellowship, missional obedience, and discipleship, the smaller church is a cultural trend that appeals to Gen Z, Millennials, and some Gen X’ers. The days of bigger is better in America is not necessarily true anymore—that was the 80s yuppie marketplace, not the 20s inclusive society. Through social media, the 20s culture has relied upon being invested in the community—having a voice, being heard, recognized, and included—smaller churches answer those needs. Likewise, culture has shifted to smaller marketplaces, organic, and intimate settings—smaller churches are multiplying because they relate to the part of culture seeking this dynamic. 

Community Outreach

The Lifeway Research indicated that smaller churches increased (per person) in volunteerism and outreach. The statistics demonstrated what we have already known and guessed that larger churches tend to cause isolationism. This means that people in larger congregations may fade into a congregation without being needed, seen, asked, or want to participate. In smaller churches, believers practice their faith by engaging in communal and individual outreach. In a small church, you will be seen. 

            For clarity, a large church may indeed have a more significant impact upon a city with its ability to provide hundreds of volunteers. Again, the article’s point is not that larger churches are wrong, but that smaller churches are good and that the trend shows great opportunity. Smaller churches showed that more of their congregants participated in community outreach than larger churches. Is there a direct correlation between larger churches and inactive faith—perhaps—but, all believers should agree that while works are not salvific, we were created “for good works” (Eph. 2:8-10)? There can be no separation from the gospel and the mission of God.   

Missional Giving

As obedient Great Commission servants (Matt. 28:18–20), believers have always been compelled to give to the mission of God. While statistics demonstrate that Americans still give more to religious values than any other association, donations have never been higher. Research indicates that of church tithers, regular church attendees provide 81% of the offerings.[3] Overall, smaller churches exhibited to have more active and dedicated members.

            Studying over 15,000 congregations, smaller churches reported higher percentages of donations given toward missions.[4] The analysis illustrated that smaller churches were invested more individually and communally. Individuals within smaller congregations tended to feel connected to their missional giving, sometimes having opportunities to witness and partake within the immediate mission. Additionally, the data demonstrated that smaller churches allocated larger percentages of cumulative giving to missions. Perhaps, the smaller church views the pastor as an example? While subjective, with their moderate to lower-income (than larger churches), means of living, and sacrifice of giving for the mission of God, it may propel the smaller church members to participate with the pastor. 

Cruciformity & Disciple-Making

Having mentioned participating with the pastor, as the apostle Paul stated to the Philippian churches, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil. 4:9). As the more intimate fellowship of believers exists in the smaller church, the witness of example also exists. Closeness may not always imply cruciformity, but there can be no cruciformity without it. 

            Cruciform communities consist of devoted and sacrificial individuals. They engage and partake in one another’s hardships, sicknesses, trials, joys, celebrations and collectively embrace them all. While an aspect of a larger church produces excellent worship experiences, the smaller church employs intimate and communal prayer. These folks walk with one another through the daily rhythms of life. For this reason, disciple-making tends to be more genuine and engaged in smaller churches. 

Pastors of small churches should embrace this one concept if none at all. Rejoice in the participation of spiritual formation and transformation—the testimony of spiritual renewal. As the Holy Spirit begins to work within the body of Christ boldly, you can experience God’s faithfulness with each individual. You partake in each wedding, funeral, graduation, Bible study, VBS, and more. You watch infants grow into youth and from youth to adulthood—seeing the fruit of your disciple-making labor. Smaller churches instinctively produce a greater cruciform community and disciple-making environment. 

Diaspora

Diaspora are globally displaced or scattered peoples from their land of origin. Global migration has reached its zenith, whether through intentional international workplace contracts or illegal immigration. Additionally, United States immigration has reached the heights of the 1890s Ellis Island days.[5] The unreached people groups of the world have come to our shores seeking refuge, asylum, freedom, and prosperity. While some analysts see the Western church in decline, we should see opportunity! The gospel provides refuge, asylum, freedom, and wealth in God.

Due to the astronomical impact of diaspora, the American church, more specifically the smaller church, has an amazing opportunity to reach, disciple, and bring gospel reconciliation to their communities. Knowing that diaspora people tend to cultivate ethnic-cultural enclaves,[6] smaller churches can bring gospel reconciliation to these diaspora communities. As the Philippian jailer and Roman Centurion witnessed gospel reconciliation occur within their households, the intimacy and closeness of small church cruciformity and discipleship are similar. By reaching diaspora, the Western church can reach the world. 

Consequently, while the small church possesses these five effective missional open doors, I do not believe they are exclusive to the smaller church. Yet, as this trend continues to rise, the objective is to finally rejoice in the small church. We ought to applaud the consistent hard work of the small church pastor. We ought to embrace the opportunities that the Lord has blessed us with. Through multiplication, community outreach, increased missional giving, disciple-making fellowship, and diaspora enclaves, Christian decline in the West can not only be reversed but it can engage in global church partnership. The moral, whether small or large, the Lord of the harvest is seeking laborers (Luke 10:2). Collectively, we must rejoice in all components of the mission of God.  


[1] Aaron Earls. 2021. “Small Churches Continue Growing—but in Number, Not Size.” Lifeway Research. October 20, 2021. https://lifewayresearch.com/2021/10/20/small-churches-continue-growing-but-in-number-not-size/.

[2] For the record, America receives more missionaries each year threefold than any other country. America is the mission field of the world, not vice versa.

[3] Milena. 2021. “Church Giving Statistics.” Balancing Everything. January 30, 2021. https://balancingeverything.com/church-giving-statistics/.

[4] Earls, “Small Churches Continue Growing—but in Number, Not Size.”

[5] Robert Gebeloff and Miriam Jordan, “Amid Slowdown, Immigration Is Driving U.S. Population Growth,” New York Times (February 5, 2022), accessed February 12, 2022.

[6] Ethnic enclaves are concentrations of people that share culture and ethnicity within a distinct geographic location.

The Cultural Mandate’s Connection to the Great Commission

Relationships. Humans have relatedness and relationship because of the Creator. Humanity was created in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Our relatedness and relationship ability define humanity as different than any other created thing. We were made for relationships. 

Through the Scriptures, the reassurance of our purpose and design in being relationship-driven is validated. The only time within the creation narrative that God mentions anything negative is in man’s isolation and loneliness (Gen. 2:18). Humanity was made for relatedness and relationship, with God and with one another. What does this have to do with a cultural mandate?

The cultural mandate, as it is known, states, “God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). 

The misconception about the cultural mandate is that people believe that it merely applies to human reproduction. However, in light of the continuity of Scripture, and the wholeness counsel of God, there is a link to multiplicity and a correlation to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). Yet, as we note from the beginning of creation,  an intimacy of relatedness (to God, one another, and creation) and the primacy of love is innately encoded into our DNA, by the Creator. 

As Adam and Eve walked with the Creator in the garden, they were gaining an intimate understanding of living with God within the daily regularities of life. The proclamation “to be fruitful and multiply,” or cultural mandate, was a commission—to fill the earth as image-bearers of God.[1] 

Think of this—if Adam and Eve had not committed sin, their mandate would have driven them to expand the Garden of Eden to fill the entirety of the earth. The Garden of Eden would have possessed no boundaries. Every person, beginning at birth, would have come to know, love, worship, and serve the Creator by becoming a disciple-maker (talking about God and living for God). For this reason, we can see the correlation with the Great Commission multiplicative mandate to make disciples of every tribe and nation (Mt. 28:19-20). Life is about knowing God and making Him known (multiplying).

As a student of God’s Word, the metanarrative of Scripture is God’s story—the Scriptures reveal the One True God to humanity. As Michael Goheen notes, “The gospel places us between creation and consummation, the beginning and end of cosmic history … we find ourselves in the middle of the Bible as one story whose central thread is the missional vocation of God’s people…”[2] The Old Testament and the New Testament are not divorced from one another—nor are they separated stories, but one continual story, much like a thread of comments on an Instagram post. 

Therefore, I believe the cultural mandate is much like the Great Commission—a direct order given from the Creator to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:26-28; Matt. 28:18–20). While there are some distinctions between the two, both relay a kingdom ethos. Like the cultural mandate, within Christ’s command to make disciple-makers is the tantamount awareness of relatedness and relationship—with man and with God. 

To understand the Great Commission is to understand that each person alive today has been created in the image of God and participates within God’s story. The Great Commission must compel God’s redeemed people to look beyond discipleship as conversion therapy, but as the very definition and story of what it means to be human. God’s story is “the true story of the whole world.”[3] Discipleship begins at relationship, not conversion. 

Next, the Great Commission is a divine directive for those who have been saved by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit of God to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). The church actively partakes in, and participates with, the Triune God. There is a divine koinonia, of cross-centered living and sharing of possessions, emotions, and relationships that constrict a cruciform community.[4] The Great Commission has direct kinship to the cultural mandate because God, through Jesus Christ, renews the image-bearers of God. Christ re-creates humanity (2 Cor. 5:17), breathing new breath into them (John 20:22), and placing them back into the Adamic state of relationship (yet, not yet, sinless). 

The cultural mandate is an “evangelistic mandate” and an “imperative to make disciples.”[5] I know that some scholars may disagree with me, but I can’t help to connect the dots within the metanarrative of God—that God created man in His image and likeness to know Him, love Him, and serve Him, and to fill the earth as His protectorates. 

The cultural mandate mirrors the Great Commission as Christ, God in the flesh, the reigning cosmic King, with all authority and an omnipotent presence, journeying with mankind, as disciple-makers make disciple-makers (Matt. 28:18–20). In the Garden, Jesus, the second and last Adam, lived out the mission of God, by and with obedience, something that the first Adam failed to do within his garden. 

So, we arrive at a destination—a course in which God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, is leading us and directing us in a sanctifying life of mission. As well, our end goal should be the drive, zeal, and desire to be more holy, missional, and like Christ. Jesus was the ultimate reproducible disciple-maker. He was the penultimate image of God (Col. 1:15). And, if we were created for him, to him, and through him (Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16), then our lives must have intentionality in living out what He said and did (Matt. 28:19). 


[1] Wagner, C. Peter. Strategies for Church Growth, 111.

[2] Goheen, Michael, The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology), 8–9.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Hastings, Ross. Missional God, Missional Church, 216.

[5] Ibid., 50, 111.

St. Patrick: the Itinerant-Pioneer Apostle

Source

Working on my next book project, part of my research encompasses my favorite church planter, St. Patrick. Unveiling the likelihood that the “Apostle of Ireland” may have been the first itinerant-apostle to seriously apply the Great Commission to his missionary endeavors was encouraging.[1] The utilization of the term “Great Commission” is most notably attributed to William Carey. Still, Patrick viewed his missionary efforts to the Gaelic peoples as part of the bigger picture of “making disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Having a passion for disciple-making, church planting, and the gifting of redeemed believers (Eph. 4:11), Patrick’s life enlightens my soul. When researching Patrick and the earlier Church Fathers, it became apparent that the contemporary church misunderstands early missions, missionary roles and attributes, and the foundational importance of the itinerant-apostle.

For clarity, contemporarily, the usage of the term apostle is not without contention. Most often, people equate an apostle with an office. Within biblical Greek, the term apostle (apostolos) means to send. While Christians tend to (rightly) denote the word apostle with the original Twelve disciples of Christ, the word serves a much broader comprehensive function. Interestingly enough, the term carries nautical weight, as a gathering of seafaring ships embarks upon a maritime expedition.[2] The role of the itinerant-apostle/prophet was much like a seafaring entity, leaving one harbor to enrich another.

Early Itinerant Apostle-Prophet

Assuredly, there has been an ample amount of scholarly research concerning the Didache, its authorship, dating, and possible influence on the Gospel of Matthew.[3] While I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying the text, missional disciple-making is the driving force for my interest. Knowing that a first-century disciple-making resource was available to the early church is more than motivational; it’s illuminating.  

Without delving into an argument, we’ll assume the abundant scholarly research on the Didache is sufficient. With that stated, the Didache and its “two ways” open the door to understanding the traveling apostle-prophet. Milavec notes, “The oral tradition of the Didache devoted so much attention to the apostle-prophets because it needed to. Thus, they were dealing not with just a rare visit but regular visits.”[4] The wandering prophet in the Didache is uncannily similar to Matthew 10:41. 

While the Didache notes the itinerant apostle-prophet should not stay longer than two days to assess honesty and integrity, it is reasonable to assume that they carried letters of authority for lengthier stays, much like that of the apostle Paul (e.g., Acts 9:2; 15:22-29). Regardless, the itinerant-apostle was a traveling servant; this is evident in Paul’s church planting and edifying travels. 

Craig Keener notes there were approximately nineteen stops of Paul’s new communities in his second journey. Of the nineteen communities that Paul’s itinerancy logged, he remained in four less than three days, seven less than seven days, and 13 communities less than 14 days.[5] The role of the itinerant-apostle-prophet was more than a mere ekklesia check-up; it was a reproducible disciple-making whirlwind with divine instruction.

It seems highly plausible that Pauls’ role became Antioch’s itinerant apostle-prophet. This credibility exists, as Luke records Paul proclaiming to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36). The itinerant prophet made the rounds to encourage the churches and begin new ones. As recorded in the Shepherd of Hermas, “When, then, a man having the Divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in the Divine Spirit, and this assembly of men offers up prayer to God … the man being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to the multitude as the Lord wishes.”[6]

As well,  Luke recognized five apostle-prophets within the Antiochian church community (Acts 13:1).  Most notably, three of these “apostle-prophets were commissioned, being ‘sent out’ to plant new churches.”[7] In the spirit of the itinerant-apostle Paul’s journey to Gaul, Patrick would also employ the itinerant strategy.

Contextualization

While previous historians and missiologists have scoffed at Patrick’s usage of offerings or monetary gifts to gain inroads with tribal chieftains, the ends justified the means. Today, we would equate Patrick’s kingly gifts as contextualization and discernment. Patrick knew the extreme dangers of the Barbarian life. 

Having been enslaved to the Celtic people as a youth, Patrick was well aware of the endangerments ahead. Traveling the roads alone was not advisable, not with the marauders and rival tribes. Giving a gift to a tribal king would assure not only safety but a guide, translator, and ambassador. Most of Patrick’s provided emissaries became converts. 

Patrick knew the importance of receiving permission to perform discipleship among the small extant Christian communities. Permission would allow him access to the unchurched in neighboring tribes. And, as an itinerant-apostle, Patrick utilized every opportunity. 

Itinerant Church Planting

Much like the Apostle Paul’s passion, Patrick was known to move to “new areas” and regions “where the gospel had never been preached”[8] One may doubt Patrick’s journey strategy or impact but could never suspect his motive. In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick confesses:

I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has arrested me, I speak out too for the love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them, I gave up my home country, my parents, and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.

Church planters are pioneers that pave the way for souls to enter eternity. The impact of the pioneering itinerant-apostle was to bring the gospel and its power to unreached peoples. While the descriptions of Patrick’s life include “many miracle stories … we see that such stories proliferate when the gospel moves into pioneer territory.”[9]

Patrick’s zeal and Confessions show that he was a pioneering itinerant as he moved “from place to place to befriend the various tribal” peoples.[10] As an apostolic-itinerant, Patrick is attributed to planting over 200 churches.[11]However, Patrick wasn’t a mere traveling evangelist; he baptized and discipled an uncountable number of individuals. Some scholars estimate Patrick to have baptized over 100,000 converts.[12] Needless to say, the church needs more like Patrick; it needs more itinerant-pioneers. 


[1] Smither, Ed. Missionary Monks: An Introduction to the History and Theology of Missionary Monasticism (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 57.

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Apostle, Apostleship,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 131.

[3] Garrow, Alan, The Gospel of Matthew’s Dependence on the Didache (NY: Bloomsbury, 2004). 

[4] Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities (New York, Newman Press, 2003), 441. 

[5] Keener, Craig, S. Acts : An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids : Baker, 2014), 2298.

[6] Shepard of Hermas, Book II, Commandment 11, Vol. 2, 28.

[7] Milavec, The Didache, 442.

[8] Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 39.

[9] Fairbairn, Donald. The Global Church: The First Eight Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 288

[10] Fairbairn, The Global Church, 288.

[11] Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 40

[12] Ibid., 40.