Friday, July 1, 2011

"Pre-Christians": The New Norm for the Missional Church

For the last month, I’ve been here at the Center for Theological Studies, blogging on F. Leroy Forlines’s work, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. But what most persons don’t know is that I’ve also been reading Ed Stetzer and David Putman’s work titled Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become A Missionary In Your Community. It presents some innovative ways to help draw people as visitors to your church and also provides ways to keep members once they’ve made initial visits. I’ve only read a little over sixty percent of the book (150 pages), so there’s more to read. Still, I was particularly struck by Dr. Stetzer’s and Putman’s argument regarding the unsaved. They note the importance of “pre-Christian” belonging (that is, the acceptance of sinners into a Bible community):

“It is important to note...that believing is central to what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Christ. However, while it is central, it is often the result of people belonging, becoming, and impacting in the context of their searching” (Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become A Missionary In Your Community. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2006, page 131).

I agree with Stetzer and Putman that unbelievers become believers through a searching process. No one simply becomes a believer overnight; it often takes months (for some) and years (for others) to become convinced of the reality of Christ and the truth of Christianity. All good things take time.

But what exactly is meant by this “context of searching”? David tells a story of an unbelieving woman involved in a church community:

“Recently, I (David) was in a setting where someone who is yet to become a follower of Christ got up and told her ‘prayer story.’ (As of this writing, she is still not a believer.) Her husband was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer, and many Christians had agreed to pray for him. He was later diagnosed by the doctor as having an ‘extremely unusual response to treatment.’ That is ‘doctor speak’ for him being healed.

The woman sharing the story was explaining how this had made an impact on her life even though she was not yet a follower of Christ---but she was definitely open. The interesting thing is that she shared her story in a missions meeting where she was being trained for a mission trip to South Africa, where she would be doing humanitarian efforts with a Christian organization. This is a simple example of what is becoming the norm in many missional churches” (Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, page 126).

There are a few underlined phrases in the above quote. Of the underlined phrases, three refer to the fact that the woman was not a believer at the time she prayed with believers for her husband’s healing, nor did she become a believer by the time Dr. Stetzer and David Putman wrote the chapter in their book. The last two statements, in light of what we know about the woman above, are even more shocking: not only was she not a believer, but “she was being trained for a mission trip to South Africa” where she would work with “a Christian organization.” Do you see the problem? I do.

The question on the table is, “Is it alright for the church to train unbelievers for mission trips, which are provided for the goal of witnessing for Christ and winning unbelievers to Christ?” Can a person witness for Jesus, exalt and advocate a Christ whom they have yet to accept? Was it not the twelve disciples following Christ to whom Jesus said, “And you shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8)? Was the Great Commission not given to the twelve disciples (Matt. 28:19-20)? When Jesus sent out the seventy, do you think there were individuals in the group who had yet to believe on His name? I don’t see this type of practice as scriptural at all. Rather, I see it more as a popular practice by many churches in order to reach the unreached.

And what about the biblical instructions to the churches? Were the letters not written to “saints”? Was not Romans written to those “called to be saints” whose “faith is spoken throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:7-8, NKJV)? Was 1 Corinthians 1 not written to those who are “called to be saints” and “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2)? Did Paul not write to the believers at Corinth that they were ones who had been “given the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:22)? Did Paul not also write that the Corinthians stand by faith (2 Cor. 1:23)? Was Ephesians not written to “the faithful in Christ Jesus,” those who have faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:1)? Did not the Ephesians trust in Christ, “after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13)? Did Paul not write to the Colossians, telling them that “we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:4)? And did Paul not admonish to the Philippians that they “strive together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27) and “suffer for His [Christ’s] sake” (Phil. 1:29)? Where do you find Paul ever mentioning to unbelievers that they could partake of Christian ministry? After all, does it not contradict to say that an unbeliever can partake of “Christian” ministry? Does Paul not write in Romans 8:9 that “if anyone has not the Spirit of Christ, he is not his”?
Simply put, how can one do missions work if one is not “on mission” for Christ?

Someone could say, “Well, she wasn’t necessarily witnessing; she was only doing humanitarian work with a Christian organization.” But that’s still a major theological dilemma; after all, how can one do “Christian” work and be a “non-Christian”? Does this not oppose the Scriptures?

I applaud Dr. Ed Stetzer and David Putman for their helpful information about growing churches and reaching the unreached; at the same time, however, let me say that an unbeliever cannot biblically do the things the woman in question is doing. This woman, at the time she was speaking in a missions meeting (which is troubling by itself), was not a believer, had not professed faith in Christ, and therefore, had not the Spirit. Whom then, was she “winning” on the mission trip? Who was she laboring for? The church? Friends of hers in the church? There is no way this woman could have been laboring for a Christ she hadn’t even accepted.

Stetzer and Putman label such individuals as “pre-Christian”---but that still makes them unbelievers. It’s not as if the name change suddenly transforms their sad spiritual state. They are still unbelievers, even if you attach the noblest label. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but an odor by any other name would smell as bad. Unbelievers are those without Christ...and instead of plugging them in to church activities, we need to be telling them about and bringing them to the one for whom we labor---that is, Jesus Christ.

While this may be “the norm in missional churches,” as Stetzer and Putman argue, this is an unbiblical norm indeed. If to be a missional church means to contradict God’s Word in the hope of reaching greater numbers and winning the unreached, I’d rather the churches not be missional at all. The ends (winning souls) does not justify the means (letting unbelievers do the work of Christian ministry). God bless.

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