Nearsighted churches vs. farsighted churches

Eyeballs are fascinating. They take in all of this information around us and translate it into a vision that is meaningful. They give us the information we need to see the road ahead and watch out for hazards. They interpret our surroundings and show us the best ways to get somewhere.

But sometimes, they don’t do so well. Sometimes, that vision is blurry, even to the point of blind spots. We all know people who are either nearsighted or farsighted. As the name implies, nearsighted people tend to have problems seeing what is far away. They can read what is right in front of them just fine. For them, it is the stuff down the road that is hard to see. And of course, farsighted people have the reverse dilemma. The far away stuff is clear, but they have real trouble seeing what is right around them.

Local churches can have vision problems too.

In fact, when it comes to mission vision, many churches tend to be either farsighted or nearsighted. While every local church consists of a unique body of members and serves in a unique local context, it is safe to say one overarching, Biblical mission should direct the actions of all churches across the world. Local churches are, of course, local expressions of the one bride of Christ. This universal church exists to bear witness to the coming kingdom and make disciples of all nations. In that sense, local churches exist as outposts of a global effort. No church is an island (at least it shouldn’t be), and that means that this network of local assemblies serve the mission of the whole. They cannot take their eyes off this macro-mission. The Great Commission is a purpose with a global scope. However, any mission with a global scope has to take place at a local level. That is precisely why we need local assemblies.

Of course, this does not mean that churches should somehow do everything everywhere. No single church can reach a city, far less the world. It does mean they understand the church as global and local and have a vision for the mission here and there. Fact is, neither farsighted churches nor nearsighted churches make whole disciples, because they do not have a full vision themselves. Any local church that wants to have a clear mission vision must see things near and things far.

The Farsighted Church

The farsighted church gets international missions. In fact, they often thrive off of it. They always have a list of summer short-term trips. They have pictures of their missionaries on the wall, and the missionaries will regularly speak when they come back state-side. Many members of the far-sighted church may know the names of missionaries they support. The church works to take up large collections of money to send to their missions agency. Sermons are often filled with references to making disciples overseas. People are called to consider international missions. When these churches think about church planting domestically (if they think about church planting domestically), it is always in some major city far away. They send teams to Seattle or Denver or New York. For them, the word missions conjures up something far away.

However, for all the effort put into teaching their members about global missions and national church planting efforts, they spend relatively little time training members to be personal disciple-makers. Often, there is little discussion of the neighborhood where the church building is located. Fact is, most of the members do not live there anyway. They drive in from the surrounding area. At one time, the church body looked much like its neighborhood, but since then the neighborhood has transitioned around them. There was a point, perhaps, where the church leadership took notice but little was said. Instead, the church pressed into what could be done afar. Their mission vision looks right past their immediate context, overlooking the need for the gospel at their front door. Of course, any church with a far-sighted mission vision will be poor at training disciple-makers in their own context. Soon, members become anesthetized to the reality outside their doors and opportunities to fulfill the Great Commission at home are no longer seen at all.

“Good disciples” in this context make sure to pack their Christmas shoe box, but they do not know the names of the family next door to the church building. How will this farsighted church ever train people up to share the gospel with their neighbors and coworkers?

The Nearsighted Church

In recent years, a reaction has occurred to the far-sighted church and rightly so. A new awareness of local contexts accompanies church planting. Think about it. The reason a potential church planting team chooses a specific city, a specific neighborhood, is because they think that location needs the gospel. Of course, these new churches will focus on the local need for the gospel. Furthermore, most revitalization and replant efforts focus on neighborhood ministry as well. The local, neighborhood church is on the rise right now, and that is a good thing. However, if left unchecked, a hyper-focus on what is near loses sight of the mission’s scope.

The nearsighted church identifies itself with a neighborhood or community. It meets in a theater, school, local business, or perhaps a long-standing church building that serves as an icon of its connectedness. All the members know that it is a “church for the city.” Specific programs push members into community activism. Members tutor at the local school, or they serve on neighborhood councils. They develop partnerships with municipal government or area charities, to the extent that those entities will actually work with a church. There is much emphasis on living out the gospel at work and in the community, because this is how disciple-making occurs.

However, for all the effort put into teaching their membership about the Great Commission opportunities in their neighborhood or city, the nearsighted church spends little time talking about the nations. The vision of this church is set too low. These churches, even when they appear to be outwardly focused, become centered on their little plot of land. Mission is what happens in the neighborhood or community, and it is often divorced from the rest of the global church. Little effort is made to remind members of the greater glory of God demonstrated through his work around the world. Members are taught to roll their sleeves up at home, but they do little to ensure the gospel goes anywhere else. These churches often give little to missionary efforts outside of their community: little money and little effort. If someone from this church goes on a mission trip, it was probably sponsored by another organization, and they did not hear about it at corporate worship.

“Good disciples” in this context serve in some city program and may even know the value of sharing the gospel with neighbors, but they are more likely to know the name of someone on the city council than that of a single person serving the Great Commission overseas. How will the nearsighted church ever train up and send its own missionaries overseas if missions is only defined to its members as neighborhood engagement?

Corrective Lenses

Let me underscore this, both of these churches get something very right. The Great Commission is a global mission, and for the last 200 years, the modern missions movements has pushed churches past their own community. Without an eye on the nations, the gospel would not have spread at all. The early church was keen on international missions and making the gospel known where it was not. Furthermore, missions happens in the local. It may not be your local, but it is local for someone. Churches that do not have an eye on their community are perhaps missing the big E on the eye-chart. Both the farsighted and the nearsighted church get one aspect of this correct, and we need to celebrate that. Far too many local churches exist that are woefully deficient in either category. Some churches, on the other hand, do both well. Plenty of churches exist that balance these twin aspects of a mission vision.

Nevertheless, too many churches are either farsighted or nearsighted, and for all their effort in one aspect of missions, their disciple-making has holes. Farsighted churches must remember they have an actual location. They are situated in a real place, with a real group of members with real jobs and real homes in real neighborhoods. Most of them have a building located in a neighborhood as well. Often, this neighborhood has passed them by, and they need go out and meet their neighbors again. That kind of work is hard, but a proper understanding of the Great Commission requires this. If a church spends more time talking about its efforts overseas than missions at home, it is most likely not teaching its members that their community is the little plot of land where they make the gospel known in their personal lives and with their own lips. Focus on local context should also come with focus on local cooperation with other churches. Working together with other churches to make disciples in the neighborhoods of their city should be the foundational posture of any local church. This simple fact is why I chose to work at the associational level. There is great value in aiding local churches in local missions.

Nearsighted churches can look down their nose at the usually more established far-sighted churches as being ineffectual in missions. There is not a little bit of irony here. While they may be very involved at home, these churches often forget they are part of something bigger, even bigger than the other three churches in town with which they choose to affiliate. These churches often give little (or nothing) to international missions, and they can have a whole missions legacy that has made no disciples outside of their own community. Churches need to partner together in missions at all levels, and that is easier to do than ever. As a Southern Baptist, I look first to our International Mission Board and North American Mission Boards as means for investing in national and global missionary efforts. These serve as on-ramps for both missions giving and for opportunities to involve church members in missionary efforts around the world. They serve as a global network of planters and missionaries, bearing witness to the kingdom and making disciples of all nations. Of course, other families of churches have other means.

Near-sighted churches need to speak of the nations more. They need to challenge members with the reality that God sends us places, and that he may want to send them. Then, they need to put their money and human resources where their mouth is. Something neat begins to happen in a near-sighted church when it starts seeing that there is a bigger world out there in need of the gospel. Members are challenged by the Great Commission in an all new way.

 

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