‘The local church is the hope of the world’ – so Bill Hybels, on any number of occasions. Hybels represents (to borrow a phrase from Rob Warner) the ‘entrepreneurial’ wing of the Evangelical movement, and others from a similar perspective could be found claiming the same thing – Rick Warren, perhaps. The point is surprisingly general amongst high-profile American Evangelical leaders, however – whether in the focus on authentic community found in the vision of Rob Bell or Brian McLaren, or the commitment to constructing a Biblical model of the local fellowship and its leadership in John Piper, Mike Horton, or Mark Dever. UK examples are less high-profile, but no more difficult to find.
Of course, there’s lots to like about this as a broad principle (whatever one thinks of the way it is worked out in one or another of these writers). I’m a Baptist. We believe in the primary place of the local congregation; we got rabid about it in the States a couple of times, with the ‘anti-missions movement’ insisting that the only legitimate Christian organisation was the local congregation; parachurch groups, and even organised ministries within the local church, were unBiblical and to be opposed. Less rabid, but more powerful, consider John Smyth, at the beginnings of the movement: ‘is not the visible church of the New Testament with all the ordinances thereof the chief and principal part of the Gospel?’ You can’t get a higher vision of the primacy of the local congregation than that!
Several snapshots, all from my own experience (none from St Andrews, I should perhaps say):
A local church is developing a vision statement. It speaks of ‘being the witness to Jesus Christ in the town of …’ Someone asks, hesitantly, ‘does that mean that [other local church] is not the witness to Jesus Christ?’
A locum pastor of a fellowship a few miles from one of the famous, and big, US congregations (you’d know the name…), ‘Yes, they’re successful – but there is a blasted hinterland of fifty miles radius with no credible Christian witness in it because of their success.’
A debate over youthwork in an English fellowship ‘We want to start a club to disciple Christian teenagers!’ ‘But all the Christian teenagers in town go to the youth ministry run by [other local church] – are we really putting effort into replicating, and damaging, what they are doing?’
A pastor of a large city church in Scotland, over lunch in a Pizza restaurant: ‘I know that half my congregation drive out of the towns they live in and often enough past another church [of the same denomination] to get here; it’s because we can offer something the other churches can’t – but what is it doing to Christian witness in those towns?’
I could go on.
I am a Baptist. I believe that local churches are the only hope for the world. This does not lead me to conclude, however, that my local church – wonderful as it is – is itself, alone, the hope of the world. When we dream our dreams and seek our visions, we need to weave into the stories we tell the other local fellowships that God has been pleased to raise in our community, and to find our distinctive calling that does not replicate or damage their witness.