In the development of doctrine over the course of church history much has been written and taught regarding the New Testament portrait of the church. Typically, a heavy emphasis has been put on categorizing the church in two ways:
First, there is the New Testament concept of the universal church.
Second, there is the New Testament concept of the local church.
The universal church consists of all people, living or dead, who have been reconciled to God through faith in the biblical gospel. (Gal. 3:5-8; Eph. 1:22; 1 Tim. 3:15) The local church consists of micro groups of people who represent the universal church in a particular community. Those who are part of the local church have been born-again through faith in the biblical gospel (Acts 14:23), identify together as the people of God, and engage in attitudes and actions of edification, exaltation, and evangelism, in both corporate and individual ways. (Acts 2:42-47; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4:11-16)
It is completely valid that there has been a lot of focus on understanding the New Testament expressions of the local church and universal church throughout history. However, what I believe is lacking in a lot of the discussions, research, and teaching regarding the New Testament portrayal of the church is a healthy emphasis on what might be called the regional church. The concept of the regional church is not one that is uniquely my idea, but is one that seems to be under-developed and under-appreciated in general.
Why Should You Care?
Studying the concept of the regional church is important for acquiring a broader and perhaps more biblical understanding of the New Testament notion of the church. Additionally, looking at the church through a regional lens yields both theological and practical implications for mission.
Defining the Regional Church
Lets start with a working definition. There are three layers to the regional church:
Layer 1- Spiritual Essentiality and Locality:
The regional church consists of the total number of born again believers in a recognizable geographic region…
Layer 2- Local Connectivity and Activity:
The regional church consists of the total number of born again believers in a recognizable geographic region, who gather as separate, identifiable local churches in the communities of their region…
Layer 3- Regional Identification and Activity:
The regional church consists of the total number of born again believers in a recognizable geographic region, who gather as separate, identifiable local churches in the communities of their region, and identify and collaborate in mission together as the people of God within their region.
The above working definition of the regional church complements the local and universal expressions of the church in the New Testament.
Regional Mission & Regional Church in the New Testament
From the outset of this study it is important to establish a basis for believing that the regional church is actually a New Testament concept. There are several lines of evidence in the New Testament that support the idea of the regional church. Consider the following:
1. Descriptions of the Spread of the Gospel
First, there is a clear and intentional emphasis on the expanse of the gospel in regions throughout the book of Acts and the epistles. The singular term region is used four times in Acts in reference to the spread of the gospel, the church, and apostolic ministry in specific areas. (13:49; 16:6; 18:23; 26:20) The plural term regions is used in the same way two times in Acts and three times in the epistles (Acts 8:1; 20:2; Rom. 15:23; 2 Cor. 11:10; Gal. 1:21)
2. Paul’s Stated Missional Focus
Of special note among the various texts that combine to show the New Testament emphasis on regions is Paul’s description of his ministry-focus in the letter he wrote to the Romans. Paul said, “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation… I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” (Rom. 15:19b-20, 22b; Emphasis mine) This statement strongly implies that Paul had a regional grid for evaluating his progress in proclaiming the gospel and planting churches. His intent was to, as he put it, lay a “foundation” of the church in every region he could get to, and he saw himself as doing that by preaching the gospel in those regional areas.
3. Defining “Churches”
The New Testament emphasis on regions and the regional church also comes to light when you survey the use of the term churches in Acts and the epistles. Of the twenty-five times the editors of the English Standard Version of the Bible employed the term churches in that translation, no less than eight times (or 25%) it is used to refer to groups of local churches in a specific, shared geographical region. Interestingly, these groups of churches seem to be aware of and identify with one-another in common faith and mission, the people of God in their region. (Acts 15:41; 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:1, 19; 2 Cor. 8:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14; Rev. 1:4) In other words, they represent an identifiable expression of the concept of the regional church.
4. Galatians – A Case Study
Finally, the most definitive proof that the regional church is a legitimate concept in the New Testament is Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Uniquely, in contrast to Paul’s other letters that are preserved in the New Testament, Galatians was originally written not to a single local body of believers in one community, but to the total number of local congregations scattered throughout an entire geographic area. The fact that Paul began this letter with the phrase, “to the churches of Galatia,” shows that it was not strange to the Galatian Christians to read or hear of themselves being distinguished in this way. It made sense to them. They all knew of whom Paul was thinking when he referenced them as the Galatian churches. The issues Paul addressed in the letter would be understood as common problems amongst all the churches in the particular region of Galatia. Responsibility for adhering to Paul’s apostolic instructions would be viewed as a shared responsibility of all the churches in the region of Galatia. Paul wrote the letter in a way that took for granted the idea that the Galatians make up a regionally identifiable family of churches, with a shared faith, shared responsibility to the apostle, and that they are the unique expression of God’s kingdom in their regional corner of the world. What is the central point? If Paul distinguished and addressed groups of local churches in regional terms, as he does in Galatians, it should not be strange for Christians, church leaders, and missionaries to do the same today.
Paul’s Missionary Journeys
A survey of Paul’s missionary journeys also has much to teach us about the concept of the regional church in the New Testament. Many themes related to the regional church emerge in the Acts accounts of Paul’s missionary travels. Here are a few examples:
1. In the Leading of the Holy Spirit
First of all, Paul’s ministry in Acts reveals that his practice of focusing on regions in the mission of church planting was rooted in the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One who called the apostles to employ a regional methodology and focus in their ministry. (Acts 13:2; 14:26) The Holy Spirit is the One who directed them to certain regions, while forbidding them to go to others, as was the case with Asia and Macedonia. (Acts 16:6-10)
2. In the Language of Luke
Secondly, the way Luke describes the movements of Paul in his recounting of the apostle’s missionary journeys emphasizes that Paul employed a regional strategy for saturating communities with the gospel. Luke goes out of his way to highlight the impact of the gospel in regional areas specifically, as opposed to towns or cities. (13:49; 14:6, 22; 15:36, 40; 16:3, 6, 10, 12b; 18:23; 19:1, 10, 21-22, 20:1-2, 18) According to the way Luke describes Paul’s movements, the following verse likely encapsulates the region-centric way Paul mapped out his broad mission trajectory: “After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the regions of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” (Acts 18:23)
3. The Descriptions of the Battleground
Another unique way regions are highlighted in Acts is seen in the regional framework Luke used when describing the battles that raged in the Apostle’s church planting endeavors, as they faced resistance to the gospel. In numerous places in Acts, those who rejected Paul’s message are specifically described as attempting to prevent the influence of the gospel from expanding in their, “region.” (13:50; 19:26-27) With this emphasis you have the other side of the coin to the topic under consideration. In some regions, the gospel was flourishing and a regional church was being established. In other regions, there was a more uniform resistance aimed at preventing the establishment of a vibrant group of congregations in an area. In both cases, regions are in focus.
4. The Scope of Paul’s Concern
Acts shows that Paul felt responsibility and authority amongst the churches in
the regions where he had planted local communities of believers. After
evangelizing and planting congregations in a particular area Paul would do his
best to return to provide follow-up discipleship and leadership training. As he
performed these ministry roles, he would often methodically move through
particular regions, again showing his regional framework for ministry. (14:22;
15:36, 40; 16:5; 18:23)