I have attempted to describe the biblical basis of the New Testament concept of the regional church. Along the way, strategic benefits that result when churches in a particular geographic area identify and collaborative for mission as the regional church have been outlined. Additionally, approaches to planting churches in regional church partnerships were briefly summarized and discussed. I have also highlighted theological motivations for embracing and modeling the concept of the regional church. Now we turn to applications for cross-cultural leaders.
Here is the question at hand: What can cross-cultural leaders learn from the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys in the book of Acts and his letter to the Galatians, about leading churches in a shared geographic region to formally partner together in Great Commission work?
9 Lessons for Cross-cultural Leaders
First, I hope I have convinced cross-cultural workers that researching and reflecting on the concept of the regional church is worth their time. Pursuing this line of inquiry has the potential to help researchers see different emphases of meaning and nuance in the life and ministry of Paul that are very edifying. Church leaders are often myopic in their daily ministry focus. Paul did not display a hyper local focus in church planting and ministry. Rather, as he put it, he carried with him, “daily pressure…anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:28) Ministry done after the pattern of the Apostle Paul will inherently include lifting one’s eyes to the state, needs, and value of the churches around them. This stands as a rebuke to any churches or leaders that display an intentional or accidental “us first” approach to being God’s people in a given context.
Secondly, I hope cross-cultural leaders will conclude from the overview of Paul’s missionary journeys and letter to the Galatians that the concept of the regional church is biblical. If understanding, embracing, and living as the regional church is a biblical issue, the importance of it is elevated. The concept of the regional church is not just a novel or functional way of thinking of the relationship between local churches in a given area. It seems more and more to this author that the regional church is a God-ordained framework for understanding an important aspect of the nature of the church on earth. As such, cross-cultural leaders, in spite of the cultural barriers that may have to be overcome in the process, have a biblical mandate to promote regional cooperation and mutual identification amongst churches in their ministry context.
Third, the cross-cultural worker should learn from this study that every regional church must submit to apostolic authority through submission to the New Testament scriptures. (Gal. 1:1-2) This is derived from the authority Paul assumed when he boldly exhorted the Galatians to abide in the true gospel and ways of Christ. (Gal. 1-5) Regional churches today honor apostolic authority by acknowledging and submitting to the authority of the apostolically validated scriptures. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Fourth, cross-cultural workers should learn from this study that the regional church has a responsibility to maintain gospel fidelity. (Gal. 1) When the regional church upholds the biblical gospel in word and deed, it becomes a true expression of the holy, “city on a hill,” of which Jesus spoke. (Matt. 5:14) The church has the opportunity to be and bring the light of God’s redemptive love to the dark world around them. If the regional church allows the gospel to become perverted in her midst, the region in which that regional church resides may be none-the-better for her presence. (Rev. 1:4)
Why is this an important point to make for cross-cultural leaders specifically? The isolation and persecution that can be experienced when a missionary seeks to take a stand for gospel fidelity in their area can be crushing. On the day of this writing, this author learned of a church in an African nation that was forced to cease public meetings due to harassment from antagonistic non-believers in their community. Still, it is even more discouraging when isolation and persecution due to gospel fidelity comes from the hands of other leaders and congregations that profess faith in Christ. This often happens when cross-cultural leaders are working in so-called “Christian nations” like many Eastern European countries. Planting a church in Western Romania, for instance, preachers of the biblical gospel often meet opposition from the Eastern Orthodox Church because the biblical gospel contradicts the Orthodox Church’s soteriological views. In such a situation, the missionary who longs for a sense of community and peace with other professing believers can be tempted to become lax in their commitment to the gospel in the name of community and companionship. In such situations, the cross-cultural worker must lean back into gospel faithfulness, calling professing believers of all types in their region to abandon all expressions of Christianity that inherently contradict the biblical gospel. They must call the region to repentance in this sense, in courageous and winsome ways. All Christians and churches committed to the gospel in a particular region must do this in the name of gospel fidelity, in spite of their possible minority status.
Fifth, the cross-cultural leader should learn from this study that the regional church has a responsibility to combat more general false teaching in its area. This responsibility is depicted in Paul’s call to the Galatians to collectively stand against the legalistic perversion of the gospel that was being propagated in their region. (Gal. 2-4) In itself, the regional church actually forms a support system for standing strong against the influence of false teaching. As the old adage goes, there is strength in numbers. This can be true in dealing with false doctrine as the regional church.
As with gospel fidelity, cross-cultural workers ministering in underserved contexts may need to specifically be concerned with this point because gospel-centered churches are often few and far between in such places. Feeling isolated and cut off from a wider community of Christians can lead to a temptation to shrink back from confronting false teaching in the churches in the name of preserving a superficial unity between them. After all, one might ask, why allow doctrinal scruples to destroy what little community the believers have to enjoy? The temptation to sacrifice spiritual truth on the altar of peace becomes very real, and must be avoided. Paul would rather have seen the congregations in Galatia dissolve than become happy houses of heresy, devoid of healthy spirituality and doctrinal purity. (Gal. 1:6-10)
This author has witnessed this principle in action while planting a church in Utah. When a formerly evangelical pastor of significant influence began to spread heretical views regarding the person of Christ amongst the Christian community in northern Utah, a multi-denominational group of pastors and churches was forced to publically renounce him. While this was a tragic and very unusual experience for many in the Christian community, it was also necessary and effective for protecting the churches in the region. How much more would this be necessary when leaders are seeking to establish a church in an unreached region with a goal of long-term, healthy, gospel impact in that area?
Sixth, cross-cultural leaders should be inspired from this study to join or form regional expressions of the church for mission collaboration. The Calvary Global Network that this author belongs tois both engaging in regional church partnerships, and seeking to partner with other networks to form innovative ways of doing so. Ideally, partnerships between such networks serve to exemplify how contemporary groups of churches can follow the biblical pattern of the regional church.
The strategic benefits of forming these kinds of regional relationships between churches have been discussed in this paper. For instance, it is tragic when several churches in a particular region struggle to find sufficient resources to impact their area for Christ on their own, when they could have a greater collective impact by combining their resources and efforts. Formal regional partnerships create a way to spread the human and financial resources God has deposited into their region in the form of individual believers and churches. Paul’s cross-cultural work in Acts demonstrates the legitimacy of these principles in connection with cross-cultural ministry specifically. He would often send leaders and money from one church in an area to meet the leadership and financial needs of churches in another. (2 Tim. 4:12; Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 16:1-12) Apparently, he saw this kind of collaboration as specifically important for planting the gospel in diverse cultural settings. Collaborating as the regional church produces a fountain of kingdom resources, relationships, and coaching.
Seventh, cross-cultural leaders should learn from this study that regional church partnerships cultivate and model theologically grounded unity, which contributes to effective evangelism. Jesus’ prayer that His people would be “one” was made on behalf of the entire, worldwide, multicultural new humanity called the church. (Eph. 2:15-16) Paul’s letter to the Galatians echoes this truth, reminding cross-cultural workers today that they must continually choose gospel-shaped unity over ethnic, social, and gender-based divisions, whenever possible. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slavenor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)
Presumably, cross-cultural workers typically enter into their specific line of ministry with a central goal of helping lost people in their mission context come to faith in Christ. Since modeling Christian unity contributes to effectiveness in the task of evangelism, pursuing relational unity with churches that may exist in their regional context should be an issue of top importance for cross-cultural workers. Their work of gospel proclamation amongst the unreached in their mission context will be dramatically less effective if regional unity is not sought and modeled.
Eighth, the concept of the regional church highlights how important it is for cross-cultural workers to avoid importing denominational sectarianism and evangelical tribalism to frontier mission contexts. This point has to do with ecclesiological attitudes that are transmitted and deposited into new believers and churches. For instance, if leaders intentionally or inadvertently teach and model unity that is rooted more in being Baptist, Calvary Chapel, or Presbyterian, instead of simply being followers of the biblical Jesus, they may create and fortify barriers to regional unity amongst the budding community of believers. This could result in negative ramifications in gospel work in the area into the distant future.
This does not necessarily mean that missionaries have to hide or cannot value their evangelical tradition. However, new Christians and churches being planted in frontier contexts that are taught to value unity in the cross, above secondary liturgical and doctrinal differences, will be better postured to experience unique ministry fruitfulness, and the spiritual health God grants through regional church unity alone. True regional unity amongst churches of different evangelical traditions in a region is not possible where the gospel is not central.
Ninth, cross-cultural leaders must courageously call congregations within a specific regional church to identify with one-another, and stand together. Attaining and maintaining authentic unity is hard work. Adjusting to new concepts of Christian spirituality and ecclesiology is also hard work. Add to these challenges the natural hindrances to unity that characterize cross-cultural relationships, such as differences in heart-language, orientation toward individualism or collectivism, etc., and the cross-cultural worker may struggle to find motivation for leading toward regional unity amongst Christian churches. It is a truly daunting task. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and his consistent exhortations to churches across various regions serve as a call to cross-cultural workers to stand up to the challenges of unity. (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11:11-16; 14:33; 16:1b; 2 Cor. 8:24) They must courageously push through the cross-culturally rooted challenges to unity they face, with gospel-rooted optimism and a heart for reconciliation. This is the only way the blessings of regional church unity will be poured out amongst the congregations in their mission context.