Every so often, the child teaches the parent. A discipler becomes the disciple. A missionary doesn’t know how to answer a simple question. I remember when a relatively young believer in one of my church plants asked me, “What church are you a member of?” I was stumped. My eventual answer was something like, “Oh, I’m a member of a church back in my home country. Here, I’m a part of a missionary team. It’s not really a church, but it manages to meet my spiritual needs.”
Translation: “I don’t need the accountability and benefits of a local church because of my unique situation.”
I had been in that situation for eight years.
An Honest Question
Twenty years ago, when I arrived as a missionary, I was eager for people respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. I wanted to help believers grow in their faith. By God’s grace, I have seen that happen. Despite persecution, the gospel has borne fruit—from just a few fledgling churches in our city to a multitude of house churches. Christians don’t usually meet in houses anymore, but churches still remain officially illegal. Not only have they grown in number, but in strength and health as well.
These believers are our spiritual children. Eventually, of course, spiritual children grow into young adults. It was one of my “young adults” who caught me by surprise with his honest question. Here I was, teaching what it meant to be a member of a local church, but I wasn’t even practicing it.
A Needed Change
Something needed to change. I was neglecting my own need for the local church. The missionaries around me realized that they needed it as well. We didn’t just need a church so we could “practice what we preached.” Rather, we recognized in a very practical way that missionaries are like every other Christian. Although we might have survived for a long time without a local church, we were Christians who needed a local church for the sake of our own spiritual health and for the good of others.
We didn’t need a church so we could “practice what we preached.” Rather, we recognized in a very practical way that missionaries are just like every other Christian.
After much prayer and discussion, the members of our team decided to plant a church. Some people thought it was a strange thing for church planters to do—plant an English-speaking church comprised mostly of foreigners, many of whom were sent to plant churches among our host culture. But there was nothing odd about it from a biblical perspective.
A Thorny Question
Shortly after planting our church, another difficult issue arose: “Can a person be a member of more than one church?” The question came from two different groups. Some felt that they didn’t want to resign membership with a church in their home country for fear of losing a vital connection with those who send them out. After all, they would, in all likelihood, return at some point in the future. Others in the missionary crowd had a different concern, namely whether or not their home churches would continue to support them financially if they ceased being active members of those churches.
From the beginning, I realized that most of us were bringing some cultural baggage along as we attempted to answer the question. We weren’t looking at the issue purely through the lens of Scripture alone. If church is where you gather regularly, take the Lord’s Supper, and try to live out all the “one-anothers” of the New Testament, well, the answer to our question is pretty easy. Unless you fly back and forth from one place to the next every other week, you can’t live in two places at once. Some group of elders somewhere needs to know that they are responsible for keeping watch over you as part of their flock (1 Pet. 5:2, Heb. 13:17). In this sense, you can only be a member of one church at a time. True body life (1 Cor. 12:12–27) can’t happen among Christians who see each other once or twice a year.
True body life can’t happen among Christians who see each other once or twice a year.
An Affirmation of Connectedness
For us, a solution was found that separated the needs of those desiring not to sever relationships with a church to which they may return and those with sending churches that were directly providing financial support. On a practical level, this meant working with sending churches to create a “supported worker” category for missionaries. In such cases, the missionaries did not keep their official membership at the sending church but maintained strong ties and a sense of connectedness with it.
Sending churches realized that having missionaries resign from their home church in order to join a church in their host country communicates the right thing, not the wrong thing. Far from conveying a lack of affection, it signals that a sending church has meaningfully prepared its people with a solid understanding of biblical church membership.
For us, the blessings have been many as we live where we are and practice what we preach.
Tim Smith serves as a missionary with his wife, Megan, and his five kids. He hails from Lorton, Virginia, and has been a missionary and church planter for fifteen years. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.