Territory and Authority

Yesterday I walked on pavement that was placed here before there was a Roman Empire, part of the street in the Etruscan city that preceded the conquest. It is still here, serving the community of Florence, but it is not made up of Christian stones. Christian stones are living people, as St Peter taught us long ago (I Peter 2:5). The stones in this pavement are meant to serve the people, however, as are the structures of the organized church. But what happens when the organized structures stop serving their original purpose?

God almighty commanded Moses to fashion a staff that was meant to be for the healing of his people in the wilderness. After some time the Israelites began to worship the staff in clear violation of the commandment given them about idolatry. Moses had to destroy it. Something given by God for a season and a reason had become a source of sin.

I wonder if something like that has happened with geographic boundaries for the exercise of church authority. There can be no doubt whatsoever, that organizing the church on the basis of geography was first done as a means of caring for and protecting the people of God. Sheep need shepherds, and the flock in one place must be gathered into the fold. For the people of God in one small place to be cared for by the leaders God places over them in that place made perfect sense. In time, it was “always done like this” because it seemed to work well.

But what if, over centuries, the system has broken down? What if the majority of a population no longer live in small places, but now they live in massive cities? What if the territorial prerogatives of leaders are disputed and conflicted for reasons other than the care of the flock? What if their concerns are not for missionary advance but for stability, order, control, or, even worse, prestige? These questions are not pleasant to ask, but they must be asked.

Think of Europe as a blank slate. Place a mark everywhere there is an existing church building that functions for worship. Now shade in where the people actually live today. Next give contrasting color to show the percentage of the population that worships in any of those buildings. If you can imagine this picture, it will reveal to the thoughtful student that the existing church geography of Europe is woefully inadequate to the evangelistic task. The people of Europe are almost entirely alienated physically from the existing structures of the church and its geography. To try to impose a geographic strategy on a new dawn of missionary work is a kind of madness. And of course the spiritual alienation is even more severe than the geographic.

What then can we do if we truly care about the re-evangelization of Europe? It seems clear to NAMS that only a spiritual strategy that focuses on reaching people, not staking out territory, can possibly address the challenge.

— Jon Shuler

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Territory and Authority

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