Musings on Mission 1: The Disappearance of the Visible Church

Christian theologians describe the church in two seemingly contradictory ways: as both visible and invisible. The invisible (or universal) church refers to the sum of all genuine Christians throughout history. It is the population of God’s kingdom. In contrast the visible church is the church on display in individual church communities all over the world. Jesus commanded his church to be visible as light to the world and he forbid us from hiding ourselves from view (Matthew 5:14-16). The visible church is what the world sees of Christianity when it looks at Christian believers and the churches that they belong to. The problem is that in modern society most people don’t see the church at all. They don’t know any Christians personally and they don’t know any churches, even though they live near several. The visible church has become invisible. This is an obvious hindrance to mission.

The Church of Acts 2

Acts 2:42-47 gives a picture of the first Christian church community. This church was devoted to the Apostles’ teaching and enjoyed relationships of radically generous love for one another. Not only that, but all of this was seen by the other residents of Jerusalem. This church was highly visible. Their conduct earned them ‘the favour of all the people’, many of whom were converted. All of this happened without marketing campaigns or professionally designed church signs.

These days Christians are comparatively invisible. Churches are utterly unknown to those who live even a short distance from them. Most Australians don’t even know one person who goes to their local church. So how was the church of Acts 2 so visible?

There are lots of reasons, but one of the most significant is that society has radically changed. We can’t expect our churches today to have the kind of social visibility that the first church did. Life just doesn’t work that way anymore. The people of the first church all lived within walking distance of one another. They saw each other every day of the week, bumped into one another around town, and frequently ate together.

Not only that, but they lived as a church community within the Jerusalem community. That meant that they had lots of personal connections with non-Christian locals who noticed the new relationships and lifestyle that these ‘Christians’ had recently taken up. Jerusalem saw the church and watched the people who made it up. This gave them lots of opportunity to observe the church in action and to form an opinion about Christianity.

The Village Networks of the Past

For much of history community was determined by where you live. Most people lived and died within several miles of their home. Location practically forced a set of relationships onto them.

We can think of the shape of our lives as a network of places: home, work, leisure, shopping, church. Imagine a church in a pre-industrial village (figure 1). Everyone knows their neighbours. There aren’t massive fences blocking everyone off from one another. Their kids play together. Work is done alongside others who live nearby. When they go to the shop they know the shop-keeper by name, as well as those shopping at the same time. Every area of life overlaps and intersects.

Figure 1. The Village Network of the Past

Now imagine a church in this community. The entire village knows the church and its pastor. Anyone who lives locally who is serious about their Christian faith is known for it. The visible church is visible to all.

This means that there is enormous potential for mission in this village. It has its own challenges too (let’s not romanticise the past). However, the visibility of the church was not one of those challenges. Everyone knew what the church was and could expect to know who the “Christians” were in the village (even if the label was used with contempt). They wouldn’t know people who lived in other villages and mostly wouldn’t expect to. Mission consisted of travelling to a village and preaching the gospel there.

The Mobile Networks of Today

Our world today is very different (figure 2). Location no longer defines community. We are highly mobile, and our personal networks are very spread out. Now we primarily relate via networks of common activities and interests. Previously home, work, leisure, shopping, and church were all local. These domains overlapped enormously and consisted of a relatively small number of people. In contrast, today many of us literally pass hundreds of thousands of people every day whilst travelling to work. We will never meet most of them and we aren’t at all bothered by that fact. We know that we don’t live in villages anymore.

Figure 2. The Mobile Network of Today

The result is that society has become far less personal and far more transactional. I am polite to shopkeepers and might say “hello” to a passer-by, but I don’t expect to know them. The relational connections that we pursue are now more often the result of deliberate personal choice.

The areas of our lives are also more isolated from one another. We no longer expect someone we know in one area of life to appear in another. We tend to be surprised if someone from work turns up at the same birthday party as us!

Proximity no longer involves the expectation of a relationship. I don’t know the people who live two houses down from me and I don’t expect to. They don’t expect to know me either. Today people expect those near them to mostly be anonymous, almost as if they live in another village. Strange though it may sound, we need to realise that they do live in a different village.

The ‘Personal Network Village’ (PNV)

The Personal Network Village (PNV)[1] refers to the network of places that make up each of our lives. It is the sum of the main ‘places’ in your life: home, work, leisure, church, and so on. These places together make up the ‘village’ that you personally live in: a village mainly defined not by proximity but by personal choice.

Sydney is a collection of millions of PNVs. Picture an impossibly large number of very spread-out villages, all on top of each other but rarely touching. Every village overlaps with many others but they are almost entirely invisible to one another. We only interact personally (rather than just transactionally) with people who participate in one of the places that make up our own PNV, and even then many of the places in our PNV can be entirely transactional. A lot of people don’t have any real friendships at work.

Many churches operate as though they exist in a traditional village. They aim to reach their local community with the gospel. Meanwhile the people in church travel 20 minutes by car to get there. They don’t identify with the location of their church. They identify with their church, which is one of the places in their PNV, but the suburb in which their church is located has almost nothing to do with them belonging to it. The locals barely know that the church exists since it is not part of their PNV. It is naïve to expect otherwise.

Put it this way: do you know where your local mosque is? Do you know some of the Muslims who regularly attend there? Alternatively: do you know how many Buddhists there are in your local community? Could you correct me if I claimed that there were five or 5000? (other than by reading census data). What makes you think that the locals of your area know anything about your church? Your local church is located in a distant village that they don’t live in. Their knowledge of Christianity consists of rumours of faraway Christian villages they have never visited: rumours of empty archaic buildings, outdated moral codes, and attendees aged 70 or older. Your local church is off the edge of the map, perhaps even labelled “there be dragons!”. Outsiders are probably as familiar with your church as you are of the local mosque that you barely know exists.

The Road Ahead

If this description of modern society is basically right, then it has enormous significance for the way we think about mission. A lot of Christians’ PNVs are dominated by time spent with other Christians. We have Sunday church, mid-week Bible study, and socialise with other Christians at other times. A lot of Christians work in Christian workplaces. Many of us send our children to Christian schools. Our relational commitments to Christian settings often limit our opportunities to meet non-Christians.

However, the main problem is not just whether we meet non-Christians but whether we have anything more than transactional relationships with them. The depth of relationship that we have with the various people in our PNV is largely a choice of where we spend our time and relational energy. In some places we will choose to pursue real relationships. At other places we will remain satisfied with merely transactional ones. Christians will naturally feel drawn to spend more time with other Christians. The result is that many Christians find themselves without any significant relationships with non-Christians. What that means is that many Christians effectively live as monks in monastic villages. Our PNVs only shallowly intersect with non-Christian society around us. Unbelievers live in close proximity to us, but in a modern society that is utterly insignificant. If our PNVs don’t connect with non-Christians in more than transactional ways then they live in different villages to us, villages which we have never visited. Medieval peasants could not expect to know other peasants who lived several villages away. Neither can we expect to know people who live in different PNVs to us, regardless of how nearby their home is.

In modern society it is meaningless to simply say “let’s just get on with being the kind of church that we read about in Acts 2.” That church existed in an entirely different kind of society. Whilst the principles that this passage teaches are timeless, modern churches do not naturally enjoy the kind of visibility that the first church enjoyed in Jerusalem. The visible church has disappeared. Most secular Australians don’t have any Christians living in their village. That needs to change if the visible church is to be seen by anyone who doesn’t belong to it.

How can we change this? We’ll turn to that important topic next…

[1] Coining a term with three-letter acronym makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about. You know, like a sociologist or something. Maybe they’ll let me give a pretentious-sounding TED talk on the topic…

‘Musings on Mission’ Series 
1. The Disappearance of the Visible Church 
2. We Need to Spend Less Time with Other Christians
3. We Need to Think More Carefully about Christians Schools
4. We Need to Stop ‘Church Planting’ 
5. God Uses Godliness for Mission 
6. We Don’t Really Believe in Prayer