Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is Your Church "Missional?" Part II: An Evaluation of the Model as I Experienced It

In my last post, I outlined my understanding of a fairly recent movement in Christian theology called "the missional church." In this post, I'll give my evaluation of that movement. Once again, please note that I do not intend to criticize any specific people--I'm interested in the ideas behind the movement. Any apparent disrespect should be regarded as unintentional.

It took me a while to think through the many facets of the missional community church model, and then to puzzle out which belonged to missional theology as a whole and which belonged only to this particular expression. I may still be misunderstanding some of the finer points. But here's what I've concluded so far:

1. The basic missional principle of approaching local outreach in the same way as global missions (taking the gospel to the people rather than assuming that they will come to us) is sound. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20, and Mark 16:15) says "go," and it doesn't matter if the going is across the street or across the globe. Unlike the nation of Israel, the Church does not inhabit a fixed geopolitical location to which all nations can come to learn about God (the Promised Land was in the middle of the main trade route between Egypt and the other Mesopotamian states). The Church, the one people of God, is now by God's grand design scattered throughout the nations. We are to go to the people.

2. The basic missional principle of recalling all members of the Church to the Great Commission and to a renewed sense of urgency for reaching the people they already know is also sound. Complacency is always a temptation, and many of us in the evangelical churches are content to write a monthly check to a missions organization and call it "participation in the gospel." The megachurch movement has, to some degree, fostered the culture of Christian consumerism mentioned in the previous post. When your church can afford to staff all its ministries with paid professionals who will put on a well-polished show every week, parishioners get the idea that they don't need to do anything--so they don't. We would benefit from thinking of ourselves as missionaries as the people with whom we have contact, whether or not they eventually come to faith.

3. Focusing on building authentic community within the local church is a necessity. It's far too easy for Christians who are struggling with serious sins to fall through the cracks when all they do is show up for a Sunday service (and maybe even a mid-week Bible study) that is attended by other Christians who think that they, too, have to appear as though they have all their ducks in a row. The world calls this hypocrisy, and it's one of the primary factors that contributes to a disinterest in church among non-believers. On a similar note, in this same environment, it's far too easy for those of us who may not struggle with any of the "big" sins to sit back and ignore the progress that we could and should be making ourselves. Wouldn't it be better for everyone--believers and non-believers--if we dropped the masks and got down to the business of helping each other overcome our struggles and live as we ought to live? What happened to "Just As I Am?"

4. Having said the above, I find that the missional community model is too narrowly local in its focus. As stated in the previous post, most missional theologians and church leaders use the term "the church scattered" to refer to the sending out of their members into their local spheres of influence during the week. I, however, take a broader view of "the church scattered--" I believe it best refers to the fact that the people of God now live in many nations across the globe as opposed to one, poised to take the message to the people who need to hear it. Sure, that starts at the local level, but God's plan is bigger than my local community. The missional community view risks losing the bigger picture of God's plan to glorify Himself in all the world for the snapshot view of what God is doing in my neighborhood, as if these were the only people who mattered. It also has a tendency to create local congregations who think they are alone on the mission--that "the Church gathered" is just them and no one else, and that's a far cry from Pentecost, in my opinion. Furthermore, the Great Commission tells us to "go and make disciples of all nations," and Acts 1:8 reveals that God intends the gospel to spread outside of Jerusalem (our local neighborhoods and people who are like us) to "Judea and Samaria (those nearby with whom we have either no affinity or open hositility)" and "to the ends of the earth." Yet there's little to no talk about world missions among missional community churches. One leader in the movement explained that Acts 1:8 tells us that we are to take the gospel first to our local community, then to Judea and Samaria, and then (and only then) to the ends of the earth, and that the missional movement was designed to correct the "unnecessary and unhelpful divorce of Jesus' mission from our local context" by refocusing our efforts on this prioritized list. Furthermore, he said that we had no business doing international missions until the American Church starts reaching its own people again. He went on to say that if we were engaged in the local mission, it would spur us to get involved in missions beyond our own doorsteps, but he implied that the time for that was much further down the road. I have several issues with this explanation. First, I just can't see Acts 1:8 as a "list of priorities." Yes, the revelation was given to the Jews first, but God never intended for it to stop there, and the early church certainly didn't wait until they had reached everyone in Jerusalem before they took the message outside of the city. In fact, they had to be pushed to take the next step by the application of persecution (cf. Acts 8:1-4). And Jesus himself traveled between Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the surrounding Gentile territories simultaneously. Acts 1:8 could be taken in one of two ways: it could, I think, be interpreted as a promise (the "predictive future") to the still bewildered disciples hiding in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension: something along the lines of, "You may not believe this now, but the Holy Spirit is coming, and when He does, you're going to be transformed into bold witnesses who won't just stay in this city--you're going to take the message to the ends of the known world! How about that?" Or it could be a command ("the imperatival future"), but nowhere does the text imply that the local mission takes priority over the global mission. Second, when I look at the global situation today, I see doors opening in countries that have been closed (the so-called "creative access countries") for centuries. Do we really want to tell God, "Sorry, we don't have our local act together just yet. Can you keep those doors open until we do?" Third, isn't an exclusive focus on local missions simply swapping one "unnecessary and unhelpful divorce" for another? Overcorrection is rarely the answer--we must find a way to call the Church to fulfilling all parts of the Great Commission simultaneously. As Bill Hamel, the president of the EFCA put it in Columbus in 2010, it's both/and, not either/or.

5. Finally, I have a problem with the missional community model's approach to discipleship. I will grant that most churches probably have more member-centered programming than is absolutely necessary for carrying out the mission of the Church, and that many modern Christians are more interested in what they can get out of church participation than in what they can contribute, but again, I see an overcorrection in the "bare bones" approach taken by missional community churches. The Great Commission tells us not just to preach the gospel to all nations, but to "make disciples" and to "teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you." The behavioral component of discipleship is important, and accountability really is best fostered in small groups of people who are completely honest with one another, as the movement points out, but there's a teaching component to discipleship, too--you can't "obey everything that [Jesus has] commanded" if you don't know what that entails. And you shouldn't rely on your leaders to unpack all the details for you--that's how cults get started. We need to be teaching church members, particularly new Christians, how to read, study, and apply the Bible for themselves (and I would note here that traditional churches fail on this point as often as missional churches do). As a teacher, I worry that new Christians and unbelievers who are exposed to the missional community model will see that the pastor does all the teaching (the community groups focus on application and what they got out of the sermon) and will think that you have to have a seminary degree in order to read and understand Scripture--and that is a tragedy. How do we expect to break the consumer mentality among churchgoers fully if we keep them dependent on the leadership for substantive teaching?

Is your church "missional?" I hope it is. All congregations need to keep the Great Commission fixed clearly in sight. I hope your members have a sense of their own role in God's mission, and that they don't just sit back and wait to be ministered to (although we all have times when we need that). But I also hope that they have a sense for just how big God's plan is, and how their local congregation fits into the one people of God. I hope that they "go" to their neighbors and look for ways to make the gospel known throughout the rest of the world. I hope that they desire to study the Bible for themselves and that the pastor is a faithful teacher. I hope your church is both/and, rather than either/or.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is Your Church "Missional?" Part I: An Introduction to Missional Theology

A little over a year ago, I was introduced to one of the trendiest words in contemporary theology. That word is "missional," and it is most often used to describe a "new" way of thinking about church life that emphasizes a conscious return to the mission of the Church to reach people with the gospel, instead of focusing too much attention on programs for those who are already part of the faith community.

At least, that's the broad definition of the term. I first encountered this concept while representing our local church at the 2010 EFCA annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the presenters at the meeting--especially the younger guys who were working in youth and campus ministry--used the term while describing the success they had had when they shifted their ministry focus from trying to attract students to their programs to taking the gospel to young people wherever they were at. Many in the millennial generation, they said, would never set foot inside a church, but were interested in getting to know people who were clearly interested in them. The model made sense to me, but as the conference progressed, I noticed that other leaders in the denomination were suspicious of or openly hostile toward "missional" ministry. I didn't have room in my schedule to attend the information session on missional theology, so I left the conference more than a little confused as to the nature of the controversy.

A few months later, our congregation began the process of planting a church in downtown D.C. We teamed up with a young pastor who felt called to church planting, and who had a clear vision for the new community in the District. This vision was informed heavily by a particular outworking of missional theology called the "missional community" model. Over the past few months, I've had a chance to evaluate this model, to understand (finally) why the term "missional" sets some church leaders' teeth on edge, and to reach my own conclusions about the movement. Please note that I do not intend, in any way, to criticize the pastor of the church plant--planting a church requires a clear vision of who your target demographic is and how to reach them, and he has studied the neighborhood far more closely than I. My intent is to use this space to explore and analyze the ideas driving the movement. Also, note that the movement is still fairly young and has a fair amount of diversity--others may have had different experiences with missional community churches which would lead them to define the movement differently. In part I, I'll explain the model as I understand it, and in part II, I'll give my analysis.

The "missional community" model of organizing the church is based on two assumptions. The first is a belief that the modern evangelical church has become too inwardly focused (missional theologians often refer to this as a "culture of discipleship") and has neglected the basic command of the Great Commission, which is to reach unbelievers with the good news of Jesus Christ. We have developed a consumer mentality toward church membership and have focused so much on our own spiritual growth that we have forgotten that we are to be missionaries to those around us (our "spheres of influence"). The second is a belief that post-postmoderns (no one is quite sure how to refer to them yet) are more interested in forging authentic relationships than they are in subscribing to a set of religious beliefs. Many of them have either had negative experiences with organized religion and so are suspicious of creeds, or are relativists who don't see the need to profess allegiance to one religion over another. But in our media-saturated, frantic society, everyone wants to belong. If we can invite these people to our homes to see how Christians genuinely care for, invest in, and help each other out, some of them will be intrigued enough to consider the church's message. The catch phrase for this assumption is "belonging before belief."

Building off these assumptions, "missional community" churches pare their programming offerings down to the bare bones--childcare during the worship service, perhaps an impromptu women's gathering or men's prayer group--and focus instead on small community groups that meet throughout the week to share a meal, keep tabs on members' needs and encourage each other to "stay on mission" by looking for opportunities to reach out to unbelievers in their workplaces and by living lives of obedience. Community groups--often referred to as "the church scattered"--are also intended to serve as a gateway to church life for the unbelievers the members are witnessing to--they are supposed to be places where non-Christians can see (and be attracted to) the genuine community enjoyed amongst Christians, and where they can safely ask any questions they have. Community groups usually set aside some time for Bible discussion--frequently relating to the sermon heard earlier in the week at the corporate worship gathering--but the emphasis is on application rather than on in-depth exploration of the text. Members are encouraged to invite their non-Christian friends and contacts to community group meetings rather than to the Sunday services, because so many people have negative perceptions of church services, and because it's too easy to blend into the crowd and leave without really connecting to anyone.

Churches that employ the missional community model do have corporate worship gatherings (referred to as "the church gathered"), and these are where the in-depth teaching occurs. Worship styles vary from congregation to congregation, but sermon styles are (I think) fairly consistent: missional pastors prefer to preach expositionally ("verse-by-verse"), to take small chunks of text at a time (it was a rare week when the pastor of the church plant covered more than 6 verses at once), and to preach for longer lengths of time than most traditional church pastors (or at least, this was the case in the church plant). Teaching and worship take place in the corporate gathering; discipleship (application of the teaching) and evangelism take place in the community groups.

That's my version of "Missional Theology 101." Next time, I'll post my evaluation of its main tenets.