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.

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