We live in a mission’s field. The day has passed when the mission’s field is “over there” somewhere across the sea. It is here. New England is a mission’s field by just about any imaginable standard. And the New England church, by and large, is not reaching New England as missionaries.
So how do we approach the community that we live in, and seek to be salt and light? How do we minister in such a way that we bring the gospel to bear on people’s lives and make disciples? It starts by seeing ourselves as missionaries, by seeing ourselves as people who have been sent on mission, and by shaping our lives around this reality. But it also includes shaping our church culture around this reality. And this brings me to the subject of the missional church. Throughout the church world, there has been allot of discussion about what it means to be a missional church, and how to be missional, and so I just want to look at four questions, two this month, and two next month. What is leading to the missional church discussion? What is the theological motivation for missional church? What is a missional church? And how do we become a church that loves and serves our community missionally?
So first, what is leading to the missional church discussion? The motivation for missional church is that Christendom is failing, and the church has by and large, failed to adapt to the new reality on the ground. For nearly 1000 years, the west has lived in a world where the culture, was known as “Christendom”. The Church and the society where fused together, and “the institutions of society Christianized people, and stigmatized non Christian behavior”. The problem, notes Tim Keller* in his article Missional Church, is that “Though people were "Christianized" by the culture, they were not regenerated or converted with the Gospel”. In this culture, the church's job was then to challenge people to come to a living, saving faith in Christ. There were huge advantages and huge disadvantages to 'Christendom' that existed side by side. The advantage was that there was a common language for public moral discussion, which allowed society to debate and define what was ‘good’, and ‘not good’. “The disadvantage was that Christian morality without gospel-changed hearts often led to many problems, severe cruelty, and great hypocrisy”. Many people who claimed to be Christian lived lives that were anything but. Furthermore, “under "Christendom" the church often was silent against abuses of power of the ruling classes over the weak. For these reasons and others, the church in Europe and North America has been losing its privileged place as the arbiter of public morality since at least the mid 19th century”.
The decline of Christendom began to accelerate significantly after World War 2. Tim Keller observers that in 1950, the British missionary Lesslie Newbigin went to India, and while he served there, he was involved with a church living 'in mission' in a very non-Christian culture; when he returned to England some 30 years later, he discovered that now the Western church too existed in a non-Christian society, but it had not adapted to its new situation.
Though public institutions and popular culture of Europe and North America no longer 'Christianized' people, the church still ran its ministries assuming that a stream of 'Christianized', traditional/moral people would simply show up in services, taking what some have described as the attractional “if you build it they will come” approach. Some churches certainly did 'evangelism' as one ministry among many, notes Keller, “but the church in the West had not become completely 'missional'--adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community, and service--so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it”.
There are many reasons for this, but a big one, according to Missiologist Ed Stetzer, is that North America (and Europe) was not and is not seen by the Christians that live there as a missions field, or it is seen as a reached field only in need of an evangelism strategy. The problem with this, Stetzer argues in Breaking the Missional Code, is that we need to realize that we there is a core difference between evangelism and missions. “Evangelism is telling people about Jesus; missions involves understanding them before we tell them”.
Most American churches, and certainly most New England churches, aren’t there. We still assume that the average people outside the church thinks as they did under Christendom, and are looking for a church, and know they should belong to one. But by and large, they don’t. And we still struggle to get that. The result is that the church, rather than being salt and light, is a smaller and smaller minority that seeks to survive and outlast the onslaught of changes in our culture, while lamenting that we no longer have home court advantage. In this environment, many churches are just happy to be alive, the mantra of a group of people who feel incapable of relating to the changing environment becomes “We’ve stayed alive another year, praise the Lord”.
Add to that the fact that many have become consumers of church, retreating into the comfort of our sanctuaries, encouraging one another, helping one another, hoping that what is going on in our little boxes will attract those on the outside, and the fact that we have all been infected by the seeker mentality (A seeker mentality that is fiercely pragmatic and consumer driven, that starts with the assumption that the church is a business that produces goods and services to a market and therefore, the demands of the market determine the message and ministries and even the mission of the church), and you can see a problem. Consumerism was met with a product sold by churches whose goal was a larger and larger market share. The old attractional model was put on speed. But the problem was that often, the seeker churches often just pulled from other churches, while not reaching the un-churched and secular society around with the gospel.
In the face of these dynamics, the church has failed to develop a 'missiology of western culture' the way it had done so for other non-believing cultures. This is sad, and ironic. The church has put innumerable hours into thinking about how to reach the world around us, but has not thought long and hard about how to reach our communities. We assume that if we do a little evangelism, then everything will be all right. But the result, notes Stetzer, is that “many churches fail to reach people in the shadow if their own steeple.”
Now, in some places, the church is still thriving, especially evangelical churches. In the Deep South, and in many and places in the Midwest, it has not experienced the same massive decline as the Protestant churches of Europe and Canada, in large part because of the remnants of the old 'Christendom' society. There the informal public culture (though not the formal public institutions) still stigmatizes non-Christian beliefs and behavior. But those places are slowly disappearing, and even there, most traditional evangelical churches still can only win people to Christ who are temperamentally traditional and conservative. The reality is that this is that every church will have to learn how to become 'missional'. If they do not, they will decline or die. As one writer, Scott Thomas, put it, “Since Christianity is a minority voice in the postmodern culture, the church must adopt an approach to ministry learned from the foreign missionaries who communicate and relate in understandable ways to the godless inhabitants in their respective cultures (1 Cor. 9:22).”
So the situation is bleak. We get that. Is that enough? What’s the bible say? The call that you are making is that we should aim at being a church that is mission. Why? What is the theological motivation for missional church? The reality that God is a God on mission. The missional church is a church that is shaped by the fact that God is a God on mission, a God seeking and saving of the lost, making of disciples, and displaying His glory over all the earth. From the very beginning of scripture, we see that God is a missionary God how propels himself out as the Ultimate Missionary. In Genesis he sends out His Word and creating. He creates the world. Later, He creates Israel, choosing a man and making a covenant with him, and declaring that though this man He was going to bless the world.
Throughout scripture, we see that God is constantly sending himself. The history of Israel is a history of God’s “sentness” Israel’s great discovery was that God does not live in a temple. They encountered God in Babylon, Nineveh, and bottom of the ocean. The Sending One is always moving outward after His people.
For over 20 years, an ever-growing movement referred to collectively as the Missional Church Movement has been make in call for churches to re-orient themselves from their own wants, needs and desires, to the agenda of mission, arguing that the mission of God, the Missio Dei, should be the organizing principle around which all other things are organized. The starting point for the missional church movement is that man is not the center that needs to have a program for every felt need, but instead, understands that God is on a mission for His purposes, and that the churches mission is to become enlisted in that purpose to the world. David Bosch writes in this book, Transforming Mission, that “The term mission presupposes a sender, a person or persons sent by the sender, those to who one is sent, and an assignment.”
The very doctrine of the Trinity bears this out. Scripture makes clear that God the Father sends God the Son to redeem a lost world. In Luke he declares that he came to “seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), and in John, we see repeatedly that he was sent, He says "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work." (John 4:34), “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 5:30)” “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 6:38)”. Jesus was sent. This sentness is the thing that sends us as well. After the resurrection, Jesus comes to his disciples and says, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, even so, I send you.” His sending becomes the basis for our sending. Being missional is a response to the fact that God is a sending God; it’s an imitation of His impulse as a sender, and an acceptance of the fact that we were created and chosen for His missional purposes. Jesus said, "You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He may give to you" (John 15:16), God is the one who sends us on mission, we didn’t choose the mission, God chooses us for the mission, and we are invited to take part in the mission He chooses for us. Mission is not something we do, it’s not a program, it the essence of the church, our central mission is God’s mission, to “seek and to save what was lost”
The sending of Christ gives us the how of the mission as well as the reason for the mission. “As the Father sent me, even so, I send you”. The way that we are to go, is shaped by the way Christ went. As people who are being conformed to His image, we are to carry His image out the same way that He carried God the Fathers out. We are to live as He lived, love as He loved, pursue what He pursued, as we seek to accomplish His purposes. So how did Christ come? Speaking, declaring, sharing, but also loving and serving. He cared for the sick and the needy. He touched hearts and minds, and brought healing, and He served humbly, not because He got anything out of it, but for the blessing of those he ministered to. And He spoke. He proclaimed the gospel. Boldly. When we look at Christ, we get a sense of how our own mission is shaped.
Now, none of this is new, and that’s the point. The early church was shaped by this kind of mission-mindedness, and the proponents of the missional movement make clear that what they seek is a return to the mission-mindedness of the early church, a mission-mindedness that many churches have at their beginning, but lose as they became more inward-focused and move “missions” to a separate category altogether. But being missional is not an extra for the church, it is the church, and it’s about bringing the church and mission back together and seeing the mission as the core, overarching, motivating logic for all that we do. The church exists neither for itself nor its parishioners, but for the kingdom and mission of God. As Jurgen Moltmann, the German theologian notes, "It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the Church." There is Church because there is mission, not vice versa)… the Church is participating in the mission of God. The church's mission is a subset of a larger whole mission.
Next month, we will come back to this subject, and look at our final two questions. But for now, I ask you; think about what it means for us. If God is a sending God, what does that look like for us as individuals, and as churches?
*NOTE: I have quoted freely from many sources. Sometimes I have attributed, but not always. This was originally a newsletter article for the church, not a research paper.