How missional can a church be?

My experience is that it’s unrealistic to expect everyone in a church to be equally missional, just the same as it’s unrealistic to expect everyone in a church to be equally pastoral.

What then should the focus of a local church be? Should it be sending or inviting? I think churches are called to do both. That they are called to invite people who are within their reach and send ambassadors to those who are beyond their reach.

Here is the sending process as I see it:

  1. Recognise that your church is NOT culturally inclusive for everyone
  2. Send ambassadors to neighbours beyond the cultural reach of your church
  3. Seed the gospel in a way that makes sense to culturally distant neighbours
  4. Plant churches around persons of peace who respond to the gospel
  5. Invite people from their culture into this new church, not the sending church
  6. Repeat the process, for both the mother church and the daughter church

This does not mean sending churches cease inviting people. That’s unsustainable. But it does mean recognising the limits of an invitational strategy, and letting go of expectations that the missionaries in your midst should be inviting everyone they engage with back into the sending church. For if the great commission is to be fulfilled in your city, it will only be through equipping and sending cross cultural workers to go to where they are needed, to the culturally marginalised, and expecting nothing in return except partnership in the gospel.

Missionary societies and the west

I have been revisiting Ralph Winter’s old but influential article on “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission”. In it he observes how, down through the ages, there have often been two distinct structures operative within the Christian movement. An observation that has missional implications.
The first structure is what we typically call a church. Whether it takes the form of a diocese under a bishop or an independent congregation the function is pretty much the same. It is a structure that tends to be localised and open to everyone, irrespective of age, gender, education, etc.
The second structure is what we might call a parachurch ministry. Whether it takes the form of an apostolic team, a monastic or mendicant order, a charity or a missionary society, again the function is pretty much the same. It does what churches can’t do. It tends to require a higher commitment and is often less localised.
And it is interesting to observe the relationship between the two. In many parts of the world its the missionary societies, not churches, that take primary responsibility for sowing the seeds of the gospel in new contexts and planting new churches. For some reason however this model has not been followed in the west, nor been recovered as west has become more of a mission field. We leave church planting to existing churches and their regional denominational structures. Is this healthy? Is it time we consider the need for missionary societies that focus on the unreached people groups of the west?

There is no culturally neutral way of being contemporary

The problem with seeking to be culturally relevant, as a church, is that culture isn’t as homogenous as it used to be and there is no culturally neutral way of being contemporary. What can be culturally relevant for one person can be culturally irrelevant for another person, and that’s a fact whether we like it or not. As such, I think it’s time we abandoned the project of searching for one style to rule them all and recover an emphasis on substance. Encourage people to explore their own style as they can, for worship and everything else, and  encourage them to look through disagreeable styles to the substance underneath when they can’t. Of course, that puts an onus on leaders to make sure there is substance underneath.

How faithful are the nations?

The role of the nations was ambiguous in the Old Testament stories and prophecies. On the one hand they were often denounced as God’s opponents by the prophets of Israel, as both idolatrous and oppressive. On the other hand they were sometimes announced as God’s agents by the prophets of Israel, to discipline Israel when she had become idolatrous and oppressive! And then there were other prophecies that pointed to a great conjunction, of the nations one day being blessed through Israel. Should we not therefore be cautious in making absolutely positive or absolutely negative assessments of nations today? Can we sure sure our nation’s enemies aren’t acting as God’s agent? Israel couldn’t. Can we sure sure our nation is acting as God’s agent? Israel couldn’t. Surely a more faithful assessment is to expect our nation to have a mixed performance, just as Israel experienced, often falling short. Surely such track records should temper our pride.

Were the earliest followers of Jesus Jewish or Christian?

jewish-christianWere the early followers of Jesus Jews, not Christians? I have seen this question posed in a number of ways and I would like to suggest the question assumes a dichotomy which is largely false, or at least not so black and white as the question implies. For the truth is the bulk of the earliest followers of Jesus were BOTH Jewish AND Christian. And it is even more complicated than that, for by the time represented by the second diagram, which is when the bulk of the New Testament was written, the Jewish Christians included both Aramaic speakers and Greek speakers within their ranks. Indeed the evidence suggests that the bulk of the New Testament texts were written by multilingual Jewish Christians with mixed audiences in mind. They were servant-leaders who served as bridges between Pagan-born Christians (who’s numbers were increasing) and Jewish-born Christians (who understood the culture of Jesus from the inside). “But the Christian label didn’t come into existence till later!” I hear some say. True enough. Before we get too carried away though remember this: Christ and Messiah mean the same thing. So we could as easily speaking of people who acted as bridges between Messianic Jews and Messianic Pagans who both centred their hopes and way of life on the Messiah, Jesus.

Not quite hermits

I have been reflecting on the desert fathers and mothers and their spiritual offspring the last few weeks and one monastic style in particular has piqued my interest: that of the Sketes. They seem to embody a half way house between the hermits and the more communal monks, living apart like the hermits for the most part but coming together for celebrations and mutual support in times of trouble. For me it’s suggestive of the path I see many deep green Christians like myself pursuing, gathering seasonally but scattering in between apart for online conversation and the occasional shared coffee or meal with one another.

Bucking the herd mentality

Jesus in the temple - artist unknownSome days I wonder if our society is too individualistic. Other days I wonder if it’s not individualistic enough. That’s on the days when the herd mentality seems a little too pervasive. People not thinking for themselves but just accepting what authority figures say, even when said authority figures are completely unqualified in the subject under discussion. Christianity, for many, reflects this herd mentality. It is viewed as a conformist community. Christ, however, presents us with a powerful contrast. Of one who so bucked the system that the system sought to crush him, as systems tend to do. The resurrection though, speaks of the system not having the last word. And it’s that which was called good news.

Theology is best fleshed out in community

tree-community“Theology is not a private subject for theologians only. Nor is it a private subject for professors. Fortunately, there have always been pastors who have understood more about theology than most professors. Nor is theology a private subject of study for pastors. Fortunately, there have repeatedly been congregation members, and often whole congregations, who have pursued theology energetically while their pastors were theological infants or barbarians. Theology is a matter for the Church.” ― Karl Barth

Why you won’t find a church in the New Testament

Max Conlon-One-tribe-One-mob
“One Tribe, One Mob” by Australian aboriginal artist Max Conlon

Did you know the word “Church” is derived from the Greek word kyriakon, not ekklesia as is commonly supposed, and that they have very different meanings? Kyriakon doma means “House of the Lord” and refers to a place of worship. Ekklesia means “the called out” and refers to an assembly of people. Ekklesia is found in the New Testament. Kyriakon doma is not. So you wont find a church in the New Testament (translated correctly) but you will find many gatherings.