Often I am asked the question “What can I do to help a church grow?” Though this question is raised with the best of intentions, I believe such a question starts in the wrong place. As a church, are we simply called to increase the number of our local tribe? Scripture overwhelmingly projects the idea that our calling as church is to be more than simply tribal recruitment. While numerous passages of scripture could be mentioned, I would like to suggest three teachings of Jesus in scripture that metaphorically suggest our calling as disciples of Jesus is to be missional. Thus as the church called to be missional, our task is to be a missional church.
The first teaching of Jesus is that we are to follow after Jesus (Matt 4.19; Mk 1.17). This is the practice of discipleship. It means that we learn to live like Jesus, occupy ourselves with the business that Jesus occupied himself with, associate ourselves with the people Jesus associated himself with, serve like Jesus served (service that sacrifices self for the sake of others), and become passionate about the things Jesus was passionate about. The second teaching is that we are to be salt and light in our world (Matt. 5.13-16). This is directly related to Jesus’ declaration that the Kingdom of God has appeared upon the earth. It is a call to be change agents of society, allowing God to transform life from being ruled by the powers of a fallen world to life ruled by the living God as God works through us. The third teaching is that we are to love God and each other (Matt 22.37-40; Mk 12.29-31). At the heart of the “greatest” and “second greatest” command is community and self-sacrificial service. When we learn to truly love God and one another we are drawn to the practice of communal relationships with God and each other. Further more, we are willing to serve God and each other at the cost of our own time, desires, and security.
None of these three teachings are so simplistically achieved. Learning to practice these teachings is a life time endeavor that happens through trial and error (thank God for his grace and mercy). The great news is that we cannot practice one of these teachings without becoming betters practitioners of the other two teachings, so learning to practice one allows us to practice all three.
Up to this point, I have only danced on the theological level with what our real calling as Christians is. The question that still remains is what this practically looks like for a local church in the typical urban to suburban culture we find ourselves existing in as a church. I suggest there are three changes that must be made to metaphorically live out our calling received from Jesus through these teachings. I describe these three changes as going From Fast-Food to Coffee Houses, From Compartmentalism to Vocational, and Becoming Spirit-Led, Cross-Shaped.
From Fast-Food to Coffee Houses
For the last fifty years, anyone who entered most fast food restaurants would notice the neatly ordered columns of eating booths. This arrangement limited human interaction to each individual booth. In the last ten years or so, society has witnessed the rise of the local coffee house. Unlike the fast-food eatery, the coffee house seating arrangement is far less structured. The arrangement may include a few booths but it will also include table and chairs with no predictable pattern. There will also be sofa’s and lounge chairs. This arrangement encourages more interaction with other patrons. The one constant part of the arrangement is community. People are longing to interact with each other, share the experiences of their day, and enjoy the company of others who seem to get lost in a world of I-pods, My-Space, and hectic schedules.
The church is simply community of disciples reconciled into a relationship with God and each other. Traditional churches in our culture have tried to live this relationship out through corporate worship and group gatherings (e.g. Sunday-School classes). The worship is done in a highly organized manner with every congregant sitting in nice, neat columns (pews) as though it were a fast-food restaurant. The same is true for many of the group gatherings like Bible classes, especially when it comes to adult classes. This format contains many unwritten rules that dictate when people can share their joys and struggles, when prayers are offered, and when to sit or stand and move about. Face to face interaction is seldom found and what communal participation there is, pales in comparison to the monologue dictation led by the clergy or those designated as leading the worship and group gatherings.
What if our worship and group gatherings embraced the community practices of the coffee house that is also a part of our call to love God and each other? Imagine a worship gathering that still was surrounded by song, prayer, preaching, giving, and the Lord’s Supper but was done from a communal perspective. Such worship would be done with its congregants sitting in circles, or small groups, perhaps surrounding a table or on some den furniture. When someone desires to share their praise or faith struggle, they could do so at nearly any time rather than waiting for an “invitation” moment. Further, others might then feel free to gather around this individual with hugs or the laying on of hands to pray together without waiting for a leader to direct such response. What about group gatherings? Rather than the structured environment of neatly order chairs for a Bible class, such fellowship might occur as a small group meeting in someone’s home, at a local café, or in a city park. The purpose of such group (i.e. prayer, Bible-study, etc…) would dictate whether the home, café, or some other location would be better. Such changes do not neglect structure and order but instead of letting such structure and order set the means and agenda, community becomes the value which guides the operational mode.
From Compartmentalism to Vocationalism
Part of the Christian faith is the idea that all Christians are endowed by the Holy Spirit with ministry gifts for the calling of the church. Most Christians, understand this and seek opportunities to exercise their gifts. However in a culture that has become very efficient at compartmentalizing life, the Christian life has also become compartmentalized to the point where Christianity has often just become one part of a person’s life. In the traditional church, the exercising of ministry gifts has become just one more chore in an already heavily burdened life. The Christian goes to work for 8-12 hours a day, then he or she must come home to house chores or take care of personal business (e.g. grocery shopping), then find time to spend with the family, and then find time to sleep at least 6-8 hours during the night. Somewhere in all of that business, the Christian gifted with the gift of encouraging is to visit with one or two acquaintances going through a struggle and the Christian gifted with the gift of teaching is to teach a couple of Bible-studies. Is it any wonder why Christianity has almost completely been reduced to a Sunday and Wednesday evening only activity, leaving the rest of Christian ministry to be done by the professional clergy?
While I certainly believe there is a place for full-time ministers (and so does scripture), is there a better way for the church to live out its calling rather than doing so through this compartmentalism? What if we attempted to make the monumental switch from Christianity being just another compartmentalized portion of our life to our vocation? What if we began to integrate the use the Spiritual gifts we have been given into every part of our life? For example, what if a Christian given the gift of encouragement, who must also find time to eat dinner with the family, invited the person going through a struggle over for dinner so that this gift of encouragement could be exercised throughout the course of a meal? Or what if the person with the gift of teaching decided to take a lunch break with their co-worker interested in studying the Bible rather than agreeing to meet in the evening for such purpose? There are some Christians who have already learned quite well how to be vocational Christians rather than compartmentalized Christians. I am learning the art of Vocationalism every day and do not have all the answers to possibilities for this paradigm shift. However, with open minds it will surely be a better way to live out the calling Jesus has given to us.
Becoming Spirit-Led, Cross-Shaped
At the very heart of Jesus’ life was a grand-size faith that allowed him to trust in his Father even in the most dreadful of circumstances. This is the same faith that all of God’s people have been called to live by and the same faith that characterizes the names listed in the “Hall of Faith” found in Hebrews 11. It is a faith that acts upon the unseen promises of God believing that God is faithful. This action is brought about through the leading of God’s Spirit and a commitment to sacrifice self for the sake of God and others. It is a Spirit-led, cross-shaped life.
What if the church became willing to be stretched and taken to places that challenged its comfort zone? Such a choice would require the church to be led by the Holy Spirit rather than conventional wisdom. Such living would be bathed in prayer, asking for the blessing and guidance of God. It would also force us to live sacrificially. Such activities might include partnering with and volunteering with other community ministries that help demonstrate the salt and light of God’s kingdom. Such ministry could be a soup kitchen, a pregnancy center for un-wed mothers, handing out clothing and school supplies at a give away for needy families, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, etc… Such activities would require the sacrifice of our time, talents, and even our finances. What if this became the church’s livelihood? What sort of people would it meet? What sort of influence would the church have in those people’s lives and the wider communities around them?
Even if church growth was the end goal, there is no formula that would be both faithful to the church’s calling and pragmatic enough to produce guaranteed results. It is even possible for the church to be rejected by its surrounding community, which would nether be neither a first nor a last. What is promised is that by becoming a missional church, we will be people who live out our calling to be followers of Jesus, salt and light, and lovers of God and each other. Perhaps it sounds too simplistic but if we could simply learn to be church then we might see truly amazing things happen. The changes I have attempted to flesh out appear eminently necessary for the church to be a kingdom force within our culture. I also believe that such a church will grow not because of what we do but because God places those who seek him into communities who place God at the center of all things. Such a community is the missional church!