Church Shaped Mission: Why We’re Dying

I’ve been reading through The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church by Alan Hirsch.  As expected, I find the book to be very helpful to the ongoing missional church conversation and yet in my view, the book exposes such a huge dichotomy between many of the existing churches I am familiar with and the missional church.

By missional church, I mean a church that understands it’s calling as God’s sent people and live that way as an incarnational people who are faithful to God yet contextually identifiable with the local culture.  The church, as the people of God, live this way because it is God who came and lived this way among us (incarnation) in the person of Jesus Christ.  In Trinitarian terms, God becomes flesh among us as the God the Father sends the Son by the power of the Spirit.  So God risks it all by becoming flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to redeem all of creation, at the cost of being exposed evil and succumbing to death (Of course, God vindicates himself in the resurrection and ascension)…and God did this all without giving up his holiness and righteousness.  This is the call for the church to participate with God in this mission by becoming our host culture(s) and exposing ourselves to the risk of such venture so that people may be redeemed unto God.

But here is the challenge.  Hirsch insists that this necessitates that our Christology (understanding of Jesus Christ) informs our missiology (understanding of mission) which in turn forms our ecclesiology (understanding of church) (The Forgotten Ways, p. 143).  I’ve also heard it similarly stated that our Trinitarian theology forms our missiology which in turns forms our ecclesiology.  However we describe, it is theology that shapes mission which in turn shapes church.

So rather than beginning with an understanding of what the church is and then trying to live missionally within that framework, we begin with our understanding of God which shapes how we live as God’s missionary people and then by living as that missionary people we are church as church ought to be.  From this viewpoint, the way we become organized as a church serves the mission we are living rather than determining how we live that mission (see Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder, p. 71-72).  It would take too much space for this post, but this formation flow of church exists in the New Testament.

Here is why this all matters.  There are many local churches with good God-fearing Christians  who as an organized local church find themselves struggling and dying.  This is not because the people who make up the churches have stopped loving God and neighbor (though that may be the case in some instances, in my experience this is an exception rather than the norm).  No, it is so because the way the church organizes itself has determined the way that it lives as missionaries and that is a way that is no longer engaging the local culture in an incarnational way.

By way of example, I’ve been invited to attend a couple of Gospel Meetings (i.e., Revivals) sponsored by a small Church of Christ.  The meeting was planned with the intention of attracting non-Christians to come and hear the gospel.  The problem is that both times I went, the only people who attended were Christians from other local Churches of Christ.  The gospel/revival meeting was an effective way of reaching the American culture during the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries but it is an organizational way of engaging in mission that is no longer effective and incarnational to the contemporary culture.  There are certainly other ways that each local established church continues to function which is no longer an effective way of engagement with it’s local culture.  What are these ways?  That’s a question each church needs to ask.

This all raises some tough questions that need to be answered.  What do we want more, to be participants in the mission of God or defenders of a way of being church?  What are we more passionate about, being the missionary people of God or continuing in a way of church that is comfortable to us and therefore safe to pursue?


I’m didn’t end this post with any practical suggestions for a reason.  We need to wrestle with the idea of what it means to be the missionary people of God and ask ourselves these tough questions before we move on.  It’s too tempting to jump to the “so what” in an effort to evade the issue at hand because it is difficult and perhaps unnerving to some.

12 responses to “Church Shaped Mission: Why We’re Dying

  1. I hope as I log on to say something, that there is not a sigh and in the heart, ‘o no, here comes Orthodox Ben, saying his usual cant.’
    As I reflect on my personal missional life, the effectiveness of my ‘mission’ has been an out-working of the effectiveness of my ‘abiding’ in Him, and in my progress of Union with Him. When we truly learn to know and practice the Presence of God, moment by moment, then we are open to the impulses of His Spirit that make us ‘missional.’ The other day, I walked up to an engineer at work and sang to him Luther’s hymn ‘if we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.’ He was stunned; it spoke directly to something going on in his life, of which I had no clue. God was in me, working a Kingdom mystery. But it was because I spend the whole night in the Jesus Prayer, practicing the presence. I was at work at the solar cell factory. A guy tells me, I have a tension headache, and he says he is entrusting an experiment to an accomplished person, but there is a tenth of a percent of lacking trust thtat gives him the headached. I say, ‘ that is the tenth of a percent to give to the Lord.’ He says, ‘ok.’ Then he comes back to me and says ‘the headache is gone.’ I express surprise, and He says, why are you surprised? God acted in His life, but it was God acting because I spend the whole night practicing the Presence, with the Jesus Prayer, and being Open to the Stillness of the Father, from Whom the Son is sent, into this world, and revealed by the Spirit, the Lord acts ‘missionally’ healing the sick, and comforting the burdened. So, I would suggest, to the degree that we are abiding in HIm, moment by moment, is the degree to which we will find missional fruitfulness. Again, back in 1977; I had a Jewish roommate; he was sick; on an impulse I prayed for him in tongues; and it came out in Hebrew and it was Jesus talking to him; and I had never studied Hebrew. And as a result this secular connecticut yankee jew, is converted and was baptized. Ironically, I called a local church of Christ to do the baptism, an they refused me. Fascinating. Then there was my wife to be; I didn’t know she was to be my wife, but God kept throwing her in my pat; she was also dying , it seemed of Lupus; we were both in podiatry school; so I prayed for her when she was sick and she came back to school and wound up in the neuro anatomy dissection lab with me; I decided that since God was forcing us together, He would be the first conversation. And so the Lord was what I talked to her about over our dissection trays full of brains. She believed me; I was preaching an abiding relationship to God through Jesus, in the HOly Spirit; lived theology; and one night she prayed with me; the next morning she was visited by the Holy Spirit, was filled with the Spirit and healed of the Lupus. Over the next few weeks her stereoscopic vision returned, and the Holy Spirit told her to quit cigaretes. And in short order we were told to be married. Kingdom expansion by communion with the Lord in the Spirit, practicing the Presence, and obeying the inner promptings of the voice of the Lord. The more complete our abiding and union the more effective our kingdom presentation in the world. “If you abide in me and my words abide in you; you shall aske what you will and it shall be done unto you. Ask and you shall receive and your joy shall be full. In bearing much fruit shall you be my disciples…. and then there is pruning… ah yes, pruning….

    • Ben,

      I don’t sigh at your comments. Even though I don’t always agree, I appreciate your comments and the perspective you bring.

      I do think you are right about abiding in Christ, for apart from Christ we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15.4). This is why missiology emphasizes that theology (and specifically Trinitarian Theology and Christology) proceeds mission. The Father, Son, and Spirit exist in community and are missionally at work in community, like wise our mission can only be achieved as we remain in community with our Triune God.

  2. richard constant

    here are a few of the questions that I learn to answer.
    say there, how are you today?

    blessed you say.
    what church do you attend?

    you go to a baptist church you say,
    oh you’re a methodist you say.
    oh you go to calvary chapel you say.
    you go to a lutheran church you say.
    you’re a catholic you say.
    you go to an episcopalian church?

    you go to the Church of Christ
    how wonderful, so do I.
    let’s go out to lunch and talk, yeah we will have some fellowship.
    you won’t even believe the screwed up people I met today.
    I tried to fix them,
    they just don’t believe the scripture.
    we are so blessed.
    and all of the other people that I talked with.
    went out with their friends and said the ame thing.
    relationship that’s what it’s all about.
    and we all can have a relationship,
    if you would acknowledge the fact that I’m right.So like me and my friends.

    took me a long time rex, to figure out that relationship, and love,
    go hand in hand with the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
    me us bing right is device, in every sense of the word. we all put god our own little box.
    shame on us.
    are we as loving and kind and merciful as we espouse god to be toward us.
    I for 1 would rather be loved and exercise love than be right.
    because after all these years.
    I have found out how wrong I am and how much grace I need from god, thru the lord.
    I’m trying to learn to reciprocate that love and the blessings

    through the sharing, of happiness and joy,of a promised blessing through the spirit.
    praise god for the accomplished gospel.
    blessings rex

    • I do believe that love and the pursuit of relationships are critical to mission. The question is whether we Christians can truly love and have a relationship with people regardless of what they believe, how they think and live, etc… and be with them as they are rather than asking them to be with us as we are. In the incarnation, God does. Can we?

  3. so many things..

    1. amazing post, per usual.
    2. thank you for defining the “missional church”. before, this was some sort of nebulous church term i could oft be found rolling my eyes at. “incarnational people who are faithful to God yet contextually identifiable with the local culture. ” (refreshing to even read those words)
    3. “This is the call for the church to participate with God in this mission by becoming our host culture(s) and exposing ourselves to the risk of such venture so that people may be redeemed unto God.” (now you’re just sweet talkin’ me arent you?? 😉 )
    4. you are correct in the well intended but albeit misguided and (sorry) downright pathetic attempts at revival in the traditional ways it has always been done. i can’t tell you how many “outreach” events i have been to/been a part of that only attract christians– conservative ones at that. why bother? 1/2 of *those* people aren’t even enjoying themselves, really.
    5. that being said, ive been to a few churches since leaving the CoC that have done this remarkably well and aim to just simply CONNECT with people on a real, deep, unforced, genuine level. Sometimes the gospel was discussed, sometimes they just let you– breathe. those people make you set your alarm early to make sure you get there on sunday in time.

    some examples:
    -gather & scatter. sunday is the only “at church” gathering. The rest of the week, the congregation is divided amongst small home based community groups (10 or less) where a lesson is discussed but the main focus is connection. (think mars hill seattle.. they do this well). what’s going on in your life? ok, now what’s REALLY going on? what is your sin? what are your struggles? I understand that it may be ugly and here you don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist. we’re not in a church building, you’re on my couch. sit and relax, eat the food i’ve prepared for you, enjoy a glass of wine if you wish, and tell us about it if you can. after a few weeks, you can. Simple. Really.
    -“partake”. a quarterly(ish) gathering and all out feast. think a CoC potluck but replace the casserole with ribs and the church building with a backyard bar-b-q. also replace acapella worship with something you’d actually listen to. think a feast worthy of jesus coming to replenishing the wine.

    that’s all i got.

    till next time.


    • I like your gather and scatter; and the feast. We need spaces in people’s own neighborhood where real life can be explored, pursued, and discovered.

      You might pick up a copy of “Launching Missional Churches: A Field Guide” by Mike Breen. I haven’t read it but I have friends whom I trust who have recommended it. I know in the book he questions limiting the size of a house-church/small group to 10 people (which is the Willow Creek rule). I think he suggests something like 15-20 people. That sounds like a lot but when I was helping a friend launch house churches, the groups seem to be at their best when averaging around 15.

  4. Hi Brother Rex, Well (gulp) here I go again. You know I never hold back. my personal thoughts. (I still believe that you are doing a great job, doing your best,, God faring, good works, loving, dedicated, preaching and administering here at the Randolph church of Christ, NJ. And I say, keep up the good work!).

    I see good works and good intentions here, and the end game is mutual between us, and the Bible says that we were created for good works.
    However; honestly, I personally (right or wrong) don’t think all these books of men, professors and deep modern THEOLOGY is the big answer towards gaining church growth, or fulfilling the Christian mission, with a busy congregation with a necessity of making a living for themselves and their families. Must we really bear and ADD THE BURDEN of teaching all this COLLEGE professor man-made THEOLOGY, as if we are saying to the world, and each other, that God’s Word is too complicated for ordinary people to understand, without having college degrees, or college professors to educate us? Personally, what I see LACKING, for many years, is good old Bible church of Christ TEACHING and EVANGELISM in Bible truths. Anybody can read their Bible, and should be encouraged to do so. It is God’s Word which is the true power and authority. It seems to me, that this THEOLOGY is set on diluting the necessity of preaching and identifying with Christ’s true church of the Bible. The world is full of so-called religions of God, and untold multitudes of Churches, and protestant denominations, and such, all bearing the name “Christian,” but teaching different things, and not the one church, the one faith, the one baptism that God’s Word calls for. I believe it is a mistake to just throw our hat in the ring, so to speak, and expect to change the world by our own hospitality and good works alone, or even as a prerequisite. It is good, and only natural as Christians, to bear fruit of the Spirit in our daily lives. However, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. The power is in the Word of God, not us. No matter how hard we try, we always fall short. It is Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, the Word, the Gospel of Christ. God is no respecter of persons, whereas the first may be last, or the last first. The meek shall inherit the earth. We might share God’s Word with a person, and as a result they might obey the gospel and be saved, –whereas we ourselves might not. We need to share God’s Word with the world, and stand up for the true authority of God Himself. Jesus told his disciples, after he had risen from the grave, and before His ascension, that He had been given all authority in heaven and earth. Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, TEACHING (Teaching means TEACHING T-E-A-C-H-I-N-G) them the things He has commanded them. Pussy-footing around our world, afraid to speak up, afraid to stand up for the TRUTH of God, lest we offend someone, afraid to be the SALT and the LIGHT that Jesus talked about. We need to do exactly what the New Testament says about standing strong and putting on the full armor of God. Eph. 6:11 ; and 2 Cor. Chapter 6. The Bible tells us that there is a war going on in heavenly places, and that we are to do something about it! Is that not our mission? Will we tell the world, “Look at ME,–I am a Christian! See how good I am? Am I not better than YOU? You need to be like ME!” Now, Is that the Gospel of Christ? I don’t think so. The POWER is in the WORD of God, in God’s GRACE. We need to preach it and TEACH it. Salvation is not EARNED for ourselves, or earned for others either, by our good works. They will know we are Christians by our love, and when we love God and one another, even our enemies, we will stand up against evil, and we will the salt of the earth, and the light of Jesus. Yes, it is true that ” if we don’t change, we will continue to decline.” The point here is —what kind of change are we talking about? I made my point. Peace, God Bless, –dc

    • Don,

      I’m glad you still think I’m doing a good job as the preacher/minister 🙂

      Let me explain what I’m getting at in this post and then see if that makes better sense because I still think you are misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m all for good works and ministry, evangelism and teaching the truth to people. However, what I am discussing in this post precedes all of that. Before we can teach people, minister to their needs, and show them Jesus we must engage with them. In the past, many churches approached this engagement by inviting (attracting) people to an event held at the church building (e.g., gospel meeting, marriage seminar, etc…) as a way of first making contact and trying to build a relationship at that point. The problem is that this not only is ineffective in many places (though not all) but it is not incarnational. Rather than the church going out where the people are at an becoming one among them to build a relationship where teaching and ministry can begin to take place, that approach expects and waits for the public to come to us. Yet that is not the model of mission we learn from God in his incarnation.

      So instead, we need to be going out where our culture is and learning how to be holy as God is holy while engaging with the people on their turf so that we can build a relationship with them that would pursue the truth with them, showing them the way of Christ through teaching (as dialogue, not monologue) and ministry.

      Does that make more sense?

      Also, being hospitable is just as important as teaching the truth to people. We are about making disciples of Jesus which involves more than just teaching people the truth; it also involves teaching them how to live and that involves, among other good deed and virtues, learning how to be hospitable. In order to make disciples of Jesus we must first live as disciples of Jesus and that means ‘how we live’ is just as important as what we believe and teach.

  5. That’s the problem. The church wants to be safe and comfortable. In their new book The Faith of Leap, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost say that this fixation on risk-aversion is one of the main reasons the Western church is in such decline. Here’s a link to their book: Becoming open to risk and adventure means giving up control of outcomes, of security and being okay with unknowns. The authors claim that if a church enters into this kind of mission, it not only effectively reaches the community, it creates far deeper community among its members.

    • Thanks for the link to that book. That will go on my wish-list.

      Faith does require risk, leap, etc… And it seems that the greater the fear (or need for control and security), the smaller the faith.

  6. Pingback: Church Shaped Mission – Why We’re Dying « Jordan Willows Fellowship

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