Many churches find themselves struggling to carry on the mission for which they are called. With membership numbers slowly declining and once vibrant programs running like a dial-up internet in an age of high-speed wifi, the concern is palpable. And even planting new churches, which is always necessary, is not guaranteed of a better outcome. For as many “successful” church plants, there are many more “unsuccessful” church plants. The issue isn’t a matter of how to do church better or start a new program that might grow a church. The challenge has to do with mission itself, particularly how we participate in the mission of God.
What Is The Challenge?
For many churches, “missions” has always been a program led by a committee to oversee the sending and supporting of missionaries among a foreign culture. Missions has not been the adjective missional describing the life of the local church belonging to Christ. That is to say that churches have not understood themselves as a missionary-people among their local community and culture, and therefore have not thought about the purpose like a missionary.
When missionaries enter a foreign culture, they seek to indigenously plant the gospel seed among the people they encounter. Doing that requires a cross-cultural approach that strives for both faithfulness to the gospel and contextualization of the gospel within the local culture. The missionary question asked is how is the gospel faithfully planted in a contextual manner so that indigenous Christianity forms? Most existing churches didn’t feel the need to think like this and ask this missionary question because the local community was shaped by Christendom worldview where regardless of how many non-Christians there were, the culture of the community was shaped by and functioned out of a broad Christian ethos. For example, public prayers were always prayed “in the name of Jesus” and whether or not a person lived like a Christian should, they were likely a member of some Christian church.
Things are much different now as the American cultural landscape is quickly becoming post-Christendom. Besides an overt secularism, society is shaped by pluralism where numerous voices present. These voices are engaged in a table conversation about the purpose and meaning of life and each voice is vying for an equal hearing (side point: sometimes those other voices would love for the Christian voice to get up and go to its own table… which is why Christians need to learn good table manners). This is the new culture churches find themselves among and it requires a cross-cultural missionary approach. The big difference is that instead of crossing into a foreign geographical culture, churches must cross into a foreign social-culture from their own. So the driving question is the driving question is how does the local church embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner?
Engaging The Challenge
In the pursuit of the driving question, part of the challenge for the local church learning how to enter into a different social-culture as missionary people. This has been of interest to me as a minister ever since I became aware of the new cultural context churches are finding themselves in. So as a minister, the question is how do I help lead a church to embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner?
I don’t make any claims of having the final answer on this issue, as I am still a learner myself. However, I am fairly convinced that the issue is deeper and more robust than just than trying the latest trend that appears from afar to work in another church, etc… The beginning place is always humility, realizing that something has to change. Once this posture of humility is present, a new listening posture can take shape where the church is able to enter into a necessary conversation.
This conversation is what the image to the left depicts as a “trialogue” where the gospel, known through scripture and Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with the local church at it is presently (not just in its “glory days” or where it would like to be in the future, though both the past and future cannot be completely discarded) and the local culture…
- Gospel: This is listening to the creative-redemptive story of how God is reconciling and restoring in and through Jesus Christ, told through scripture and the historical traditions of the church. Such listening requires an openness to the reality that there may be elements of the gospel the church has missed or sort of neglected.
- Church: The church is listening to one another, discerning how God is at work among the church. Of importance is the way in which Holy Spirit is gifting the church and the sort of passionate dreams that God may be awakening among each other.
- Culture: The church is listening for the ways that God is at work among the local culture, so that the church might possibly join God in that work.
In one sense, this trialogical conversation is simple but it is also an open-ended conversation that (re)discovers how God is at work leading the church to live as his missionary people. Questions may arise about everything from the way the church practices benevolence to teaching and forming disciples to the new ways that fellowship becomes an intentional practice of church and so on. What is up for reconsideration is the gospel itself, as the church can only participate in the mission of God so long as it continues in the gospel first proclaimed by Jesus and then his Apostles.
A Final Word
One of the disastrous notions of modernism is the need to control and know the outcome. Seeking control in order to know and even manage the outcome, which is often motivated by fear, traditionalism, and maintaining comfort for the comfortable, already misses the point of a church living as God’s missionary people. Mission is not the result of the church doing God’s work, rather the church is really the result of disciples living on mission with God and that happens when the church is animated by the Spirit rather than controlled by human motives.