I am just back from our annual denominational get together (my rear end has just about recovered from too many hours on a pew) In many ways it was an inspiring gathering, good to see old friends, great worship in a big crowd, perhaps some significant decisions made. On the last night every congregation suggested somewhere they could start a new expression of church. Now even if a third of those new promised “congregations” came into being it would usher in a watershed era for the Church of the Nazarene North District. We could be on the cusp of exciting times.
Despite my general optimism there was something that perplexed and worried me. A key component of our District Assembly is that each pastor gives a report on their congregation over the past year. This is a key window into what is actually happening in the Church of the Nazarene and also the way our local church leadership is thinking. Stories shape and express values and understanding so the stories shared in these reports from the local churches to the wider denomination are a key insight into the theology and practice of our congregations.
What particularly interested me was that the “M” word was used liberally in these reports. There was much talk about being “missional.” However when that talk about missionality is compared to what was actually reported and the stories that were shared it left me with a slight feeling of unease. In particular there were two themes which emerged about our districts understanding and practice of mission that made me think about our understanding of what it means to be missional.
Firstly there was a very clear impression given that mission is primarily if not exclusively about evangelism. There were quite a few stories about people coming to faith, which is great, but there was very little said about the impact that local congregations were making in terms of embodying and expressing the Kingdom of God in their local communities and wider afield. Mission seemed to be primarily about people coming to faith and the goal being the growth of the church. So there was a lot about people entering the Kingdom of God and experiencing personal transformation but very little about mission being about extending the Kingdom of God and God’s people being involved in the transformation of communities , structures and situations. That of course is a generalisation but a “generally” true generalisation if you get what I mean.
The second theme that struck me is that mission in our church is thought primarily as being “attractional” in methodology. Listening to our reports you would have formed the impression that mission is carried out mainly by attracting people to events that we run, largely in buildings that we own. In other words, mission happen when we succeed in attracting people to come to us rather than when we as God’s people go to people where they are.
Now what struck me about these two themes, that mission is primarily evangelistic in its goal and attractional in its methodology, is that those two “orientations” are pretty much at variance with the essence of what it actually means to be “missional.” Perhaps its because that I had recently read Mike Frost’s book THE ROAD TO MISSIONAL that this incongruence between language and practice when it comes to “being missional” seemed so clear to me. In fact reading this section from Mike’s book I could almost imagine that he had been listening in at our assembly.
“…. applying the term “missional” to the evangelistic enterprise only dilutes the impact of the call to embrace the missional, making it appear that its just another way of saying get-out-there-and-invite-your-unsaved-friends-to-church, which it is definitely not.
By subverting the missional paradigm into an exclusively evangelistic enterprise, we corrupt into an exclusively evangelistic paradigm, we corrupt its essential logic. And when church leaders read evangelism as a chiefly come to us activity, they end up thinking that being missional is just the latest way of being at tractional. Yet the truly missional energy of the church flows outward as an incarnational impulse. The missional among us are sent ones, profoundly conscious of the commission they have embraced and the community to whom they are sent.” p24
I have to agree with Mike, I think this is about more than semantics. If we, out of ignorance or deliberately, misunderstand or misrepresent what it means to be missional, we subvert the fundamental challenge I believe the Spirit is laying before us in our generation, which is, will we relearn what it means to live as God’s people in our culture? If we as a church simply use “missional” as the latest trendy word to describe being more focused on, and more effective at, church based evangelism, we are seriously misunderstanding the fundamental meaning and challenge that should confront us as God’s people in Post-Christendom Western Europe in the 21st century through the paradigm of being missional. “Missionality” (did I just invent a new word?) when properly understood provokes fundamental change in our understanding and practice of what it means to live as God’s people and engage in God’s mission.
So what is the challenge that being “missional” confronts us with?
1 TO RELEARN THE GOAL OF MISSION
…. I need to be clear on something, I am not against evangelism. If heaven rejoices when someone comes to faith then the church has to be more than half hearted in its commitment to evangelism. Its vitally important that we call people to acknowledge the lordship of Christ over their life. To be frank evangelism can easily become the “Achilles Heel” of those who are committed to being missional. The popularity among some people who talk about being missional of quoting Francis of Assisi’s words “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” is all too often little more than an excuse for avoiding calling people to surrender their lives to God. Let’s be clear mission includes evangelism and biblical mission cannot happen without evangelism happening.
However the goal of mission is greater than the growth of the church so mission cannot be reduced to evangelism. The church’s mission is to serve the Kingdom of God, to embody and express God’s Kingdom in ways which alert people and impact creation to the reality of God’s reign and so experience the transformation it brings. NT Wright has spoken about the mission of God’s people not just being about praying “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” but about embodying and working for that reality. In mission we are working with God to restore his original intention for creation and usher in his ultimate goal for history. Through the church God’s future invades our present reality. So in the words of Mike Frost the church exists to “fashion foretastes of the the future”
Mike puts the implications of this more succinctly and inspiringly than I can …. “If mission is alerting people to the reign of God of God in Christ, our mandate is to do whatever is required in the circumstances to both demonstrate and announce this Kingship. We feed the hungry because in the world to come there will be no such thing as starvation. We share Christ because in the world to come there will be no such thing as unbelief. Both are the fashioning of foretastes of that world to come, none more or less important than the other” p 28
The implications of this is that we are not being missional unless in word and deed we are equally and enthusiastically committed to demonstrating and announcing the reign of God in our culture and world. Mission for the Church of the Nazarene on the North District has to be about more than aiming to increase our membership and attendance figures in the district journal, more even, if I may say reverently, than about increasing the future population of heaven.
2. REIMAGINE THE NATURE OF CHURCH
I was encouraged to hear our DS Philip McAlister identifying the so called conversion of the Emperor Constantine as a bad day for the church. To cut a long story short, basically what happened was that under Constantine and then down the centuries Christendom was created in the West and mission became virtually superfluous because Christianity was mandatory. What this meant in practice was that missiology was no longer inherent to ecclesiology. In plain language that means that being involved in mission was no longer seen as a vital part of what it meant to exist as God’s people. Mission, mostly interpreted as evangelism, as history went on later became an occasional activity of the church, but still not essential part.
The whole missional movement has been in large part inspired by the rediscovery of the fact that our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is missional in His very nature. In the heart of our Trinitarian God there has always been an outward flow of love, the Father loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, the Spirit connecting both in love. This “loving sentness” which existed in God’s nature overflowed into creation and then following the “fall” in redemption and restoration. Theologians and missiologist have pointed out that mission therefore is an attribute of God before it was an activity of God, it belongs to his essence. God has not and cannot exist except as a missional being. Again without going into all the theological rationales, that means in turn we cannot exist as God’s people except that we are missional in nature. Mission is not one activity of several (sorry Rick Warren) but the essence of what it means to be God’s people and around which all other activities are orientated. As the oft repeated cliche puts its, “its not so much that God’s church has a mission but that God’s mission has a church.” A gathering of Christians which is not orientated around mission may be many good things, a place of worship, a context to hear good biblical teaching and a close fellowship of people but it is not a valid, in biblical and theological terms, expression of the Body of Christ. If as a denomination we really want to talk about mission, then we need to help our congregations reorientate themselves around God’s mission, as described above, and so move from being inwardly focused to being outwardly focused.
That outward focus leads to my final assessment of where our use of missional language is not matched by our missional practice. If the word “missional” embodies our “sentness” then “incarnational” describes how we are “sent” as God’s people. Mission for God’s people in the Old Testament is viewed primarily but not exclusively as a centripetal activity. The nations will be drawn to God’s Temple in Jerusalem, the place where God can be encounter. Then comes two paradigm changing events for the understanding and practice of mission. The coming of God’s son into our world, into the Jewish nation at specific point in history, John 1:14The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” God’s message and mission became wrapped in humanity and entered our world, entered a culture and went to where people were in forms they could relate to. The other paradigm changing event was the coming of the Spirit on the church. The resurrected Christ said that God’s mission was now to be continued by His Church inspired by and modelled on His Incarnation and empowered by His Spirit John 20-21 “The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” 22-23Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,”
With those words Jesus changed the paradigm for the practice of mission for God’s people from being centrifugal, an inward movement and attractional activity to being centrifugal, an outward movement and incarnational activity. Mission went from being primarily being about getting people to come to us and secondarily about us as God’s people going to them to primarily being about us going to people and only secondarily about getting people to come to us. If I am honest, my worry is that as a church, when it comes to mission, we are still operating on the OT model, mission being mainly “get them to come to us in our territory, to our activities, on our terms.”
Read the Gospels and you will soon see that for Jesus very little of his mission was carried out in religious buildings during religious services. Mission for him, meant encountering people at their work places, going to people’s parties, eating with people in their homes, encountering them in places where communities gathered. The plain fact is that if our reports to Assembly are anything to go by we are simply not “going as the Father sent Jesus” our mission is not primarily incarnational it is almost exclusively attractional and focused mainly in getting people to attend our Sunday services or social events.
Am I saying that church services aren’t important? That we shouldn’t invite people seeking after God to come to our worship services? Absolutely not. Paul in I Cor 14:23-25 clearly expects unsaved people to be in our worship services. However what I am saying is that if that is our exclusive, or even main method of mission, if most of our energy and activity in mission is going into attracting people to events we run in buildings we own, then we need to stop using the word “missional” to describe what we are doing. I fear that too many of our congregations are New Testament expressions of God’s people using an Old Testament methodology for God’s mission.
I have really hesitated in writing this blog. I have hesitated because I fear it sounds too negative, too critical of my church rather than expressing then genuine concern I have for it. I have hesitated because I fear I will come across as a pedantic know it all who can’t bring himself to celebrate what God is doing in mission amongst us because I am too busy moaning about what we are not doing in mission.
But I have a greater fear, I fear that we as a Church miss what I believe is a unique opportunity to reimagine what it means to be God’s missional people in our generation and reorientate our lives and churches around God’s mission. I fear that if we keep trying to do mission as we have always understood and practised it we will be failing God, failing our generation and ultimately failing ourselves. I fear for our countries and this world if we do not in this generation see the Church of Jesus Christ, equipped, inspired and empowered to be His missional people.
What do you think? Am I being pedantic or prophetic or perhaps even pathetic? (cutting me some slack I was a trained as a preacher and couldn’t resist three points starting with the same letter)