Can Traditional Churches Become Missional Churches: THE KEY ISSUE

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I seem to be having more and more conversations with leaders of established churches who are interested in what we are doing at Mosaic Edinburgh in creating a “missional” expression of Church. Now I suspect we need a definition at this point, for me a missional church is an expression of the Body of Christ which is shaped by and committed to the “Mission Dei.” The reason I wanted to get that definition clear is that I am increasingly getting the impression that many churches leaders think that being “missional” is essentially about being slightly more intentional about evangelism, which in reality more often than not means added a few more programmes or events to what the church already does. A truly missional church will involve a radical orientation of any established church in a way which will have significant implications for how that church thinks about itself, organises itself and the priorities it has. (Read Mike Frost’s THE ROAD TO MISSIONAL if you want to understand more about what it really means to be missional)

Having led two established churches and worked as an official for an established denomination helping congregations develop mission strategies I have had a certain amount of experience around the whole subject of mission and change in more “traditional” churches. (wanna see my scars?) Here is the conclusion I have reached, there are many things that would have to change for an established congregation to become an authentic missional church, there would have to be a change in theology, there would be a major change in format and programming, the nature and function of leadership would need to change and that is probably a very basic list of the changes required. Leaving those aside, as important as many of them are, I am certain in my own mind that there is one key issue that must be decided by the leadership and people of any church which is trying to become a missional church. This issue is so crucial that without agreement around it I am convinced that no church can transition to being a missional church.

I have been thinking about this issue for a while but recently I read a book called IMAGINE CHURCH by Neil Hudson in which the author articulates the whole fundamental issue with greater clarity than I had been able to. Hudson is actually talking about transition churches to a more whole life model of discipleship but in essence its the same issue as transitioning to being a missional expression of church. So what is this pivotal and crucial issue? Hudson describes it as “Moving from a pastoral CARE contract to a pastoral EQUIPPING contract” Its probably best if I let Neil Hudson explain what he means by that in his own words

Most of the UK has been built around a deeply held commitment to the pastoral care contract. This is an unspoken and unwritten agreement that is based around the following simple points

1. Its the task of the leader to be clear about the future vision of the church
2. Its the task of the people to support, invest in and at least in part, deliver this vision.
3. In return, the people will be cared for
4. At times, people might test this level of care by absenting themselves from worship or being ill, not telling anyone and then complaining that the minister has not seen them.
5. In some cases, this will be sealed with an agreement that only a visit from the church leader is an “official” church visit. Anyone else does not count.” p117

In my experience many (most?) congregations and church boards, kirk sessions, deacon’s courts, etc etc are agnostic about points 1 and 2 and often down right hostile to them. The heart of the pastoral care contract are found in points 3 – 5. I would put this “contract” more bluntly than Hudson does, the prevailing understanding of “being church” in most established congregations, to a greater or lesser degree is, we pay into the church and in return the church looks after us, by having programmes that we like and meet our needs and by having leaders who personally care (pay attention to?) for us. I have never once had someone come up to me as a church leader and say “I am leaving this church because its failing to form me as a disciple who can joint God in mission in the world he has placed me.” I have however lost count of the number of people who have left the church, orchestrated personal campaigns against me, complained to other people etc etc because they felt I didn’t visit them often enough or the church didn’t meet their perceived needs. I remember one couple who even “primed” other people in the congregation to tell me they weren’t happy and were staying away from church (read Sunday morning service) and were keeping a note of how many weeks it would take me to visit them! Of course there was no personal communication or request for a meeting and they left claiming they weren’t cared for and by implication I was a lazy or incompetent pastor.

This “pastoral care contract” came out of the understanding of church which developed in Christendom in the West. In most European countries at some point church attendance was legally mandatory and christian morality enforced by law too so mission became superfluous. The whole population was assumed to be Christian and so the job of the leaders of national church congregations was to look after people who were already Christian. When “free churches” developed outside of the national churches they took with them this pastoral contract, that the leader of the church, the minister or pastor, was there to look after the existing members. Clergy were trained for this role, as late as the early 1990s when I was at theological college this was the basic role I was trained to do. I was trained to preach and counsel people, visit the sick, marry, dedicate and bury church members. The number one area I came into conflict with the leaderships of the church’s I led was around how much time I spent with people outside the church as opposed to church members and how often I should visit members in a year. This understanding of the church, that the minister and paid leadership exists basically to care for and look after the members is ingrained within most established evangelical churches and its the issue which is most likely to cause conflict between pastor / people.

Given that it is no wonder that Hudson says, ” As long as the vestiges of this pastoral care contract being practiced, there will be inherent resistance to the concept of disciples making (read becoming fully missional)” p117

Now to be clear, I am not saying that pastoral care is ignored or neglected in missional expressions of church its more the priority put on it and the main method of delivery. In established churches they are basically organised to, and judged on how they, care for the members. Pastoral care is the unwritten main priority and the main method of delivery is directly by the paid staff. Hudson is right in my experience, any number of people can visit a member but until the “pastor” turns up, the church hasn’t “visited” them. In contrast in a missional expression of church, the organising principal, the main focus is on mission and pastoral care is primarily delivered by the community. Missional churches really do believe that the New `Testament means it when it says we as the Body of Christ are to “love one another, encourage one another, pray for one another. care for one another, etc etc” rather than what is expected in traditional churches which is that the ” pastor is to love everyone, the pastor is to pray for everyone, the pastor is to encourage everyone etc etc”

Getting back to the idea of transition I think it would take an exceptional leadership group and congregation in an established church to change from the “pastoral care contract to a missional equipping contract” which is what would be required to transition an established church to being a missional church. It would require existing members of the established church to change some of their most basic assumptions about church and the key values they judge their church by. It would be incredibly difficult in my view for people who had been part of a congregation which had lived by the pastoral care contract for all their lives to change to an understanding of church which wasn’t focused on church events and programmes and in which they were mutually responsible for most pastoral care.

Given all of that I am profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of established congregations transitioning to being missional churches. I am not saying its impossible but I do think its improbable. I think most such attempts will flounder on the perception that the pastor isn’t caring for people which will inevitably lead to conflict. I am open to being wrong, anyone know of transitions which have worked well? Perhaps the way forward for established churches is to plant missional communities which will develop as missional expressions of church and then allow the established church to continue to care for its members and reach out to the shrinking proportion of the wider population which can be reached by its mainly attractional form of mission?

So what do you think?

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