It is a tragic error to think that Jesus was telling us, as he left, to start churches, as that is understood today. From time to time, starting a church may be appropriate. But his aim for us is much greater than that. He wants us to establish “beachheads” or bases of operation for the Kingdom of God wherever we are. In this way God’s promise to Abraham—that in him and in his seed all peoples of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3)—is carried forward toward its realization. The outward effect of this life in Christ is perpetual moral revolution, until the purpose of humanity on earth is completed.
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Imagine you want to throw a birthday party for your friend Joe. Would you:
A) Spend 8 years in school studying party planning theory. Organize a party planning committee. Raise funds to throw the party. Send Joe a mailer about his party.
B) Spend some time with Joe. Find out what where he likes to go, what he likes to do and who his friends are. Ask what his favorite type of cake is.
Why is the question ridiculous? Because situation B is about throwing a party for Joe. Situation A is something else.
Maybe even self-indulgent?
Missional endeavors get bogged down and lose course when they forget who have been sent after. Sometimes there’s denominational pressure to reach certain metrics. Sometimes there’s a fixation on certain finer points of theology. Sometimes the missionary just doesn’t know how to make friends with non-Christians.
Results can vary. A church or ministry can grow quickly by offering a cool worship experience that appeals to people already attending other churches. It can get driven into the ground by toxic, unfocused religious people, or loose itself in someone’s pet cause.
Compare this to the model Jesus offers as a missionary:
Sent by God, Jesus grows up in Palestine. He wears the clothes, eats the food and speaks the language of those he is sent to. He teaches them using their traditions and analogies they understand. He provides for felt needs such as sickness and hunger. He teaches and empowers a small group of people to do the same.
The missional misstep we’re describing can be described in one sentence:
Forgetting who you were sent for.
Here are some simple question any missionary can ask to help them find their course again:
- Who was the last non-Christian you shared a meal with?
- Does your Sunday gathering use enough colloquial that anyone from your neighborhood would know what is going on, or does it need to be translated?
- What percentage of your visitors on a Sunday come from other churches?
- What percentage of the churches budget is spent to take care of internal needs? External?
The last few decades have seen the rise of well organized, highly programmatic, event driven religious organizations. They are often led by charismatic leaders with the perfect mix of stage presence, interpersonal savvy and strategic thinking. A few churches have done this really well, and grown to huge proportions. Many more have tried to copy the big ones, to varying degrees of success.
Any successful movement will eventually create a backlash. First there was the Emergent movement, which criticized the ahistorical nature of the megachurch, and it’s lack of philosophical savvy. More recently, the idea of churches being “missional” has gained traction. The conversation began when missiologists, typified by Newbigin, began to see that the West was becoming overwhelmingly secular. Over the past few years, this criticism has been boiled down to a dichotomy between Missional and Attractional. Attractional was associated with anything highly organized, strategically planned and efficiently marketed. Missional then began to take on the opposite form any many minds. Grassroots instead of corporate. Spontaneous instead of strategic.
Both of these movements have made important criticisms. Both of them have tried to offer alternative forms. But there aren’t many Emergents still around, and many believe it’s only a matter of time before the missional movement does the same. So what is it that has allowed the Megachurches to stick around while their critics seem to fade away? Is it possible that well meaning missionaries have thrown the baby out with the bathwater?
Being missional is often equated with being “organic,” and organic is often equated with being freeform, open and completely lacking in structure. Not only is this a poor philosophy for any entrepreneurial endeavor, but it is the opposite of the word “organic” and a far cry from the missionary models of the New Testament.
If by organic we mean something that grows naturally, we should review how exactly it is that plants and animals grow. They begin with a single cell which replicates its DNA and builds a system of bones, tissues and organs. Within that original cell is the blueprint for a dandelion, a blue whale or a linebacker. In other words an egg has everything it needs to become a healthy and tasty chicken.
Many missional endeavors seem to do little more than gather burned out church people in a living room. Often, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their over-programmed counterparts, they fail to develop strategy and structure. They may provide a meaningful opportunity for worship, healing and community, but it is doubtful whether they ever truly engage their community in a missional way.
The question that missionaries should ask is not “how can I avoid becoming like that church?” but “what strategies and structures will facilitate missional interaction with my surrounding community?” This will lead to the development of systems for engaging people in worship, discipleship and community service. Sound programmatic? Perhaps. But if done with a desire to truly incarnate the body of Christ in a unique local setting, this will undoubtedly result in what the “organic” leader claims he or she anyways: A naturally occurring representation of the gospel.
Missional Misstep: Underestimating the need for strategy and structure.
Questions to get you back on course:
1) Am I avoiding better organizing our church because of my personality or baggage?
2) Are there systems or structures that naturally occur in my community or in the history of the Church which can provide a blueprint for a locally incarnational representation of the church?
If my rantings about TV, Church and growing up aren’t enough for you, don’t worry, there’s other places to find me on the web.
I’ve been given the privilege of helping out the guys over at PlantR. PlantR is an Austin-Area church planting network, made up of great guys risking everything to create new missional communities. On the blog, you’ll hear about opportunities to live missionally and show Christ’s love to Austin.
Check out the blog at www.plantr.org, or follow on Twitter @austinplantr. Keep your eyes peeled for the first ever PlantR podcast later this month.