The smoke has just barely cleared after a church leadership retreat in which we discussed the necessity of being “missionaries” to our culture and the need to make a big push into our local community. While we are in agreement to a point, I find myself asking, “Do we really know what it means to be ‘missional’ or perhaps a better word would be ‘incarnational’ in our approach to ministry?” and “What needs to change about how we do church in order to be incarnational?”
What does it mean to be missional?
To the best of my understanding, the missional church movement desires to incarnate Jesus into the world. It recognizes that our Christian culture does not have a whole lot in common with the surrounding culture, so we must approach it as missionaries and go into it with the Gospel, incarnating the love of Christ. If the people will not come to church, then we must bring the church to the people. We need to meet people where they are at and bring the Gospel on that level, recognizing that they may not be able to make the jump into church culture.
So being missional is not just holding up evangelism as a value that we should do each day. It’s more than the controversial “friendship evangelism” approach. It is essentially taking church itself to the people and bringing the kingdom of God to earth in very tangible ways. We become involved in our world because we want to bring God’s justice, mercy, and peace. We desire to share God’s story of redemption, but we care the most about meeting people where they are and being the sweet aroma of Christ, making the most of every oppotunity.
The trick that I find in discussing missional methods is how to differentiate it from the traditional attraction model of church. We traditionally have expected people in our culture, that used to regard the church highly, to simply come to church in response to sign-age, advertising, and word of mouth. If we keep ourselves pure doctrinally, preach the word, worship through good songs, and provide some programs, and take care of people, then they will come to church and get saved.
The problem now is that people are generally suspicious fo the church. The church needs to think about going to people, but still there is that attraction issue. Even if we try to think missionally, won’t we end up in a facility somewhere just waiting around for people to walk in. The answer is yes and no.
In both traditional and missional models, there is a sense in which we will be in a location and are dependent on people showing up on their own, lest we invite them. The crucial difference is that traditionally we have a Christian sub-culture that people must break through and we generally are only prepared to offer salvation and some spiritual programs such as small groups that may help meet some needs.
The missional approach gives up the home field advantage. We meet people on their turf. We meet in neutral/secular locations. If we do build our own facility, we provide something that the community can use, tapping into something that could be a bridge to the community. If a town has 2 Starbucks and 1 private coffee shop, perhaps its best for a church to utilize them instead of competing with their own lame version of a coffee shop. Perhaps a food pantry, internet cafe, or parenting center would be a better bridge into the community.
We communicate through this that we care about bringing the kingdom of God into people’s lives right now. As the agents of God’s kingdom, we are able to bring about the mercy and justice that God desires his representatives to manifest on this earth. We connect with people in very real and tangible ways, but never forget as well that there will always be times to share the hope of Christ and to live as his aroma. So perhaps we are still attracting people to us, but we have made the jump very simple. If we have a food pantry, we are connecting with people who may never come to a revival meeting or Sunday service.
What is the church all about and is that what we currently are all about?
The bigger question that I have been pondering is the purpose of the church. A lot of discussion at the retreat revolved around care. So many churches do so much to care for their people. It is the expectation of pastors that they will care for people, visit them, call them, and watch out for them as shepherds over sheep (whatever the heck shepherding looks like!!!). CARE. That is the word. Pastors have been said to suffer from a condition known as “sheep-bite” in which sheep who were not properly “shepherded” turn on their pastor who is witholding the care that they deem they deserve.
Now while the “shepherd” may be tempted to invite the big bad wolf over for dinner, perhaps we can take a look at this way of doing church. Is caring for people really what it’s all about?
I think that caring for people is a big part of church, but it is only a part of being the church. In addition, another issue that comes up is “Who does the caring?” I have my own bias on the matter. Whenever a person at church feels like he/she was not properly cared for, I don’t look at the pastor immediately. My first question is, “Who are your friends?” Shouldn’t your friends be the ones who send you flowers, visit you, organize your meals, etc.? Why do we expect professional clergy to fulfill the role of our friends? If the pastor is a close friend, then as a Christian friend he/she should care for you. But if the pastor is not close, does he/she have to be on the front lines???
I think this notion of caring has some major set-backs:
– We place unfair and unrealistic expectations on our pastors and leaders and elders
– We leave them open for broadsides and criticism for not “caring” properly
– We feed into a “me-centered” form of church in which personal needs come first.
– We downgrade the importance and responsibility of every member of the body of Christ for the care of the rest of the body. If we expect pastors to do the caring, then we are essentially lazy and unloving. WE are the body of Christ. The pastor is not the only embodiment of Christ among us.
So of course pastors should care for people, I just think that we have overemphasized the importance of care in the church.
Having said that, I digress to my question, what is the purpose of the church? I think it is two-fold journey toward God as a community and toward our context as a community.
What strikes me is that we do have a two-fold responsibility to seek God as a caring, covenant community. There is no question about that in my mind. But what does this look like? I think it may be something that we cannot program exactly, though programs may be useful tools at times.
We may have formal or planned times to worship, study the Bible, etc. corporately, but as far as programmed care goes, I don’t think that we can afford to do that on the programmatic level. This can only lead to hiring more staff and creating huge administrative networks that will eat up our time to maintain. Should we care for people? Absolutely. It’s the entire church’s job.
So while we may view ourselves as rescuing people from the water in row boats and taking them to the hospital ship, it may become all about the hospital ship very quickly. I think that once we try to program care as a substitute for natural relationships, we will lose our missional edge. We suddenly are not focusing the energy of our leaders on going and reaching out. The leaders are too busy caring for people on the hospital ship.
I think that care cannot be discarded, but what would it look like for the church to be a sending outpost in the world? I think that the leaders would be very involved in the going part of the mission. They are preparing the committed members of the congregation and core members of the church to go out into the world and bring God’s kingdom, blessing the people in their context.
The people of the congregation have the responsibility to care for people and to go. As we go out into the world, the teaching of the Bible and the work of the Spirit become all the more powerful. We are reguarly placing ourselves in situations in which we must depend on God’s transforming power. It is not just for our own benefit to learn the Bible and become more Christ-like, we become deep wells of water with the Spirit and words of Christ that we dispense freely. This treasure in jars of clay are no longer stacked up in the pews on Sunday morning, but are out in the world, delivering the treasure to the people we have been commanded to give it to.
If we focus too heavily on caring for the people within the church walls, we can truly miss opportunities to connect with our communities in meaningful ways. We become end users of the Gospel and keep the riches of Christ to ourselves. But if we step up to the plate, take on the responsibility to care for the people of the church, I propose that our leaders may be freed up enough to prepare the church to go out into the community and manifest the kingdom of God on earth. The world is out there in need of Christians who are willing to GO and incarnate the love of Christ. The question remains, “Do we care?”