Jesus left us a big task (Matthew 28:19-20):
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The church in most western countries is not doing all that well on this task these days. I have argued that we are approaching things the wrong way, and that our present way of doing church is probably providing comfort more than obeying Jesus’ command. And I have suggested some ways the church might change to do better.
In this post I want to look at some better ways.
I don’t know if there’s a textbook on this, but you know how it usually works. Someone wants to “plant a church” so a leader is chosen (or begins the process) and a team is formed. They begin Sunday services in rented premises, prepare a doctrinal or purpose statement, set up a website, put together a church structure (team leaders, office-bearers, or whatever) and hope people will join them. If it “works”, they go into debt to obtain a building. Somewhere about then, they start to look around for mission opportunities.
Sometimes it “works” (e.g. in a new middle class housing development), sometimes not (in a more difficult environment). The main problem often is, the church came first and the mission came second. There are several potential problems with this.
Mission or maintenance?
The initial focus can so easily be on establishing the church (getting a good funding base, developing facilities, holding services, etc) rather than on the mission – and this may never change. People from other churches may move into the area and join, and the Minister’s focus becomes assimilating these people, building a community, satisfying their requirements. Many churches never move out of maintenance mode into mission mode.
People quickly develop ways of doing things and can be resistant to change. Christians seem to be sometimes especially prone to this. Before long, a maintenance church may resist change that will further the mission.
The team, and the first people who join, develop a culture. In a middle class suburb, there may be a common culture, but increasingly church culture is very different to secular culture – or more accurately, to the many different secular cultures that may exist in the area of the church. Thus cultural barriers can be created between the community and the church – and if some in the community are from non English-speaking cultures or other religions, the gaps will be large.
Thus, if the team establishes the church culture and the style of the meetings, it is quite likely that it will be foreign to many people outside in many different ways:
- dress style and formality;
- education and literacy (including the ability and willingness to listen to long sermons);
- language spoken at home of English vocabulary;
- familiarity with the Bible, christian doctrine or church jargon;
- familiarity with church behaviours such as hymn singing;
- feeling on familiar ground (or not).
Plant a mission, not a church
The solution seems to be to pray and determine a mission opportunity that God is leading the team to fulfil. Then start the mission – go!. Start meeting people, serving people, meeting community needs, all the time praying for the Holy Spirit to lead.
When new converts are made, don’t try to incorporate them into a christian culture, or get them to go through some formal ‘new christians’ class. Rather, build discipleship training around their needs, the way they choose. In time, a truly local-culture church will have been formed, which will ‘work’ for the people who come, and the friends they will feel comfortable in inviting. It may not look like a conventional church, it may not meet on Sundays, there may not even be ‘services’, but it will more truly incarnate the good news to that group of people.
Here are three models I have seen for missional church:
1. Fresh Expressions (UK)
David Male pioneered ‘The Net’, a new church following some of these principles. After seven years as the leader, he moved on to write Church Unplugged and to head up the ‘Fresh Expressions‘ team, promoting the ideas to churches in the UK.
David’s book is a simple statement of some very worthwhile ideas, including starting the new mission with ‘loving and listening’ and building community before starting a worship service.
2. Simple Church (US)
Once there used to be house churches, but they were often terribly introverted, often populated by fugitives from the denominational churches. Doubtless they helped many people get their heads and faith together, but I’m not sure they did so much to fulfil the great commission.
But the Simple Church movement, in the US and elsewhere, takes a very different approach. The basic idea comes from Luke 10, when Jesus sent out his disciples on mission. Christians to pray that God will lead them to a ‘person of peace’, a person of good reputation in the local community, who invites them into his or her house and subsequently accepts their message.
Instead of inviting this new disciple to an existing church, the missionary invites them to start a ‘simple church’ in their home or other suitable location. The missionary teaches the person of peace to depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the new simple church grows as the Spirit leads. Such simple churches are growing fast in the US and elsewhere. Read more on Felicity Dale’s blog or Simple Church (Europe).
3. Urban Neighbours of Hope
Urban Neighbours of Hope is an Aussie organisation that focuses on loving God and neighbour in assisting the urban poor in several cities in Australia, New Zealand and southeast Asia. Teams choose to live in poor neighbourhoods, build christian communities and assist their neighbours in being released from poverty.
The team in western Sydney is led by Jon Owen, whose book ‘Muddy Spirituality‘ challenges middle class christians via stories of his experiences and a review of Jesus’ ministry.
I can’t help feeling these are some of the ways God is leading those of his people willing to listen, and we can all learn from them. The challenge for me, and you I guess, is how to respond.