One of our core values at Spring Meadows Church is to be a
“Missional Church”. The goal of this article is to “flesh out” what
that is and what it looks like. To do so will require a little historical
background regarding the church in North America. I will paint with
broad strokes but the picture is reasonably accurate.
The North American Christian community is now in a missionary location. A significant paradigm shift has occurred in the last 60 years. In the west, for nearly 1,000 years, the relationship of Anglo-European Christian churches to the broader culture was a relationship known as “Christendom”. The dominant social, moral and spiritual institutions were shaped by Christian values. The institutions of society “Christianized” people and stigmatized non-Christian values, beliefs and behavior. Though people were “Christianized” by the culture they were not necessarily regenerated or converted with the Gospel. There was more moralism than genuine, transformational, Gospel-created new hearts changed from inside out. Christendom was far more a thin veneer of moralism than Gospel renewal.
There were many advantages and yet great disadvantages to Christendom. The advantage was that there was a common language for public moral discourse with which society could discuss issues like the good, the beautiful and the truth. It was almost a pre-Babel context but now Babel has returned with a vengeance. The disadvantage was that Christian morality without Gospel-changed hearts often led to cruelty and hypocrisy. One only has to think of how the church treated unwed mothers, divorcees and gay people. Also under Christendom the church was strangely silent against the abuses and oppression of the ruling classes over the weak. For this and many other reasons the church in Europe and North America has been losing its privileged place as the arbiter of truth and public morality since at least the mid-19th century. The decline of Christendom has accelerated since the end of WWII.
We need to take our missionary location seriously. We live in a post-Christian, postmodern, multicultural, relativistic, ethnically diverse culture. We must develop a missionary methodology in this context to cultivate missionary sensitivities while operating with a missionary vision in North America.
The British missionary Lesslie Newbigin went to India around 1950. There he was involved with a church living “in mission” in a very non-Christian culture. When he returned to England some 30 years later he discovered that now the western church too existed in a non-Christian society but it had not adapted to its new situation. Though public institutions and the popular cultures of Europe and North America no longer “Christianized” people, the church still ran its ministries assuming that a stream of Christianized traditional/moral people would simply show up in the services. Some churches still did evangelism as one ministry among many, but the church in the west had not become completely “missional”—adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community and service—so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it. It had not adapted a missiology of western culture. It was good at sending missionaries to other cultures but not so good at being missional in its own culture.
The remnants of Christendom are still evident in the heartland of the United States. However it is a shrinking market and eventually churches in the Bible belt will have to become missional or decline and die. We don’t simply need evangelical churches but rather missional churches.
What are some of the obstacles that must be overcome to take our missionary location in North America seriously? First there is a fondness many Christians have for the good old days of Christendom. There is almost a passion to return to civil religion and cultural Christianity. Much time, resources and effort are spent trying to resurrect the phoenix of Christendom from the ashes of postmodernism. There is weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth over the decline of
Christian power and influence in America. We are not in Kansas anymore Toto and we are not likely to be back there anytime soon. We as the church need to wake up and smell the coffee and take our missionary location seriously. The second obstacle is the absolute disdain and disgust many Christians have for popular culture. Neoclassicism and cultural elitism practiced by the church is nothing more than cultural snobbery. The incarnation sitelishes all such wrong headedness. We can lose the Gospel by under-adapting to culture as much as we can by over-adapting to culture. To develop a missionary sensitivity to our culture we must allow our own cultural packaging to be critiqued by the Gospel amplified by engaging other cultures, both Christian and non-Christian.
So what does a missional church look like? Unlike ministry done in Christendom (which is fading fast) missional ministry means that everything we do, say, omit and include—right down to the smallest particulars of vocabulary accent, lifestyle choice, etc.—has an effect on the mission of our church, which is to convert unbelievers. If ministry was merely a matter of recycling believers from other churches then we might be justified in flaunting our tribal distinctives, such as theological buzzwords, idiosyncrasies of dress, language, leisure, pastimes and so on.
If we desire to reach secular, skeptical nonbelievers however, then we must ask “How do we conduct our corporate, congregational life as well as our private lives in a way that does not add to the offense of the Gospel, but which allows the focus to remain on Jesus and who He is? If our desire is for the Gospel of Jesus to have a fair hearing in a world predisposed to ignore, ridicule and suspect Christianity of ulterior motives, then we will have to continually clear away obstacles to the faith. Some of these might be “pious-babble” and subcultural tribal behavior that needlessly excludes, “hot button issues” and political affiliation.
“Pious-babble” (the religious version of psycho-babble) is a type of religious jargon, AKA “Christian speak”. It is characterized by sentimentality, insider terms (“traveling mercies” or “hedge of protection”) and archaic or specialized words to describe ordinary activities (“break bread” instead of eat, and “pray about it” instead of think about it, etc.) Tribal behavior, on the other hand, consists largely of nonverbal clues that serve to identify and reinforce the boundaries of “us versus them”. Tribal behavior shows up in attitudes, jokes and assumptions about what constitutes correct political stances, dress, food, drink and entertainment as well as a coldness to and avoidance of those who differ. Should I go on—reformed chauvinism, etc., etc.
Granted, some tribal behavior may be unavoidable; all groups have boundaries. Some behaviors are clearly on the other side of our boundary by biblical mandate, i.e. Christians must practice chastity not pornea, generosity not greed, self control not drunkenness or intemperate words and so on. However an additional universe of “signifiers” has come to define evangelical Christianity that has little if anything to do with biblical mandates or genuine faith. These extra-biblical customs exclude the nonbeliever, who finds them quaint, odd, silly, indecipherable, confusing, misleading, offensive and generally indistinguishable from true doctrinal commitments.
Another obstacle might be “hot button issues”. At Spring Meadows our message is nuanced and nonpolitical. We want to present the Gospel and have people make up their minds about whether Jesus is who He says He is or not. Our first concern is not to convince them to espouse a point of view about this or that hot button issue. We don’t want to run the risk of fitting into the stereotype the media has about evangelicals.
Political affiliation of any type can be another obstacle which prevents the Gospel from getting a fair hearing. We preach Jesus first, not politics. There is a time and place for such discussions but not at the front door.
In summary, always remember that our congregational life, our people, ourselves incarnate not just Jesus but all of Christianity for the secular people you encounter. You are in a powerful position either to break stereotypes and gain a hearing for the Gospel or to reinforce those stereotypes and harden the hearts of people against Christ.
We must become like Jesus who came “not to please Himself”. We must base our decision on how we do church not on what we like or are comfortable with but on what will communicate God’s love and care for the lost. This will involve rigorous, ongoing thought and commitment. We at Spring Meadows are intentionally a missional church.