On Being A Missional Church
by Larry d. Wright
As I read this awesome prayer of our Lord, it is as if Jesus looked down the corridors of time and perceived the challenge we face today as a people of God.
17:6> from or out of the world
17: 11> still in the world
17:14,16> not of the world (Illustration: While walking a beach in Brazil I saw a small wooden boat sitting on the sand. It was filled with water. I know it was sea-worthy because it had not leaks or else the water inside would have drained. Still, we paused at the sight and someone asked, “What’s wrong with that picture?” The answer was obvious.
17:18>sent into the world
The heart of my message centers on the preposition “into”. Jesus has sent us into the world. The title of my message is “Being A Missional Church In A Messed-up World.”
I, along with many other pastors across the state, meet with a group of young pastors we called U/40 Eagles. Their mindset is so different than ours and I have driven back form Montgomery on many occasions praying, “Lord, what just happened?” I don’t have time to go there but suffice it so say, I have learned a lot in those settings. Here is one thing I have learned: MISSIONS IS NOT WHAT YOU DO…IT IS WHO YOU ARE.
That is the difference between being a missionary church, one that does missions; and missional, who you are. Missionary churches send missionaries; missional churches are missionaries. One is an adjective; the other is a verb.
So, my question to you tonight is this: For you, is missions an adjective that describes you or is it a verb?
When we fail to have an adequate understanding of our mission (“sent into the world”) as believers, all sorts of excesses happen. EXAMPLE: I agree with Brian McLaren in A New Kind of Christian who claims that the greatest heresy in the church today is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of election. He writes, “Election is not about who gets into heaven; election is about who God chooses to be part of the crises-response team to bring healing to the world.” I like that!
NOTE: I also like that designation. Wouldn’t it be great if every church saw itself as a “CRT”…Crises Response Team?
17:14> Look again at the phrase “not of the world”. Throughout the history of Christendom believers have struggled with the relationship of the church with the world. And, when we fail to get that right, again, all sorts of extremes arise.
Here are two extremes that have plagues the church:
1. Sectarian/Separate Mentality = Essenes & Pharisees (who would not eat or associate with sinners)
2. Syncretistic/Blend/Conform/Compromise = Sadduccees & Zealots
We walk a fine line because according to this prayer of Jesus, we must be in contact with the world, but not become a part of it. We must be different, yet remain in touch. We struggle to get this relationship with the world right but in order to be a missional church we MUST understand this Prayer of Jesus.
In fact, a missional church is a congregation of believers that properly relates to the world without compromising the truth of the Gospel in any way.
THESIS: In this Prayer of Jesus I see several marks that defines such a community of believers:
#1. A Missional Church is THEOLOGICALLY CORRECT (v. 17)
We MUST be in complete agreement on the ESSENTIALS, the TRUTH of the Gospel:
· centrality & supremecy of Christ
· exclusiness of Jesus as the Way to God
· Bible as the ultimate source of truth
However, beyond essentials, there are OPINIONS (which are subject to change) & PREFERENCES (styles of music, methods, times of services, etc.) We must be careful not to confuse opinions & preferences with essentials. On this point it is imperative that we understand, EVERYTHING IS NEGOTIABLE EXCEPT THE GOSPEL.
ESSENTIALS are primary issues and therefore central to the faith, thus they are non-negotiable.
OPINIONS & PREFERENCES are secondary issues, which are important, but we may see differently. Here there is room to disagree. We must be certain that we don’t treat opinions and preferences like essential issues. I call Opinions & Preferences “Tribal Theology” and we must be careful NOT to regard these as essentials.
On PRIMARY ISSUES there must be unity. On SECONDARY ISSUES (opinions & preferences) there must be liberty and charity. Everyone in the church does not have to agree on secondary issues and a church can still be missional.
When we focus on PRIMARY issues, it fuels the flames of our mission. However, when we veer towards SECONDARY issues, it distorts the Gospel, creates division and makes the Gospel less accessible and attractable.
Or to frame it in words that might be more familiar: The Message of the gospel never changes but the Methods we use are subject to change.
#2. A Missional Church Is CULTURALLY RELEVANT.
Verse 18. We have been sent “into the world”.
The Bible leaves the door wide open for the church to adapt missionally to the context in which it exists. The only restrains are self-imposed. A great example of this is Acts 17, Paul at Mars Hill.
Our GOAL: With life and lip we are to clearly and carefully retell an ancient story in a relevant way. By relevant I do not mean crude or hip but I mean that EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT TO HEAR THE STORY OF JESUS IS A LANGUAGE AND WAY THEY CAN UNDERSTAND.
ILLUSTRATION: Early in the history of SBC mission efforts we had so much to learn and some of the lessons came hard. Missionaries went to Africa and built beautiful white-framed churches with A/framed roofs and steeples. Some were even furnished with organs and windows, pews and hymnals. THE NATIONALS REFUSED TO COME. Why? Because more than anything else the missionaries were asking them to become Americans in order to become Christians. There was nothing wrong with the GIFT but the packaging was too difficult to unwrap.
Gradually, our attitude toward missions changed and we came to realize that God’s great gift of Jesus is multi-cultural. So, the early pioneers changed the METHODOLOGY. It was the same GIFT but wrapped differently. It was wrapped in a package the people handle. When the nationals built churches they were open-air huts with dirt floors. They expressed praise to God with music that reflected their culture and the gospel began to flourish.
What was the problem? Was it the message of the gospel? NO! It was the package it was wrapped in.
APPLICATION: I want to make an uncomfortable application of that truth to our work in America. We wrap the gospel in a package of our own traditions (times, music, language, etc) and belittle people who refuse our offer “to join us”. In fact, we even ask them to “join the church”, which means, to convert to our church culture. We want them to look like us, dress like us, like our music and learn our spiritual language. And, we want them to GIVE to our budget and assimilate into our structure so that we have a steady stream of new workers to help keep the organization going.
We spiritualize and sanctify this process by calling it “growing a church”. It is hard for us to see but if you back off and look at the way we have packaged the gospel, we have subliminally fallen into the trap of promoting “churchanity” instead of “Christianity”. We have become consumed with bringing people into the church instead of sending Christians into the world.
Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christian) comments: “The church doesn’t exists for the benefit of its members. It exists to equip its members for the benefit of the world.”
A missional theology demands that we do everything we do in terms of advancing the Kingdom of God rather that doing what might be the best for the institution. A missional theology allows us to change styles and METHODS while at the same time being faithful to the MESSAGE and true to the MISSION.
I want to raise an uncomfortable question here…
Is it possible that the masses of people we are called to reach are not rejecting the GIFT but the PACKAGE that we have wrapped it in?
The church in America has become a culture unto itself who speaks a unique language that the world doesn’t understand. This worked until a couple of decades ago but it no longer works.
What do I mean by relevant? In order to reach the culture in which we are placed, we can negotiate the SECONDARY issues while being firm on the ESSENTIAL issues. In other words, refuse to change the MESSAGE but be creative in the METHODS. It’s all about the GIFT and not about the PACKAGE.
A missional church is one that takes the gospel to the people in the culture, using language and methods they understand, and giving clear definition to the gospel. That is what missions is all about.
I fear that we have become isolated and detached from our own culture and our greatest need in order to be missional again is to BUILD BRIDGES TO OUR CULTURE.
There are two traps we must avoid. When we divorce ourselves for our culture and become sectarian (like the Phariscees & Essenes) and when we let go of the Gospel we become syncretistic (like the Sadducees & Zelots), then we have fallen into a trap and become irrelevant. We become like an 8-track tape in a CD world!
Being a missional church requires that we stay in touch with a simple question….
The church in any culture exists to lead people into an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. Then, provide them with the support of a life-giving community that encourages and equips them to purse intimacy with God, experience community with fellow believers and engage in ministry in their culture and around the world.
As Southern Baptist, we have faithfully stayed to the MESSAGE. We are facing more critical days than ever before to examine our METHODS. We must engage the culture that surrounds us and NOT the culture of 40 years ago! (One pastor was asked, “How are things going at your church?” He replied, “Wonderful. If 1963 every comes around again we will be ready!”)
The danger? In my opinion, we stand dangerously close to missing a golden opportunity to reach a geeration and if we are not careful we will repeat the mistake of a previous generation
ILLUSTRATION: There was a great move of God in the late 60’s know as the Jesus Revolution. It never became a full-scale awakening (though it had the possibility according to Dr. Roy Fish). Do you know why? Because the established church rejected the Jesus Freaks because they didn’t fit into a proper church culture.
A missional model of church is a one that is involved in missions by engaging the culture that surrounds them in a relevant way.
#3. We Must LIVE LIVES OF CLARITY.
17:6> Jesus said, “I have revealed you”
“made your name known”
JC revealed the Father and He commissioned His new Body, the Church, to do the same.
The world struggles to see the Father and unfortunately what they get from us is an elder brother report. From the outside they see us move behind stained glass windows but the image of Christ is blurred. There is little or no clarity.
IF you think I am exaggerating this point, GO TO THE STREETS…ask the people. You will discover that lost people don’t have a problem with Jesus. It is the distortion of Jesus they see in us they have a problem with.
1. We need to be on the cutting edge of our culture. There is no reason to fear our culture; in fact, we should see it as the vehicle through which we communicate the Gospel.
2. We must arise now and see America as a serious mission field. Christians around the world see America as a “lost” culture.
3. We must be determined to see the Body of Christ unified. That means we MUST stop fighting over secondary issues and stop compromising over primary issues. We must clearly define for our people the issues that are worth dying for.
4. We need to stop preaching around the Gospel and preach the Gospel with its implications of becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. To be relevant doesn’t mean you preach some hip-version of positive thinking with a Bible verse tacked to the end!
So, remember, MISSIONS IS NOT WHAT YOU DO, IT IS WHO YOU ARE, so BE MISSIONAL!