Missional in the Suburbs?: Part 1: Our Fading Missionary Imagination

     One of the most encouraging and important shifts in the evangelical world in the past 5 years has been the increasing use of the term “missional” to describe the life of a local church. While the word is not new (it was first coined a hundred years ago), it has made the journey from academia to fringe conversations some saw as radical (read: emerging) to be embraced more widely by pastors in many settings.  Since words have meanings, it’s both an important signal and a defining moment.

            I’m working on several posts that will explore the idea of missional living and ministry, especially in the suburbs.  That is where our church, like many others, is located.  What I am discovering is that the shape of missional living and ministry here is not as clear as in the city center, or in a place with a established and unique cultural viewpoint (like Appalachia or Papua New Guinea). The suburbs still have that “new car smell”, and are still growing and evolving.  Getting a grip on the context for mission here is a challenge. It’s especially difficult if you have come to reject the “franchise” approach to church life developed by suburban boomer churches (“take this survey, follow these steps, apply this process, create this program, purchase this Powerpoint or sermon series”) that has been the dominant approach to church life in the United States for the past 30 years or so.

            Embracing a missional approach requires that we ask some foundational questions.  First: is there a difference between a missional church and a mission-minded church? Most long-time church members in Southern Baptist churches of which I have been a part would state “we’re mission-minded” as a primary value of their church-and proof of its health.  How does “missional” relate to that heartbeat? A quick overview of the typical evangelical church is helpful here.

            Most evangelical churches would affirm the idea of “missions” to be at the heart of their reason for existence.  It’s right there in the mission statements and core values.  Most point to the Great Commission (Matt.28:18-20) as Jesus’ assignment to the church, understanding that as a call to “make disciples” and “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” (Luke 24:44)

     The church has usually responded to that assignment with two practical actions.  The first is personal evangelism- communicating the gospel to spiritually lost people. That has been the subject of countless sermons (often with heavy guilt applied), weekly programming ( evangelistic services and “revival meetings”, weeknight cold-call visitation, youth ministry events, etc.) and endless variations for training individual Christians in how to “share the faith” (tract distribution, 4 Spiritual Laws, E.E., FAITH, Contagious Christian, etc.). 

     The second action is the extension of the church by the sending of missionaries to unreached peoples. Jesus’ call is to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) But Paul asks, “How are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom.10:14-15) The evangelical response has been to prayerfully affirm some Christians as receiving a special calling as missionaries.  These are “sent out” from the church to reach other people in other places.  They move (to other nations or places in our nation), adapt to a new culture, learn new languages, develop relationships and meet needs in order to take the gospel to everyone. This missionary task has been the subject of countless sermons, programming (missions education for children and adults, mission fairs, etc.) and other means of involving individual Christians in the missions effort (giving to raise funds for support, prayer, recruitment, and sending groups on short-term mission trips to “get a taste” of missions)

     So, mission-minded churches have had evangelism and missions programs, evangelism and missions training, evangelism and missions committees, evangelism and missions projects, and spend millions ( maybe billions) of evangelism and missions dollars. Mission-minded churches do mission-minded things.

     Much good has been done in and through those activities for the cause of Christ and the spread of His glory in the world.  But still the number of Christians worldwide is not keeping up with population growth –while Islam and Mormonism numbers surge. Still in the United States, Christians are losing market share and a place at the microphone in the marketplace of spiritualities swirling in our pluralistic democracy.  

      So, clearly, being a missions-minded church is not automatically the same as being a mission-effective church.  Why?  Several reasons come to mind. First, like other aspects of local church ministry, the missionary call has been largely professionalized.  That is, many Christians genuinely believe that there are special people called pastors, staff and missionaries who actually do the work of the Great Commission.  In fact, we may be inadvertently training our people to assume a support role in the Great Commission. So, their first impulse is often to attend meetings, write checks, and walk away.  More on that later.

     Then, missions is seen by many Christians as something “out there”, rather than “around here.”  It is about reaching the inner city gangs, witnessing to prisoners in maximum security cells, navigating the crush of high rises in Kuala Lampur, connecting with nomads in Nigeria, helping poor victims of a natural disaster somewhere.    It’s ministry at an arm’s length.  Sort of like watching a National Geographic special.  Safe.  More on that later, too.

     But I think the biggest reason for the disconnect between mission-minded and mission-effective is that our missionary imagination is fading.  Not at the mission agency level, but at the local church level.  Our children know Harry Potter and Veggie Tales a lot better than the missionary adventures of Carey, Judson, Moon, Taylor, Elliot – and dozens of others.  Our discussion of missions is a techno-approach rooted in completing programs, watching the latest denominational DVD, certifying of witnesses and meeting goals. There is an assumption that a denominationally calendared emphasis will stir hearts.    

     How has the mission of the church become so cold and antiseptic to our people? I think we have failed to capture the imaginations of people with the high-definition wonder of God’s redemptive purposes-and the church’s central role in them.  Our people don’t see the connection between God’s forever glory; the world-shaking rebellion against it; God’s promise to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15); Jesus dying on the cross and destroying the works of the devil (1 Jn. 3:8); the church’s calling “to bring to light for everyone the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be known…according to His eternal purposes that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord”” (Eph. 3:9-11), and millions gathered in heaven around the Lamb, who “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev.5:9)

     That’s all one, glorious, redeeming story-and the church is right in the middle of it.  Every Christian has a vital role in it. But is that what we put before our people? Not so much.  We talk about what’s next on the calendar.  We ask Christians to come to church for a meeting, to watch some missionary stories “from the field” on the screens, to pray for a week, and write a check so the thermometer on the sanctuary wall can be filled up as we meet our goal.

     That’s just not enough.  Christians need to see more-and farther.  It takes a sweeping view of individual human lives, set in the context of eternity where every soul exists forever in paradise or torment. 

     It takes a clear view that the glory of God is the most overwhelmingly beautiful and ultimately meaningful reality of all. 

     It takes an understanding view of the life-transforming, soul-satisfying message of the gospel of God in Christ.  

     It takes hearts captivated to the core by the romance of the redeeming heart of our Father, who from “before the foundations of the world’ has been pursuing, wooing and calling His rebel creation back Home. 

     Churches become mission-effective only when the Christians in them become mission-enamored.  

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