Missional in the Suburbs is a series of posts in which I explore my thoughts about doing Great Commission ministry in American suburbia-and particularly through our church in Lexington, KY. Parts 1-6 are available in the archives
Like a chord that never resolves, criticism or analysis without solution can be frustrating. As I finally draw this series on missional ministry in the American suburbs to a close, I want to offer some possible responses to the challenges. Some of this is coming out of real-time ministry development with which we are dealing right now in our suburban setting.
After 30 years of church growth/ church health analyzing, life-stage programming, contemporary / traditional / blended worship wrangling, “who’s most relevant and cool” competing, billion-dollar buildings, superstar conferencing and “next essential thing” marketing,, the evangelical church is still basically stagnant. The reason? None of those things are essential to being a New Testament church. None of those things are promised Holy Spirit power. None of those things match the Kingdom-advancing plan Jesus has for His church.
Jesus’ plan is very simple: “make disciples of all nations.” (Matt.28:19)
Sounds disturbingly simple. Naïve, even. Not flashy. Not quick. Not reducible to DVD, Powerpoint or seminar in a box.
Just make disciples.
How? How can Christians and churches in the suburbs –with all the unique suburban cultural pressures that pull people away from Jesus- make more and better disciples of Jesus? In many ways, we must step back. Back to the basics of what it means to be church and make disciples. Here’s just a snapshot of what that might begin to look like:
+ Pray. A lot. This is not possible in our own strength. “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
+ Relentlessly present the beauty of the glory of God and a passion for spread of His renown as the point of life. Life is bigger than you and me. Life is more than right now. It is about matters of forever.
+ Pursue God-centered worship that is full of Scripture and respects the ordinances. Preach God’s Word more than Oprah-endorsed psycho-babble. Make sure the Word is the defining core of worship more than music. Refuse to tack on or rush through ordinances. Work hard to explain and celebrate the life-shaping power of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
+ Choose worship music with both theological and musical integrity. I heard a guy say once, “We want to only put authentic words in the mouths of our people in worship.” Songs with doctrine, including hymns, help with that. Please choose music for more than just the American Bandstand factor: ‘it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”
+ Practice corporate worship that engages both the head and heart. The above should not be seen to endorse a worship stripped of emotion, like a seminary class set to Muzak. Worship should help us think great, large thoughts about God, while at the same time,we feel and express passionate affections for God. It is both doctrine and mystery. We think with Moses and Paul, and we also dance with David or fall face-down with John before the Glory.
+ Pray. A lot. “and He told them… that they ought always to pray and not lose heart or give up.” (Luke 18;1)
+ Biblically define what a disciple is. Most Christians don’t know. It’s been so balled up in attendance at church stuff and what we do, that it rarely crosses their radar that being a disciple is more about who we are. At Victory, we’ve begun talking about 4 pursuits: disciples joyfully pursue intimacy with God, interaction with believers, imitation of Jesus and influence in their world. The point is that we apprentice ourselves to Jesus and increasingly live the life Jesus would live in our lives, in our skin, in our world..
+ Teach the gospel. Most Christians don’t know it. We have left the gospel on the sawdust trail as something sinners do when they begin a relationship with Jesus. But the gospel is the life of Christians-every day. We never move on from the cross; our life, power, perspective, hope, joy, peace flow from it. We must gently teach our people to see their whole life in the context of God’s forever gospel story.
+ Enjoy, model, and express grace at all times, with all people. When the grace of Jesus captures hearts, people can stop trying to perform the Christian life and simply live it. The suburban Christian is so driven to “get it right” and excel. I love this phrase from Brennan Manning: “God loves you for who you are, not who you ought to be.” Christians must remove the shoulds, oughts and have-tos from our faith vocabulary. Then, when they believe the love God has for them (1 John 4:16), know that they are accepted in the Beloved, are no longer condemned (Rom. 8:1) and that it’s really true that nothing (not even failure) can separate them from the love of God (Rom. 8:39), it will transform their lives. Once they grasp that, then they can stop ranking each other based on performance and give each other space to grow as disciples.
+ Teach doctrine. Most Christians don’t know it. This is closely related to the above, because if we follow the narrative of the Bible, it always takes us to Jesus and the gospel. Doctrines don’t exist in vacuum-sealed academic containers, but are intricately connected to the redemptive story of God. But teach justification, redemption, atonement, sanctification, ecclesiology, etc.
+ Pray. A lot. “Let your Kingdom, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt.6:10)
+ Shift the focus from institutional development to individual development. We are called to make disciples-and the very core of that is an individual, one at a time process. This is different from individualism, which plagues most churches and caters to selfishness. We need to celebrate the unique lives of disciples-and not some cookie-cutter version of a Christian. I am unable to get past this: “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” (Matt.13:31-32) It starts small (in one person?) and grows.
+ Recover spiritual formation as a primary task of pastoral work and a necessary part of the Christian life. Godly Christians tutoring younger Christians in living a Christ-life. Pastors overseeing souls (Heb. 13:17) more than recruiting workers and providing chaplaincy services. Practicing and modeling silence, solitude, Scriptural meditation, journaling, fasting, and intercession.
+ Train parents how to disciple their children and reduce the unhealthy dependence on life-stage ministries at the church. We have encouraged families to outsource the discipling of their own children to paid staff and programs at the church. Those ministries should partner with and be a bonus to what’s already happening at home. Parents themselves must be discipled to be as concerned about the growth of their child’s soul as they are about baseball, ballet and getting in the right college. (Somebody needs to do some serious thinking about the church’s role in coming alongside single parents, particularly moms, in this role.)
+Pray. A lot. “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26)
+ Shift the focus from providing services for dues-paying club members to mobilizing a missionary force to make Jesus come alive in the world. The Western model of church is so interior-focused and consumer driven. Suburbanites are accustomed to approaching everything from this mindset. The Great Commission model means we primarily exist for those who aren’t here yet-and that may cost us a lot to reach them,. (and yes, we may lose some people in that shift. Courage!)
+ Commission church members as glocal missionaries. If we’re not members of a club, what are we? We live in the middle of the 4th largest unreached nation in the world. We are local missionaries, committed to learning the language customs and rituals of our American culture so we can clearly communicate the gospel of Jesus. We live in a world where billions of people have never heard of Jesus and His love. We are global missionaries, committed to going and using our resources to reach them. So, we are glocal (global + local) missionaries. Every member of our church is a missionary as surely as someone who has left home to live in the middle of Muslims in Calcutta, India.
+ Get dirty, up to our elbows in the messiest lives around us. AIDS patients, drug and alcohol addictions, abuse of all kinds, family disintegration, devaluing of life, pornography and the ‘adult” entertainment industry, unwed moms, homeless people, the uninsured, mental illness, the disabled. All of these are ‘the least of these” where Jesus said He was.(Matt. 25) We can’t be the church without being there, too..
+ Pray. A lot. This will not happen in our own strength. ‘Not by might, but by My Spirit says the Lord.” (Zech. 4:6)
I could go on, but let me say this. The church, because she communicates and incarnates the gospel of Jesus, is the hope of the world. But that hope is not in our buildings, programs and events. The hope lies in God’s glory-entranced, Jesus-passionate, Holy Spirit-filled, gospel-saturated, grace-transformed, broken-hearted, Word-formed, accountability-accepting, people-loving, relationship-building, risk-taking, sacrifice-enduring, hell-hating, heaven-longing, eternity-gazing disciples of Jesus.
That’s the sort of disciple Jesus commands His church to make. That’s the sort of disciple that can change the world — one life at a time….beginning in the suburbs.