How does “missional” become something other than a buzz word? How can the Alliance, as well as churches from other traditions, carry out the mission of God? Here are some thoughts, which I humbly offer as simply food for much needed further and deeper discussion for those churches that have crossed the bridge to being missional, not in word, but in deed.
Being missional requires intentional strategy, and this strategy must be more sophisticated than simply saying that we will have "need-based" evangelism. The problem with “need-based" evangelism is that it may shape up to be simply a response to a neighborhood problem that is staring a local church in the face. It’s good to respond to what is staring us in the face, but that alone is not enough to be truly missional. For example, we learn that there are lots of divorces in our city, so we respond with a divorce recovery program. To be missional is much more than this. It is to figure out how to speak the gospel to the multi-layers of life in the community in a way that brings, however slowly but surely, what I would call kingdom transformation of individuals and their way of life together.
I propose a multilayered look at the community around us in order to develop, under the Spirit’s direction, approaches to bring the presence of Christ to every person. What am I talking about? As an illustration, if you were to open up the liberal arts catalog for a nearby university you might find departments like geography, sociology, perhaps anthropology and business. Each of these departments looks at and analyzes the world from a particular perspective which, theoretically, contributes to a wholistic understanding of humanity. My proposal is not to master all of that knowledge, but simply to look around us and see these various layers of life and of life-interaction --as represented in this simple illustration by university departments -- as they are occurring in real time with real people in our city.
For example, I can look at the city where I live geographically. What is its climate, and what is the impact of its climate on people’s lives? One snap of the finger answer is that my area has a four-season climate and thus people do a lot with recreation. More deeply I might ask: how does geography affect how people earn their living. And another quick answer would be that the city’s centrality has made it a transportation hub, which allows for industry. Sociologically what do I see? I see immigrants who are here because they can be connected to transportation and industry. Further questions can follow: what is their economic status and what businesses and jobs are they involved in? The list of these questions can go on and on.
Here is what I am wrestling with. This geographic/sociological analysis is probably step one in developing an in-depth strategy, but it is fraught with hazards. For the rest of this blog entry I will deal with the hazards.
This kind of strategic work was commonly understood in missiology, but was presented to pastors by Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church when he talked about doing evangelism strategy by creating a composite of the kind of person who lives in the area around a church and about shaping the church's programing to reach those people. Some pastors thought that this meant that if the church was surrounding by a young family demographic then the church should ignore ministries to seniors, or whatever. Pastors who think like that have failed Junior High School Strategic Planning for that of course in not what Warren meant. What he did mean was that an attractional model required an understanding of who the local church primarily wished to attract, which for him was young families, so the church offered programming to young families. Warren never meant that people who did not match the area’s aggregate demographic should be ignored.
However, even with this disclaimer it seems to me that building a program focused on attracting a single slice of the surrounding demographic is hazardous for the following reasons.
First, single demographic strategy ignores the complex fabric of society that I am alluding to, the subtle but real dynamic of day to day interaction that people have in their homes and in their work places. Thus the church, in seeking to “reflect” its community can end up doing the opposite, that is, it end up being an exclusive club that screens out all who don’t fit in.
Second, and here I am spinning off from the above fundamental problem, while seeking to address the felt needs of the community the church may end up missing the felt needs that are experienced by people around them. This is because the deepest felt need in any community is simply to be a community, to find a way of coming together, and in that coming together to address the micro-community of the family, to be a village that raises its children, to provide love for the very elderly who are nearing the end of their journey. This cannot be done when everyone who is “alike” huddles together.
Third, the church, in trying to focus on a particular group to the exclusion of others runs counter to strong biblical mandates and examples. Every picture that we have of the early church shows people who are slaves and slave owners, craftsmen, farmers, Jewish heritage and gentile, the gentiles being sub-divided into many language backgrounds, as well as male and female. This demographic mess was responded to by the Holy Spirit who inspired the greatest writings in history on love and unity. The church today is called into the same mess, and the same struggle.
Please allow me to place one more disclaimer here. I am not speaking against first generation immigrant churches that worship in their language of origin. Many reasons can be given as to why this is not only necessary, but good. However, down the road, if they are true to the gospel, these language churches are called to establish a ministry that reaches out beyond their own group. I am so thankful to say that this is happening.
If a church considers itself to be exploring new models and thinks of itself and being beyond the attractional paradigm, my challenge is that it consider if this is truly so, or is it simply re-painting the old mono-demographic church with new colors.