Relocating church into ‘the thick of it’

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Is there a difference between being ‘missional’ and ‘mission minded’?

When I first heard the term ‘missional’, I thought it was a made-up word; one of those pieces of jargon that would have its day then fade away, much like a lot of trends.

But the term is here to stay, and as time has gone on I have fallen in love with it.  One reason is that those I first heard using the term were those whose missiology (way of thinking about mission) I most respected, and whose ecclesiology (way of understanding the nature of church) resonated most with mine.

So what is it that makes a church ‘missional’, rather than just ‘mission minded’?  To my way of thinking it’s all to do with mindset. A ‘mission minded’ church understands itself fundamentally as a worshipping community, with a commitment to reaching out to others, serving them or inviting them to come and join. A ‘missional’ church is one which sets down  roots and creates identity within its cultural context; and it is developing from that context that members gather for worship and spiritual nurture.

One of the best books about being a ‘missional’ church is Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come. First written in 2003, then re-edited and republished in 2013, the premise of the book is that, for a church to be fully ‘missional’, it needs to be ‘incarnational’.  In simple terms this means that it models itself on the identity and actions of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch identity four features of the incarnation which, for them, are key to modelling a church fit for today’s world:

  1. Through the person of Jesus, God identifies with humanity, down to the smallest, seemingly most insignificant person;
  2. As fully human, Jesus’ identity was shaped, both by his context (first century Galilee) and his relationships (with Mary and Joseph, the people of Galilee, his disciples and those whom he encountered during his ministry);
  3. In Jesus, heaven and earth meet, opening up access to God for all, not just the educated or those in positions of power or authority; and
  4. In Jesus we see the human image of God – and therefore the ultimate example of whom we should follow and how we should live.

As a consequence they argue that, for a church to be missional, it should reflect these four features.  It should be:

  1. For everyone, regardless of age, social background or educational ability;
  2. Fully alongside the people with whom it minsters, engaging in, and being impacted by, their cultural context and life experiences;
  3. An experience of heaven meeting earth; where Christ is encountered in transformative, life-afirming ways; and
  4. Modelling itself on the actions and teachings of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch are critical of many forms of church, suggesting that, all too often, they “make the gospel synonymous with a bland, middle-class conformity, and thereby alienate countless people from encountering Christ.”   They even go as far as suggesting that Jesus himself might struggle to fit in with the vast majority of congregations today.  (p.58)

Instead they call for churches to adopt a way of being which is formed through relationships rather than activities.  Gathering and worshipping become the organic consequence of a growing sense of relationship, with Jesus and between one another, rather than an activity to which people who might be interested are invited.  They describe their vision for the church thus:

An incarnational mode creates a church that is a dynamic set of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances. It enhances and “flavors” the host communities’ living social fabric rather than disaffirming it. It creates a medium of living relationships through which the gospel can travel… a group of Christians infiltrating a community, like salt and light, to make those creative connections with people where God-talk and shared experience allow for real cross cultural Christian mission to take place (p.62)

When they speak of ‘cross-cultural mission’, they do not mean working with ‘others’ in foreign countries. They are actually speaking about their own – in this case Australia. The mission, which they believe is called for by God, is needed within their own communities and with people they know – the majority of whom have no knowledge of, or encounter with, the Jesus whose gospel message they so desperately want to share.

The Shaping of Things to Come might make uncomfortable reading for those who love, and are immersed in, traditional church culture – in fact it does come with a health warning at the beginning.  It is a rare person who wishes to read a book so highly critical of that in which they are so heavily invested – and perhaps at times it is over-critical. However, it does have some important observations to make, and I challenge anyone who reads it not to see merit in the radical change for which they argue.

The question remains, what are we in the church to do?  As I said at the beginning of this article, I do believe that transforming from being ‘mission minded’ to ‘missional’ is chiefly about mindset.  The challenge to us is not dissimilar to the one issued by Jesus to the disciples who were present at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8//).

When Peter discovered himself in the very presence of the Transfigured Christ, his instinct was to build a tabernacle – a dwelling place for Jesus and each of the prophets.  He wanted to stay there, keeping the experience where heaven and earth collided forever up a mountain.  But Jesus was having none of it. He insisted that the consequence of such a sacred experience was to go back down into the valley and to abide there, serving the poor, the dispossessed and those most in need of healing.

In the prologue to his Gospel, John writes that Jesus, God made human, dwelt (literally ‘pitched his tent’) among us (John 1.14). It was from that dwelling place that he sent out his disciples to be his hands in the world.  Again and again throughout Bible we read accounts of transformational encounters between individuals, about relationships forged and communities formed. They were not without issues – and at times Paul is scathing about the way some of the earliest believers treated others. But the earliest churches were, by and large, vibrant, egalitarian communities, sharing worship over meals in people’s homes; with believers and enquirers sharing something of their own, of themselves, with those to whom they were bound by faith.

It seems to me that, in The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch recapture some of the vision of the early church. Such visionary endeavour is not limited to their writing, nor to their methodology. But it is worth a read.  And it is worth reflecting on whether, in the future – or indeed in the present – we wish our churches to be ‘missional’ or ‘mission minded’.

Suggested Reading:

Frost, M. and Hirsch, A, 2015 (2nd ed.) The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, Baker Books)

 

2 thoughts on “Relocating church into ‘the thick of it’

  1. Tracey Lewis

    Thought provoking piece Janet … I love the description of the ‘incarnational mode’ for the church in mission. It describes a sense of respect for the people we meet and engage with that I believe is vital if we are to be a church in mission in the present context. A church contributing to, enhancing, enlivening the life of it’s community … a great place to build relationships and share what’s important … which will, of course, be a two way street.

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  2. Never mind ‘missional’ and ‘mission-minded’ – I have found the word ‘mission’ to be scary enough! I think this is because it’s been used in the past (and perhaps still is in some contexts) to mean the conversion of the heathen and carries with it an aggressive element. What you expound here is something quite different – not ‘fighting’ the dominant culture but engaging with it, becoming part of it not to conform to it but to subvert it – non-comformity indeed! As so often, one of our greatest problems is that we are so focussed on maintaining the institution of the church against all the odds (and many devoted people do sterling work in that cause) that we simply don’t have the time or the energy to what Christ calls us to do – all those things you so aptly describe. Never has the world needed more that subverting engagement…

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