It is not the church of God that has a mission, it is the God of mission that has a church.
— Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
This is what the missional church movement is about: refocusing us on God’s mission. God is on mission in the world, unveiling the kingdom, while reconciling and healing the world. Upon first exposure, most Christ-followers quickly agree with these statements. In fact, most don’t see any conflict with the assumptions driving the attractional church model. When we begin to consider what this missional perspective means, then the differences grow clear.
God’s mission is not to save your church.
This is often the request behind the stated request. When we are called to consult with congregations, they don’t state their request as, “Please help us save our church!” But when we listen carefully, this is often their unstated concern.
And, wouldn’t you feel the same way if your congregation was facing its demise? Christ-followers in these congregations carry many deep life-giving experiences in their hearts as a result of being part of this congregation’s life. Now they want their children or grandchildren to have similar faith experiences with this particular faith community. The desire to pass on a healthy faith legacy to the next generation is strong, and is often expressed through wanting one’s church to survive and thrive. These are natural and healthy motives.
While this desire for one’s church to survive and thrive is so real and poignant that it hurts, and while we might carry great empathy for those in these congregations, we also must ask ourselves, “Is saving our church also God’s goal?” Missional theology moves our focus beyond ourselves to the larger canvas of God’s movement. God is on mission in the world, unveiling the kingdom while healing and reconciling. Whether a particular local faith community resonates with God’s mission and joins it is another question. As harsh as it sounds, it is helpful when a church can move beyond itself and realize that God’s primary mission is in the world. God’s primary mission is not to save any particular local church.
The degree to which your church joins God on mission is the degree to which your church will be saved.
Before we launch into application, clarification on wording is needed here. What do we mean through the use of this word, “saved”? Here we do not mean institutional survival or revitalization. The missional church movement is not a back-door way to revitalize your congregation, for the purpose of ensuring longevity and institutional renewal. The missional church movement is not the next best church growth initiative cloaked in different language. This is not sleight of hand positioning, which is actually focused on 20th-century metrics. No, salvation here refers to something far deeper than metrics and institutional strength.
“It’s all about soul,” to quote musician Billy Joel. When your church joins God on mission in the world, then your church resonates with its deepest calling. Salvation then, for a congregation, is found in aligning itself with God’s mission. The degree to which your congregation can join God on mission is the degree to which your congregation will find itself immersed in the movement of God in the world. This will breathe life into your congregation’s spirit. Joining God on mission helps your church find its soul.
Your church’s salvation is in giving itself away (not in protecting itself or focusing on survival).
I’m remembering one consultation conversation with a lay leadership team wherein the discussion went on and on. Weariness and frustration were growing as the group continued to generate ideas about how to attract newcomers to their congregation. This agenda was not the stated agenda, but since it was present behind the overt agenda for our work, it surfaced. After their frustration reached significant levels, I found myself saying what everyone in the room already knew.
“I hate to tell you, or to state the obvious, but there really are not people out there who are eager to join you in order to help you pay the light bill.”
The initial response included nervous laughter, followed by substantive conversation about focus and priorities. This group of lay leaders knew this before it was spoken. They knew that their church’s ability to meet its financial obligations along with other institutional concerns, is a non-issue for those in their community. There really aren’t people in their community who want to join them to help address their institutional concerns. They were relieved someone finally said out loud what they knew intuitively.
This is the time to shift the conversation and focus to the first clause in the statement above. Your church’s salvation is in giving itself away. We find Jesus using so many analogies about the calling of his disciples in the New Testament. Grain falling to the ground and dying, giving up control over our priorities and following Christ, embracing our brokenness before finding healing — dying to self appears to be the default way of salvation (finding genuine life on earth). This is the calling of God’s church.
Communities of faith are called to avoid self-centered and self-aggrandizing behavior. We are called to give ourselves away in service, joining God on mission in the world. When we do so, we discover life. We gain a foretaste of what life will be like when God’s kingdom comes fully on this earth, like it is in heaven.
So, may your church find its soul by giving itself away.