My last paper for my MA in Mission explored some of the key factors that might be required for any church stuck in a rut to get moving again. Discounting dynamite, laxatives or any other such distasteful or destructive methods, the conclusion I argued for was simply to focus on ‘making missional disciples’. OK, so the argument was a bit more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it.
I guess, over the years, I’ve been a part of a million-and-one exciting projects and initiatives…especially all the latest things which are guaranteed to grow your church in 5 easy steps or your money back (…no, wait a minute, we’re keeping your money…it’s your lack of effort that means our fool-proof plan isn’t working). Most of those things seem to hinge around the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ from some nostalgic Kevin Kostner baseball film rather than any biblical or historical pattern that really meant something, or on any engaged theology of mission.
But you know what? There is not a massive crowd out there looking for a church of any description. The number crunchers tell us that perhaps 10% of the population not already in church MAY CONSIDER taking up an invite to come along. No guarantees…just ‘might’. The rest are rather non-plussed. And, I don’t always blame them. Considering we focus our major resources on the 10% (along with almost every other church out there), it’s reasonably safe to say that growth and movement will not come that way. There are already hundreds of churches set up for just that. But what about the rest? Who will go to those for whom church is the last thing on their minds? And what will it mean to do that?
By missional discipleship, I mean getting a tipping-point percentage of those already in church engaged in a mission-centric approach to discipleship as opposed to a church-centric approach; one based on active learning (learning and living by doing and engaging) as opposed to book learning alone; one which cultivates in individuals the instinct to go beyond the boundaries of church culture and actually engage with real people – not with some ulterior motive – to live our lives openly alongside others in such a way that God-in-us can be seen, questioned, challenged and explored. Hirsch calls it having ‘the missional-incarnational impulse’ – the desire to ‘go out and go deep’ and maybe even to ‘stay out’. What does it meant to engage people on their turf, on their terms and in their time rather than the other way about?
I think I’m stating the obvious here, or at least it seems that way to me. But, the reality is that for many situations the writing is already on the wall and there are many situations up and down the country not prepared for the present and future challenge in the mission of the church. Uptake on any form of active discipleship can be low, let alone a missional discipleship that is ready to engage in such a way that a real shift can happen. And I’m not talking about church activity here…if anything, that can be a distraction. The church is rota-ed to distraction! I’m talking about a core commitment to living a Jesus life at home and in the community. For me, the church exists beautifully whether it’s gathered or scattered and it strikes me that the only way for that beautiful life to be seen is if we dare to expose it to the scrutiny of those who need to witness it.
I’m not against making our gatherings accessible, meaningful and even ‘attractive’ to visitors at all – but it is a small part of the story as far as mission is concerned. Major shifts are required for them even to cross the door. Maybe getting them to cross our particular shaped doors is not the main thing after all? Maybe the ones crossing doors should be us? I’d bet my bottom dollar on that. In fact, I believe it is what Bonnhoeffer meant when he said that he believes a new kind of monasticism is required…one that is nothing like the old flavours of monasticism apart from that men and women gather around the central theme of LIVING OUT the Sermon on the Mount…the Christ-shaped life. If God is a God of mission, who sent his Son, who then sent the Spirit, who now sends us…isn’t it about high time we got going? Please, for God’s sake, let’s!