I don’t get too many opportunities to sit in the pew anymore, so I found it interesting that on the two latest occasions when I joined the parishioners on the other side of the pulpit, the preacher spoke on being missional. One of the pastors conceded that it’s not really a word (yet); my spell checker confirms that. And yet it seems to have become the new buzzword among church enthusiasts. It’s not a bad concept, this notion that our churches should be intentional about bringing others into our fellowship. Pastors can get excited about preaching a “let’s go out and get ‘em” message. The clarion of Matthew 28: 19, 20 rings out and congregants rally to the task ahead of them – to be a missional church. Well, maybe.
Being missional seems to have taken up the baton passed on by the evangelism committees of our Christian Reformed churches. I have never been a fan of evangelism committees. They convey a message that evangelism happens through projects we take on, projects typically adopted by only a handful of people. We evangelize incrementally, taking a deep breath and plunging in to engage our colleagues in a “spiritual” discussion. The motivation for that sort of evangelizing is usually a sense of duty and obligation from which we are released only when our term on the committee is done.
A focus on being missional runs the same risks. The strategies being employed are reminiscent of the work of our evangelism committees, but with the hope to engage more people in the task and with this added impetus: if our churches don’t bring in more people we won’t survive. The urgency is also found at the denominational level: if our churches aren’t relevant, the entire Christian Reformed Church is in trouble. We are pinning high hopes on our new Canadian Ministries Director.
Striking a pose
The problem with this new strategy – becoming a missional church – is that it is a strategy.
A man entered a tailor’s shop, looking to purchase a new suit. On the discount rack he found a beautiful suit, but it was marked as a second. Upon inquiring about the suit, the salesclerk assured the man of its quality and the discounted price. Upon trying on the jacket, the man discovered the flaw: the left sleeve was two inches longer than the right. The clerk suggested that the problem could be overcome if he lifted his right shoulder and dropped his left. This corrected the problem of the sleeve, but caused the hem of the jacket to dip to the left. “If you bend your right knee slightly, that will even out the hem,” instructed the clerk. These adjustments caused the back of the jacket to bulge so the clerk had the man lean forward slightly. “A perfect fit!” the clerk declared. The man purchased the suit, and decided to wear it home. Upon leaving the store he overheard two people in conversation say, “Look at that poor man, his body must have been ravaged by some unknown disease.” Her companion replied, “Yes, poor man, but he has a very nice suit!”
Being missional too easily becomes another suit that we try on for size. And in the process, we no longer look like the church. Our church leaders are trying to find that new approach to doing ministry that will see our churches grow, and while I have gleaned much from some of the books on the topic, none has offered guaranteed success. The author who finally does write that book will be a rich person!
Instead of trying on another new strategy, I believe that it is time to go back to an old strategy. It’s not really a strategy, of course, it’s the foundation of our faith, and Jesus put it very succinctly: love God above all and your neighbour as yourself.
When our love for our neighbour, as noble and altruistic as that may be, comes before or instead of our love for God, our best efforts will falter and eventually fail. We will look more like a community centre or the local Rotary.
Our churches, rather than being missional outposts, must be places of worship where we gather to honour and glorify God. The friendliest, most welcoming church will never attract or retain new members if they don’t meet Jesus there.
Authentic worship arises from a heart that has been captured by God’s irresistible grace. Authentic worship then spills out of us when we leave the church building. People will see that we have something they want. They will ask us, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” (HC Q&A 1). Oh, they won’t use those words, but if we are listening carefully, we will hear the question when we stand graveside, or when we face illness, or when we celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary. We will hear that question when we live as hopeful people in a world that sees little reason for optimism.
The first church in which I served was a small congregation in a rural area. There was no urban growth; no businesses were relocating to the region. Church planters would never have selected the site for a new ministry. And yet, this 50-year-old church is growing. When I was interviewed by Home Missions to describe our “strategy,” I had to concede that we had none, other than putting worship first; that is, being a worshipal church. (I’m trying to come up with a parallel term for missional, but I don’t think I’ve found it!)
This isn’t a new strategy, of course; it’s about as old as the covenant. Love God above all, and then expect the Holy Spirit to do a mighty work in our lives and in our churches.
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