Here’s the wrong distinction: missional vs. attractional. It’s trouble six different ways. Stop saying it. Phew, I feel better. So, how would I distinguish missional from other kinds of impulses? Let’s try this. Partner vs. paternal.
Let’s go back to the previous post. The biggest assumption funding a healthy view of ministry is that God is living and active. An implication of this belief is that God is already at work in the communities and neighborhoods that we serve. So, the deal is not that the church has all the good stuff and is merely taking it to the world. This is what I mean by paternal. Rather, God is already at work in unlikely places and among unlikely people, so the church hopes to find in neighborhoods and communities the living presence of God in actual human experiences. We don’t enter these spaces to take over or to direct or to garner advantage for the institution–again paternal. But we go to serve and to learn from and with others who are interested in God’s promised future for the world. This partnering.
My friend, Ryan Woods, was great at this. Ryan, Jessica, and others hoped to–what’s the right word, not plant, not establish–discover or uncover a confessing, worshiping, serving community in downtown Vancouver, Washington. Their belief was that if you loved people the way Jesus does, a church was inevitable. Ryan once contrasted their approach with another church “plant” in the downtown area in relation to an Easter egg hunt in the downtown area. The local community already sponsored an egg hunt for kids in the community. The partnering instinct says, “how can we join?” In contrast the church “plant” decided to sponsor their own, rival Easter egg hunt. Paternal.
As a former full-time minister, I both cringed and recognized myself in Ryan’s story. My instinct was always to find ways to make our church stand out, to offer something on our terms that people would want to be a part of. My interest was with the benefit that accrued to the institution–more members, etc–instead of searching for the living God. And in a twisted way, I operated under the conviction that the best posture of the church in terms of witness to the community was control or ownership, not the posture of servant. I might very well have organized a competing Easter Egg hunt.
Now, we did things to serve others. But in our minds, we had all the good stuff and were bringing it to others. The transaction was all one-way. We weren’t looking for partners, we were looking for clients or customers or admirers. And while these efforts met with mixed results, they never seemed to satisfy our desire for new members. This is because, I think, it’s terribly difficult to move socially from being a client to a member. Think about it: how many of your benevolent efforts translate into visitors or members at church. I think this is because it requires those with the least social resources to “move up.” And clients of our benevolent activity will always find it difficult to imagine that they could belong. I think the gospel suggests that the church has to find ways to “move down,” to give up its perceived privilege, its way of life, to live truly as servants and not patrons.
In Luke 10, the 70 sent out “to all those places Jesus himself intends to go,” necessarily rely on the hospitality of others. Mission doesn’t exist because those sent are bringing everything needed. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Instead, the visible presence of the Kingdom depends on the welcome they receive from “people of peace.” Both the one sent and the one receiving possess what is necessary for the Kingdom to be visible–namely, peace. The peace of Jesus always requires others to become visible, because God’s peace happens among and between persons (including God), not just to or within people.
So, communities of faith in a new missional era find ways to partner with others in serving the interests of God’s coming Kingdom. Many churches are so inwardly focused, spending all their energies organizing a variety of programs and initiatives for others, that they have little energy, experience, or capacity finding partners.
These partners may be people who have not yet confessed Jesus or do not yet belong to God’s Kingdom. But they serve the interests of God’s coming Kingdom by being with and among the poor or by working for flourishing neighborhoods or by caring for creation, and they benefit from the ways that the new creation is becoming visible–even in their experience of faith communities that seek not their own interest, but the interest of others.
I know congregations that are getting good at this. And here’s one observation I would make: these ways of “partnering” seem to snowball. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, and in ways that these congregations could’ve scarcely imagined on their own. I know of congregations in Oregon, Washington and Ontario that have broad access to public schools–in Oregon, Washington, and Ontario! I know congregations where Sikhs and Muslims have been the doors to wider opportunities for serving in the name of Christ. And the stories these churches tell bring tears to your eyes and convince you that the Spirit of God is truly moving in our world.
When I repeat stories like this, someone always asks how many baptisms have there been? Three things, in order of increasing importance: first, these congregations now have a living testimony among people they could never have reached before. Second, its nearly impossible for someone to simultaneously be a partner and a prospect. To me, the key is to pursue “partners” as a fully visible Christian, or as someone who consistently lives out of their Christian identity. (I will say more about how hospitality and witness go together in my final post in this series). Third, the broader implications of what makes for a credible Christian testimony have to be kept in mind. I think one of the things that hurts Christian witness is the perception that Christians want to run everyone else’s life. This may be fair or not, but it is a perception. I think the conditions for Christian witness improve when people perceive we want to be their partner/servant rather than their parent, when we find common cause with others, as servants, to resist the principalities and powers that rob us all of life and meaning. We have much repair work to be done here, in my estimation, before any of us will be particularly effective, evangelistically speaking.
And it occurs to me that I have a fourth thing to say about this. The first work of conversion for us to have a credible witness in the world will be our own. And here is our salvation: to believe with everything we have that God’s power and significance in the world can be fully expressed in the form of a servant.