Monday, October 02, 2006

Presbyterian Renewal Leader Mulls the Meaning of Missional

Bumbling 'round the net tonight, I came across this excellant item written by Michael Walker, who until very recently was Executive Director of Presbyterians for Renewal.

September 15, 2006

Missional Identity: Some Initial Reflections

Tons of folks have been asking me recently to describe what it means to be a “missional church” or to be a “missional leader.” So I’ll try to start offering my thoughts on those critical questions….If you’re interested in a bibliography, I’ve put together some suggestions and I'll post a link to it here in just a bit.

Today I’ve been thinking about “identity issues,” our assumptions about who we are and why our churches exist, which in turn inform why we choose to do the various activities, programs, etc., that busy our calendars. One of the most important and difficult challenges facing our congregations is their need to develop a new missional identity. For most of us, becoming missional will require a deep re-orientation of personal life and a transformation of the leadership style, foci, and even structures of our congregations.

In my recent forays into literature on life in the church I’ve found some fascinating statistics that get at why becoming missional is first and foremost about identity issues. Someone’s figured out that on average it takes about eighty-nine members of an established church to bring in one unchurched could be follower of Jesus. Yet in a “church plant” it takes only eight members. The reason for this is obvious. New churches know without a doubt that they exist by definition to reach out. They know they exist to live the gospel of Jesus Christ so that those who have yet to experience his forgiving and healing power may come to know him. That’s why God has put them where they are. It’s an identity issue.

New churches by default pay close attention to their context. They are eager to be good neighbors, to find and get to know those who need Jesus. The focus of a church plant is to make a new space where the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be heard, believed, celebrated and lived out; a place where beggars can tell other beggars where to find bread, bread from heaven. New churches take risks, they cross boundaries, they are forced to do ministry in ways that often push them far outside their comfort zone.

Most of our congregations, however, were initially formed with a different sort of identity. Most of our churches came to life in a time when they could assume they’d serve a certain indispensable maintenance role in the life of the community, where the world would come to the church and the church need not go to the world in order to survive or even thrive. A culture with largely Christian assumptions would need the church’s facilities, its professionals (“clergy”) and on occasion the rest of the community of believers in order to get through life in a manner that seemed normal and acceptable to the surrounding culture.

It seems obvious to many of us now that we never should’ve assumed that we existed to serve certain special needs of a culture that we thought was by and large “Christian.” We should have always been a “contrast community” sent into our own culture to proclaim and embody the life-transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ. But we often settled for the role of chaplains to a culture we tacitly assumed already had the substance of life. And when the “Christian” culture needed chaplains, our congregations survived.

But now that we live in an increasingly “Post-Christian” culture, many if not most of our churches are dying (I'm thinking of mainline churches in particular). The world is not coming to us anymore; and we are only now beginning to face the deeper identity issues by which I hope we come to understand anew that we exist to go into the world as agents of the Gospel called by God to join him in his work of redeeming and restoring the world. Our congregations exist to be mission communities. Our calling is to bring the whole Gospel to the ends of the earth, and we recognize that every human culture, perhaps now especially our own western culture, needs the church to engage it with a different way of life shaped by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

How can congregations go through a change in self-identity so that they understand themselves to be God’s sent people? How would it change the way they spend their time, what activities they do and how they do them? Is it possible to really step out in faith and become outwardly focused, even if that means taking great institutional risks? And what kind of leadership is needed to catalyze this kind of change?

These are the questions we've really just begun to wrestle through. And as far as I can tell, the future of mainline churches depends upon how we answer these questions, and for most of us it will mean making some major changes by the grace of God.

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