Monday, July 27, 2009

Thoughts on a missional congregation

In describing a missional vision for a congregation the natural place to start seems to be to talk about what it means to be missional.Being missional is a way of transcending some of the limitations inherent in both conservative and liberal Christianity within Modernity. Conservatives too often make the gospel all about ensuring a person ends up in Heaven when they die and Liberals too often subsume the gospel under the direction of culture and “progress.” Both are deeply compromised visions for the Church. Being missional is a way beyond the compromises of both conservative and liberal Christianity. A missional congregation of course recognizes the individual’s need for salvation and restoration, but locates that salvation in the wider restoration of the world.Likewise the missional congregation recognizes the Church’s calling to be a force for justice and good in the world, but locates
that action in participation in "the Mission of God," or God’s reconciling the whole world to Himself in Jesus Christ. A missional congregation rejects an escapist conception of salvation that takes us out of the world, and instead calls upon the Church to be agents of restoration in the world. As the Church, we are blessed, called out, not as an end in itself but in order to proclaim and embody the reality of God’s Kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” In this way a missional congregation is one that lives in hope of a new Heaven and a new Earth.

In order to change the focus of our congregations towards a more missional perspective,we should have worship and liturgy that shapes us for mission.The aim of worship cannot be an emotional catharsis, an attempt to meet felt needs,or even a means of distributing information, rather our worship should be formational.A missional congregation should be one that values the importance of the sacraments, not merely as meritorious acts or medicines for immortality, but as the means through which God shapes us into a people who embody His mission and purposes.Worship should be “Immersive.” David Fitch writes in the Great Giveaway,

Immersive worship leads the worshiper into participating in God’s already preexisting reality through language, ritual,and symbol as revealed in history through Scripture. By so doing, immersive worship births true experience of God that can only come at the behest of God as an ex post facto development when we have been faithful in our worship…we cannot assume a truthful experience without first being shaped by God in worship.

Again,our worship and liturgy should make its emphasis the Mission of God.It cannot
be an end in itself but must prepare the church for mission. It should immerse us in the drama of redemptive history and God’s action to redeem the world.It must be a way of connecting us to the body of Christ stretched through time and space.Along with focusing on spiritual formation through worship, a missional congregation should also teach and embrace the classical spiritual disciplines.Again, like the sacraments, the disciplines should not be seen as meritorious acts, but rather as a means of formation into the people Christ calls us to be. This is key to being Christ’s church in the world. We must become more than "believers". We must become disciples and apprentices of Jesus, living in the manner he showed us. As Dallas Willard Writes in Renovation of the Heart,

Individuals and local congregations of disciples must discover and effectively implement whatever is required to bring about the inner transformations of those who have really become apprentices of Jesus and who really do gather in immersion in the Trinitarian presence. In doing so they will have put in place the principles and absolutes of the New Testament churches, and they will certainly see the corresponding effects. (pg. 250)

Willard goes on to give two very simple instructions for how this might be done. “First, openly expect the apprentices to learn to do the various things that Jesus taught to do….Second, announce that you teach people to do the things that Jesus said to do.” A missional congregation should be more than a social club or a lodge, it should be a training ground for Kingdom living and an outpost for holiness and social action. Among the spiritual disciplines are service and hospitality. Both of these disciplines should characterize a missional congregation’s engagement with its surrounding community. A Christian community should be a place where people feel accepted and welcomed. It should also be a people that give themselves in service to others.

A missional congregation should also be prophetic. It should understand its task to be to challenge to dominant systems and ideologies in the world and confront them with the gospel. A missional congregation should proclaim the message of God’s Kingdom and the Lordship of Jesus Christ in word and deed. The task of the church is not to produce people after the expectations and dictates of the world. Its task is not to make good citizens or to morally legitimate the powers that be. A missional
congregation is a deeply subversive community in the sense that it challenges prevailing wisdom. A missional congregation’s task is to proclaim the gospel in all its offensiveness and so called foolishness. If need be its task is to willingly,and openly suffer for that witness.

A missional congregation is a church for a post-Christian or pagan society. In this sense it is very much like the New Testament Church. A missional congregation is post-colonial, it does not see its self in the service of Christendom. It does not assimilate people to Western European values. Instead the missional congregation seeks to faithfully incarnate the gospel in whatever cultural context it finds itself
in. A missional congregation is therefore always engaged with culture and always listening. In engaging with culture, it does not however seek to accommodate itself to whatever values are dominant in that culture. Instead,while inhabiting a culture, it seeks to redeem that culture by confronting it with the Eternal Word.

There is much more that can be said about the qualities and characteristics of a missional congregation, but the most important fact about such a community is that it is one that is always seeking to discern what God is doing in its particular context. A missional congregation has no agenda of its own but is always seeking to join God in what God is doing in the world. A missional congregation believes that God is reconciling all things to Himself through Christ; therefore, it seeks to be Christ’s body in the world.

The following are some brief, but illuminating and extremely helpful, comments from Dr Timothy Keller on the characteristics of a missional Church.