The word “missional” has been terribly abused in its first couple of decades of wide circulation. Theologically, the word simply describes God’s ongoing work in the world—and the church that intentionally participates in that work. There are multiple facets to that work and our participation in it, and perhaps this explains why the word has been stretched around so many different kinds of churches or styles of discipleship. We understand ourselves to be participating in God’s mission as we spread the news of Jesus’s redemptive work in our community and around the globe, as we encourage each other to follow Jesus, and as we pursue the conditions of justice, righteousness and peace. None of these are the full breadth of what God wants for this world, but in each of them we engage with values near to the heart of God!
Our churches pursue each facet collectively, working together for the purposes of evangelization, transformation, and justice—and churches can implement structural shifts to facilitate progress in each cause. We can create systems that create opportunities for faith sharing, venues in which transformation is more likely to occur, and initiatives that push against standing systems of injustice.
Whether we’re the leaders fashioning the new programs or congregants supporting and participating in the moves, we can too easily begin to think that the structural changes mark us as “missional”. However, those structural shifts can only move us so far! Church programming and structure may create the conditions in which we move towards mission, and poor structures can get in the way of such practices or implicitly devalue them. Structure has its place, and should be approached with intentionality. However, creating the structures should not be understood as the heart of the work itself—the work itself is a matter of flesh, blood and spirit.
Flesh, Blood, and Spirit
The missional work of evangelization occurs when flesh and blood humans filled with the Spirit of God reach out to their known and loved neighbors with the good news of Jesus. The missional work of discipleship takes place when people of flesh and blood, acting by the power of God’s Spirit, encourage and teach each other about the way of Jesus, giving testimony of Jesus’s work. Justice progresses as Spirit-driven people stand in solidarity with the oppressed, whom they have come to see and love because of their transformation in Christ.
The heart of missional christianity isn’t a matter of organization, but of embodiment. While the church’s programming might provide the sort of vehicle or venue in which these things happen, the structure itself won’t succeed until it is filled by the right kind of transformed people—the new humanity, formed from the inside out for the purposes of God’s mission in the world. That formation takes places when we, both as communities and as individuals, nurture the sorts of mentalities and habits that encourage people to align with the mission of God and to engage in it.
The inventory of those mentalities and habits is surely diverse and contains some familiar things, like the virtues of faith, hope, and love that the church has long sought to nurture, and the habits of prayer and listening to the word that have been a part of both the gatherings of God’s people and the classical understandings of their individual devotional practices. These are well and good, and contribute to our transformation into people aligned with the mission of God, but I want to suggest a further practice, one that I see both in the life of the early church and in the missional movement of our own time: the nurture of a particular obsession.
Obsessed with the Missio Dei
The Missio Dei is a fancy Latin phrase meaning “the mission of God”. It’s a bit of shorthand meant to point us towards what God is doing in the world—something we train ourselves to discover by drinking deeply of God’s story in the scriptures, and which we prayerfully seek by the Spirit of God in our own time. Becoming obsessed with the Missio Dei means that at every turn in our lives, we are always asking, “What might God want to happen here?” or “How can I join in what God might be working towards by what I say and do in this moment?”.
These are the sorts of questions the early church obsessed over. Missional churches have these questions embedded in their culture, whether or not they ever use the fancy Latin phrase or have super-sophisticated “missional” structures. Missional people can’t help but ask what God wants in the world, and how they can bear witness to God’s desires and God’s work towards fulfilling those intentions.
Each encounter with the word, each gathering with the church, and every moment in the neighborhood is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God’s mission in the world. That obsession is planted deep within our hearts, and keeps gnawing at our souls. Like a deep mystery, it holds us in vigilant tension, so that every moment we are ready to perceive the clues that might shed light on what God is really at work doing. The seed of that obsession grows from the inside out, until its fruit becomes apparent in the world. It is an internal drive that fuels every external step we take.
Steven Hovater is the preaching and outreach minister at the Church of Christ at Cedar Lane in Tullahoma, Tennessee. He loves walking slow with his wife Kelly and running fast with their four kids. Occasionally, he blogs at stevenhovater.com., and loves interacting with people on twitter (@stevenhovater).
As part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.
This article was originally published 26 January 2012. It’s part 2 of the article I shared on Tuesday.
Whenever I talk about grace, or unconditional love, I always hear a “Yes but…” in the back of my head. In fact, sometimes it’s so strong it’s almost like I hear someone saying it.
- Yes, but… someone else will relate to that person better… they’re more her age… they have similar interests…
- Yes, but… what message will that send other people?
- Yes, but… how’s that going to impact the church? We’ve attracted a few people like that recently…
- Yes, but… what’s to stop them doing it again?
- Yes, but… we don’t want the church to be corrupted by the world…
- Yes, but… they still have to accept the consequences for their sins…
I can’t avoid it, the “Yes, but…” is always there.
The sad truth is that although these concerns may be valid, when they’re expressed in the presence of grace, they turn the speaker into the bitter brother at the prodigal son’s celebration. (Luke 15:11-32) When we witness grace and see only the dangers instead of the joy, that’s bitterness.
Grace involves risk. When a church allows a teen caught smoking dope to serve on the communion table, is it glossing over sin and telling teens that it’s okay to take drugs? Or does the church demonstrate forgiveness, and grace? Of course, we don’t want anyone thinking it’s okay to use illicit drugs, but we also don’t want them thinking that unconditional love only exists in theory!
When a church says, “Come as your are”, the church echoes the invitation of God. (See my previous post here.) That’s a risky invitation because it exposes the church to a world in a way that may make us uncomfortable at times. We’ll see and experience things that better fit the fruit of the flesh than the fruit of the spirit, and we have to say, “that’s okay – come anyway”. That’s grace, that’s acceptance, that’s unconditional love… that’s God.
But there is a 2nd half to this invitation. “Don’t stay that way.” To accept people captured by sin, by hurt, by anxiety, without offering them relief would be cruelty, not grace or love. In his book No Perfect People Allowed, John Burke completes the sentence by saying, “But we love you too much to let you stay that way.” Love is our motivation for encouraging people to make life changes. Not an inflated sense of self-righteousness.
Christians attempt to get through life without sinning. Not because we want to win a prize for attaining perfection but because we understand that God is holy and values our holiness. We avoid sin not because God has labeled it as such, but because we believe that God’s way is a better way. We don’t impose our standards upon others because we know best, but we share God’s way of living to share God’s love because we believe it works.
If I was just to hear the instruction, “You need to change” I would probably initially hear criticism. My defenses would go up. I might not hear anything else the other person said. For this reason the message to repent must be preceded by acceptance of the person. Repentance is a vital part of the message of Christ. But Christ’s message contains mercy not criticism. Change can be good. Change can bring relief. Change can be therapeutic. We need to make every effort to convey this message in a context of grace and acceptance, not criticism.
The video I linked to at the top contains Cardboard Testimonies from the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas. A quick search on YouTube will bring up lots of these testimonies. They all tell the story that change in a context of grace is a wonderful thing. Let’s make the message loud and clear in our lives. Let’s not get caught up in cycle of “yes, but…”.
- Does giving grace scare you? What risks do you see?
- I believe that over time Christians lose sight of who they were without God. How do you remind yourself that you had an urgent need to receive God’s forgiveness?
- What thoughts does the phrase “unconditional love” prompt in your mind?
Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal is one of the Bible’s most well-known stories. Of all the fireworks this story contains, I find my attention most drawn to Elijah’s boldness.
As I was researching this passage I found that in the 9th century BC Mt. Carmel, where the showdown took place, was at the time in southern Phoenicia, the home of Jezebel and her Baal, and considered a holy site by the worshipers of Baal. (see map here) So when Elijah suggested Mt Carmel as the site of the showdown he gave Baal the home court advantage.
Baal was the mythical god of the storm. Many images of Baal show his arm poised to throw a lightening bolt. When Elijah proposed that the ability of each god to send fire from heaven determine the winner he put the ball in Baal’s court. He didn’t ask Baal to turn water to wine as that was outside the limits of Baal’s powers. Instead he chose a competition that facilitated the strengths of Baal.
Elijah encouraged King Ahab to bring the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah supported by the royal family. (v19) He gave Baal the numerical advantage. He also allowed the prophets of Baal all day to summon their god, leaving himself a much shorter period in the evening. (v29)
Finally, Elijah doused his sacrifice with water. He gave himself no “out”, or opportunity for sleight of hand. He couldn’t pull off any trick to make his sacrifice burn. He relied completely upon God to reveal himself. That’s boldness. That’s faith!
In my sermon I defined an idol as something that detracts from God’s rightful place in our lives. Many times, our relationship with God suffers because of many little distractions (idols) we give in to. But sometimes we find ourselves confronting a giant Baal. Often this is a sin, or a circumstance that consumes us, and obscures our view of God.
The point I want to emphasise here is how often we try and defeat our Big Idols by taking baby steps. There’s a place for this. Several times the New Testament writers describe spiritual growth as a process of moving from milk fed to infants to solid food. Spiritual growth takes time as we gradually eliminate distractions and learn to devote ourselves increasingly to following Jesus. However, Big Idols cannot be defeated by slowly chipping away. They’ll crush us as we chip!
Elijah demonstrates our need to take radical steps to overthrow the Big Idols in our lives. Big Idols require dramatic actions. Jesus never called his disciples to gradually transition into a lifestyle of following him. Rather, he called upon them to leave their nets, and their tax booth and tour the countryside with him. Even 2 Peter 2:1-3 that describes the transition from milk to spiritually solid food begins in v1 with a call for people to “rid themselves of all malice and all deceit…”. That dramatic departure from the burden of a lifestyle of sin precedes the commencement of the spiritual growth journey.
I’m not saying that turning our back on our sinful habits is a one time event requiring nothing but willpower. I’m not saying that everyone who smokes can throw away their last pack and never pick up another one just because they decided to change. However, I do believe that God gives us the strength to defeat the Big Idols in our lives. God gives us the strength to confront our fears, to reject our temptations, to stare down our guilt and move forward into relationship with Him. Defeating Big Idols requires faith, commitment, and action. Victory requires boldness.
- What grabs your attention from Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal?
- Have you had to make bold changes to defeat idols in your life? What did you find the most difficult part?
- Can you suggest a better way for balancing God’s gradual transformation in our lives with the need for boldness in answering the radical call of Christ?
I believe Christians are, and should be, dissatisfied people.
We should look at our society and be dissatisfied. We should look at the rate of abortion in this country and be dissatisfied. We should look at the number of children born outside of marriage and those who grow up without the presence of fathers and be dissatisfied. We should look at the proportion of black men in gaols around this nation and be dissatisfied. We should question why the US has the highest poverty rate in the western world and be dissatisfied. When we see injustice around us, we should be dissatisfied. When almost 50% of marriages end in divorce and it makes no difference whether the couples are Christian or not, we should be dissatisfied.
Ultimately, God will renew creation. There will be a new city, a new government, a new society. Until then, the majority of usages of the word “renew” in the NT refer to Christians as individuals. Our greatest dissatisfaction should be with ourselves. We should always be dissatisfied with who we are, as we seek to take on the image of Christ. That’s not to say we should always feel guilty or uncertain of our eternal destiny. We simply recognise that God’s work in us isn’t complete at the moment of baptism, rather, He’s just got started.
Paul expressed it this way in 2 Cor 4:16-18,
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
I have found from personal experience and conversations with others that one of the most difficult questions for Christians to answer is, “What part of your life are you currently working on to become more Christlike?” Another way of asking this might be, “Which part of your life is most in need of God’s renewal?” I don’t mean that in a sense of, “which spiritual discipline do you need to increase?”, but more like “Which fruit of the Spirit is the most sparse in your life right now?” I long for the day when someone replies, “I’m really working on perseverance (ore something) at the moment.”
While most Christians would deny we’re perfect, it’s my impression that many “mature” Christians have trouble acknowledging their ongoing need for renewal. It’s as though we obviously had to make changes in the first couple of years after conversion, but now, we’re doing pretty good. No bushfires here. That’s a long way removed from saying that “we are being renewed day by day.”
To return to where I started. I’m convinced that the only way to address the societal issues that dissatisfy us, is to renew individuals in our society. As individuals are renewed, society is renewed. I believe this is the approach Jesus took in his ministry.
- Without expecting you to share your struggles with the one other reader of this blog,“Just as a “yes / no” answer, Do you have a personal trait that you’re working on letting God renew right now?”
- Why do you think many Christians are so quick to jump into political debates and simultaneously so reticent to discuss their faith with those around them?
- As you look back on your life, can you see obvious areas where God’s Spirit has renewed you? Do you encourage others by describing your transformation to date?
- Follow the rest of this discussion here.
I would expect a church with the name “The Church of Christ” to have one, or many, favorite verses about Jesus. Yet, as a Church of Christ insider, I would consider the following a representative list of Church of Christ “motto” verses:
- Acts 2:38 – baptism
- Colossians 3:16 – acapella worship
- Acts 20:7 – weekly Lord’s Supper
- Mark 16:16 – Great Commission & baptism
- John 4:24 – worship in spirit & truth (emphasis on truth)
These verses seem to more accurately describe the way others perceive us as “The Church of Baptism” or “The Acapella Church”, rather than The Church of Christ. Others perceive us this way, because that’s the message we’ve emphasised.
If I was starting from scratch and came across a church named “The Church of Christ” I would expect that church to have Galatians 2:20 as a central value. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. The members of the church no longer live for themselves, but seek to serve and glorify Christ in all they do, because Christ now enlivens them.
The Church of Christ should emphasise spiritual disciplines as a means of dying to self.
Romans 12:2 & 2 Corinthians 3:18, both refer to this dying/new life process as a transformation. But it’s not a transformation that we perform. It’s a transformation that God accomplishes within us. Our only task is to create the space for God’s Spirit to work. As we allow God to transform our mind, our thoughts and priorities, in turn we will increasingly live within the will of God.
The Church Belonging to Christ should be dedicated to the process of transforming itself, and members, into the image of Christ. We recognise that even if there was a point when we “came to Christ”, that point only served as a beginning point for the process of “becoming like Christ”.
In Luke 9:23 Jesus told his followers that they must take up their cross daily and follow him. We often approach this thinking that we must endure difficulties as we follow Christ. And often, we look at those difficulties as something imposed upon us from outside: by life, or others. But if you look closely you’ll see that Jesus is more specific than that. The first step he gives is that we’re to deny ourselves, or as Paul would say, that we die to [crucify] ourselves.
Finally, a church with personal and corporate transformation as a core value would necessarily also stress personal accountability. The leadership would encourage and look for spiritual growth within the members. Attendance would no longer be primary measure of church growth or success. The church would constantly change as God continually transforms its members into His image.
- How do you think churches can encourage spiritual transformation? Special Wed. night prayer classes, sermons on spiritual disciplines…?
- I think we have previously demanded transformation by stressing obedience. What are the alternatives? Are the Biblical examples?
- How can leaders monitor the growth of the congregation? Number of Bible studies, mission trips…?
- Maybe you’d like to suggest some more “motto” verses for Churches of Christ?
- Read 2 Peter 1:3-4 here. Also read Ephesians 1:3-10 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (24 August) you can listen to it here.
Since the questions last week didn’t prompt a lot of discussion, let me begin with a more lighthearted approach this week. Now that the Olympics are over, What spiritual truths can we learn from Olympic events? Eg. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24) Can you make up some examples of your own?
This week’s sermon asked, “Do you believe that you are who God has said you are?” Ephesians 1:3-8 lists several things that God says about us: God has “blessed us, chosen us, adopted us, redeemed us, forgiven us, and lavished us with grace.” 2 Peter 1:4 says that “we may participate in the divine nature”. Do you have a favorite thing that God has said about who you are? Other examples include that we are sheep or ambassadors.
Scripture and Songs
As always, if you have suggestions for songs related to this week’s discussion topic, please add a comment.
- I Am a Sheep (SFP – First written & performed by Dennis Jernigan in 1988.)
- Something Beautiful (SFP – written by the Gaithers in 1971)
- I Want to be Where You Are
- What a Wonderful Change in My Life
- I Am His and He Is Mine (SFP)
- I Am Mine No More
- Let the Beauty of Jesus Be Seen In Me (SOC)
- His Grace Reaches Me (SFP)
- Marvellous Grace of Our Loving Lord
- Living for Jesus (SFO)
- Immortal Invisible, God Only Wise (Since we read 1 Tim 1:17 in the sermon I had to include this one)
- May I Call You Father (SFP)
- What a Friend we Have in Jesus