In my first two installments of “Critical Shifts for Embracing God’s 21st Century Mission,” we explored the need to move “From Preaching to the Choir to Communicating with Cultural Clarity” and “From Waiting for Rock Stars to Unleashing the Overlooked.”
From a Community of the Comfortable to a Community of the Desperate and Committed
“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most.” (John Wesley)
The third and final critical shift involves realigning our community in light of the missional realities of our day. It is a shift from viewing our churches as dispensers of religious goods and services to reimaging our communities of faith as kingdom outposts from which the good news of the gospel flows. Over time, faith communities tend to lose their original missional vibrancy and focus their resources on members and on the maintenance of the status quo. We become comfortable when in reality the gospel is for the desperate and the fully committed.
Missiologist and writer Alex McManus summarizes the outward call of the gospel this way: “The gospel comes to us on its way to someone else. The gospel comes to us on its way to someplace else.” This happens naturally when a community of faith is made up of people desperate for what only God can do and who are eager to share their testimony of God’s work in their lives.
Consider Michael Beck
Pastor Michael Beck, one of my students who currently serves in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, has modeled a missional understanding of the gospel as a pastor in two formerly struggling Methodist congregations. While attending seminary, Michael became the part-time pastor of a small rural congregation averaging less than ten in Sunday worship. One year later the church’s worship had grown to an average of 100 people. The conference then appointed Beck to another struggling church averaging less than 30 in worship. One year later this community had to add an additional service and now averages 200 people in worship. Growth in both of these communities of faith resulted from engaging those outside the church with the good news.
Beck has a dynamic testimony. As a recipient of God’s grace, Beck exhibits a burning desire to share this grace with others. On the ground, this means that Beck focuses his time and energizes his congregations to engage those in need in the neighborhoods surrounding the church property. He has specialized in offering recovery ministries for those struggling with addictions. He has also started Bible studies in local restaurants and even in a tattoo parlor. Being in the community has allowed Beck and his church members to serve those on the outside and created a welcoming culture in which former outsiders become insiders and new ambassadors of God’s grace. By moving outside of the existing church, Beck has embodied the “go to” ethos of the earliest followers of Jesus. Beck’s focus is simple. He reaches out to those who are most desperate for what only God can do. This is a model that can be implemented anywhere.
The power of this dynamic pattern of outsiders becoming insiders is crucial for creating a missional ethos in existing communities of faith. It must be said that this model will create challenges for churches. When new disciples come to faith, they often don’t act like lifelong Christians, their children tend to be loud, and they may not be able to immediately contribute in any substantial way financially to the community. Of course, these problems are good ones to have and long term are much better ones to face than the challenges of atrophy, apathy, and decline — ones that too many existing congregations know all too well.
Take Action Today
Dare to be counted among those who take the leap and make these critical shifts for the sake of the gospel in our day. There are people all around us desperate for what only the gospel of Jesus Christ delivers. They are waiting for churches that (1) speak “plain truth for plain people,” (2) model and teach the ways of Jesus’s kingdom in order to unleash disciples into the world, and (3) stay mission-focused for the sake of the world and to the glory of God.
To embrace these critical shifts in our communities, let us ask a series of questions to help us move forward.
First, who is our mission? The mission of the church always focuses on people, so begin to pray, “Lord, who is our mission?” Allow God to reveal to you the faces of those whom your community is called to serve with the gospel.
Second, how does our community need to shift to be able live out God’s mission?
Last, what kind of people do we need to become to create a community that shifts and mobilizes to embrace God’s mission in the 21st century?
Write down your answers. Share them with others. Imagine your life if you lived out your answers. Pray. Act.
[For more on creating a missional ethos within churches, see Brian D. Russell, (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016).]