(This is the fourth entry in my series entitled "Leading Missional Small Groups."
I want to move forward and develop my constructive alternative to "doing mission," but before I do so, I need to challenge one more aspect of how "doing" has pervaded our life in the church. Maybe I need to write this for myself so as to exercise my own "doing missional" demons. From what I read in various books and what I have observed in church life (and actually participated in, sadly) much of our ministry in the world has turned people into projects. Whether involved in evangelistic outreach, in social justice agendas or planting churches, I've observed that we use project language that focuses on accomplishing goals, articulating an abstract vision or reinforces something like a purpose statement. We measure these projects in the number of people who get saved, the number of people involved in a project or the number of churches we start. But we are talking about people and I fear that the imagination that shapes much of what we do to change our world falls short of seeing people as people.
I must warn you, I have not found a way to illustrate my point without being blunt. So here are some concrete ways that I've seen us treat people outside the church as projects. I use language patterns because the way we use words reveals something hidden within us.
1. Categorizing people on the Engle Scale. (Google this if you've never seen it.)
2. Calling people "pre-Christians."
3. Training people how to "make friends for Christ."
4. Making a prayer list of non-Christian friends in our groups.
5. Strategizing "Matthew parties" or social events so we can build relationships with "the lost."
6. Doing big splash service projects in poor neighborhoods.
7. Calling the under-resourced "the poor."
8. Leading services or serving food at a homeless shelter without getting to know those being served.
9. Reporting how much our churches have grown over the last year or how many new sites have been planted.
I am coming from the place of assuming that behind each of these lies great intentions. I'm not questioning the intentions of those who use this language. And I'm sure that each has been used by many who genuinely did not view people as projects. And I must confess, that I have used most of these words in my ministry and writing. However, I've been challenged in my ministry to listen to the Spirit and reconsider how I view people and as a result, I've had to re-think the language I use.
1. Instead of rating non-Christians on a scale of how close or how far they are from faith in Christ, I'm learning to listen to people to understand their perspective so that they feel that I am having honest conversations with them.
2. Instead of calling people "pre-Christian" what if we started using their names. They are not a category.
3. Instead of making friends "for" Christ, I'm asking Jesus to give me genuine love for people even if they never even show any interest in Christ.
4. Instead of hanging up a poster in my group with a list of names of non-Christian friends, I'm inviting groups to have conversations about people they know who need to experience God's love.
5. Instead of big splash service projects, let's get to know people in the neighborhood and ask them what they need. And then let's not publicize what we did.
6. Instead of having "Matthew Parties" as a strategy to win people to Jesus, why can't we just be hospitable for the sake of showing love. It does not have to be a strategy.
7. Instead of calling people "the poor" they are just people who have a different set of needs. Why can't we use language like "under-resourced" or those who experience a life of poverty.
8. Instead of dropping in at a homeless shelter, let's actually eat with them and listen to their stories.
9. Instead of reporting statistics about numbers, let's emphasize testimonies about changed lives.
Missional is reflected the the nature of God. Through the Incarnation, Jesus came speaking our language, meeting us in our reality. He became one of us. If that is what it means for us to be missional, we refuse this insider "project" language that only churched people care about and learn to have conversations that are full of grace and treat people as people, not projects.