Monday, March 28, 2011

Being Practical about Missional

On Friday, I ate at an Indian restaurant by myself. I chose not to pray before I ate. Not sure why. I probably didn't do it because I have been rather litigious about that in the past. When I was in college, I started praying before meal at restaurants. I was motivated by the desire to be a good witness and resist the fear to be intimidated by others.

After not praying at the Indian restaurant on Friday, it hit me why I might actually pray before a meal. I pray not because I want to influence others. I pray not because I want to combat any fear of judgement. (At least not now) I pray because Jesus people are thankful people, because Jesus people recognize the source of food. Prayer is not about other people. It's about being who I am. If that impacts others then so be it, but that's not my motivation. A "witness" only needs to demonstrate what is true. A "witness" does not have to be more than that to make an impact.

I think this also relates to what it means to be missional. Last week I challenged some of the forms of "doing" mission that turn people into projects. Over the last year, as I have challenged this doing mission perspective, I've gotten some push back because people want practical things that can be done to help people get started on mission. No doubt this is true. I don't want to be impractical.

Instead, I want to invite people into a different imagination. We can do things to change the world, and most of the time we turn people into projects because we want to get something done. Or we can be who we are as God's missional people and we will learn to love people and thereby change the world. Things change because we love and I don't know if there is anything more practical than that.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

People into Projects: Let's Use Language that is Actually Missional

(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.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Passionate Reactions to Books, Rob Bell's and Others

I've not read Rob Bell's book. I'm not sure if I will any time soon. My list of books to read is far too long and I'm no where close to being caught up on the research I need to do right now for the various projects I am writing. But all the hubbub about this book has caused me to reflect on the way various leaders in the church have responded to it. Today, I read on Twitter that a few Christian bookstores have even refused to carry the book. The reaction of reviewers is fueled with a great passion and very strong opinions, both for and against.

While sitting back and watching all of the "conversations" I began to ask a different set of question: What would happen if church leaders responded as passionately to books that promoted a heretical Gospel that clearly embraced American consumerism at its core? What if we responded just as strongly to teachings that promote individualism and personal success that seem to come out under the banner of "Christian" every year? What if we challenged the church literature that promotes the separation of races and the marginalization of the poor, all in the name of building large church memberships?

I have strong reactions to many "Christian" books that I see coming out in bookstores. Many of them--some of them quite popular--promote subtle forms of heresy, but they use language that is accepted as orthodox. When something like Rob Bell's book hits that overtly challenges--that's what I read in the reviews anyway--our standard language and thought patterns, it stirs the pot. But have we become so accustomed to the marriage of the church with the thought patterns of consumerism, individualism, and vestiges of church success that we no longer see the problems?

Part of me wants to start a blog series that challenges books along these lines, but I just don't have the energy to invest in that. I'm more interested in investing an a constructive alternative. Lord, ... your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Free Study Guide

Based on the feedback I have been getting from readers, I thought it might be a good idea to develop a study guide to help group leaders introduce my book Missional Small Groups to their group members. In Appendix A of the book, I wrote a basic outline for 13 weeks of meetings, but it is very skeletal in nature. The study guide that I have developed is much more substantive. It includes an introductory reading for each week, a summary of the 21 different practices that I introduce in the book and a simple process that will guide a group to choose three of those practices so that they can get started on the missional journey.

Download it by clicking here and please tell others about it. It's free.

Also, if you have feedback on ways that I could improve the study guide, let me know. I want to make it as helpful as possible.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Missional Small Groups Don't Do Mission

Doing mission is part of my church tradition, as I've tried to illustrate over the last two posts. Over the last few years, there has been a large set of literature that has encouraged the church to shift its emphasis from a focus on internal ministry to external ministry, but as I look back on my experience, I cannot remember a time when this was not the focus of ministry. We were always looking outside the church to do ministry in some form or fashion. And if one really looks at how small groups have been developed over the last 25 years, there has been a constant focus in the various books on reaching out beyond the confines of the group to a wider community.

Having a focus on reaching out in various ways is not new to the church, so one might assume that we can simply apply this experience to the development of missional community. All we need to do is continue with our experience in prayer as a group and building community and then just add the outreach or a "missional" focus. We can choose from a slew of outreach strategies and we have more outreach curricula out our disposal than we know what to do with, but neither will lead us to the heart of what it means to develop missional community.

This "add mission" on top of prayer and community mentality propagates a "doing" mentality that has been the focus of the church for most of recent history. Mission is imagined as something a group of Christian insiders do for unchurched outsiders. It is based on the assumption that we, as insiders, know something that they, as outsiders, need to know and our job is to deliver it to them. We have a message that they need to hear.

A missional community realizes that it is not called to "do" mission. It knows that it cannot merely add outreach on top of its current life and really expect to make a difference in the world.

So mission is not merely a third component that we can add on top of prayer and community life.

Why not? I'd like to hear what you have to say on this.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ways of Doing Missional Community: Leading Missional Small Groups 1b

Fifteen years ago small groups were something only renegade churches tried. Now small groups, house churches, mid-size (20-50 people) communities and other forms of organic/relational gatherings are so common that it's hard to find a church that doesn't do some form of groups. In addition, if you go back fifteen years, the concept of "missional" was only a term being bantered about by a group of six authors who were asking big questions about what it meant to be the church in North America. Their work resulted in a landmark book entitled Missional Church.

I've been editing and writing on small groups for nearly 20 years and on missional for the last five. To do this I have had to keep track of what people are writing and saying about these two areas. And to be honest, I cannot keep up. There is just too much being written and too many conferences about these two hot topics. Now of course the conversations about these two topics have merged. If you follow any of the chatter in the small group world, the idea that groups should be missional is commonly accepted by even conservative church leaders. One pastor recently stated at a conference that nothing fosters community like a common mission.

Honestly I'm thrilled by the energy that people have for the idea of missional community. But at the same time I'm troubled by what's being promoted as missional group life. Most of what I see bantered around as missional community falls short of what I'd like to see. The focus seems to fall squarely on various ways of “doing” mission instead of “being” missional. Let me illustrate with a few concrete examples:

Servant Evangelism: I think the stuff that Steve Sjogren has developed over the last 20 years is great. Creating low-risk opportunities to serve people is a great way to get people out in a community. Groups can work together to do things like passing out water bottles at a local beach to mowing yards on a local street. Great stuff. But I am looking for more.

Relationship Evangelism: Statistics reveal that most people who come to faith in Jesus do so through a relationship with a Christian friend, relative, co-worker or neighbor. It is common for small group training curriculum to promote relationship evangelism as part of the life of a healthy group. But is leading our friends to make a decision for Christ enough? I'm looking for more.

Project or Task Ministry: Taking on specific service projects is also promoted as missional: serving at a homeless shelter, tutoring kids who live in under-resourced neighborhoods, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity are examples of this. All good stuff. I've got no problem with any of them. But there is something else.

Now before you think me overly critical, let me say that I used to teach and have written about all of these in a positive light over the years. But adding one or even all of them to a groups life will not make them missional. There must be more. We've been doing these kinds of things in small groups for decades and they've fallen short of really making a difference in our world. Do we really need more doing? Or might there be a different perspective?

What do you long to see in a group that is missional?