Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Missional Church & The Attractive Church

Much has been written about the fact that God is by nature "missional" that God is a "sent" God in that Jesus was sent (John 1) and that the Spirit is now sent (John 14) to carry out the mission of the Father. Thereby the church is called to participate in this sending nature of God. The church is a "sent" people.

This is a necessary corrective and challenge to a church that has been stuck in a "come & see" mire, one that has been labeled as "attractional." By this I mean that the onus is put on the seeker to come to the church to find out about God. And it puts pressure on the church to develop something that is good enough for people to want to come. This is a centripetal strategy because the efforts of the church are directed toward the center. In my book Difference Makers, I wrote:

"I grew up a mile away from the church where my family attended, and I could see the steeple from my bedroom window. I spent more time in that building by the time I was fourteen than in any other building besides my house. That was the place where God-talk happened. It's not that we were ashamed to talk about God outside the building, but when we talked about God working in our world, we focused on getting people to come to the building" (92).

In contrast, to be missional is to be centrifugal, to move out from the center. The church exists for the sake of the beauty of the world. The people of God are sent to display beauty in the midst of everyday life. I illustrate it with this simple diagram in Difference Makers.

So how do we do this? A common approach might follow this simple three-step pattern:

Step 1: We learn about God's missional (sending) nature and see how the church is called to be missional.
Step 2: We research methods that other churches have used to be missional. This might include things like structures, resources, and specific outreach strategies.
Step 3: We go and do something that reflects this missional activity.

However, this approach assumes that the key to being missional is rooted in activism and pragmatism. As I read various writings, it seems that the call to be missional is all about what we do. Quite honestly, after reading on this topic, I get exhausted from all their "make-something-happen-for-God" talk. It's easy to transfer the pressures that coincide with the "come & see" strategy to the pressures intrinsic to "go & do" approaches.

Here's my question: When we approach "missional" with an activist and pragmatic lens, are we creating a way of being the church that is beautiful, one that is attractive and winsome, or are we just wearing ourselves out?

The opposite of the attractional is not a call to be un-attractive because we are trying so hard to be missional. The Kingdom of God is a beautiful way and if the way that we are living as we seek to be on mission with God is less than beautiful, then we need to rethink what we are up to.

Robert Jensen, one of the most creative American theologians of the last 50 years writes,

"The church ... exists as anticipation. What she anticipates is inclusion in the triune communion. In the End, the koinonia that the risen Christ and his Father now live in their Spirit will become the mutual love in which believers will limitlessly find one another. The church exists to become that fellowship; the church's own communal Spirit is sheer arrabon [deposit, down payment or pledge] of that Community.
    Thus the church's present reality anticipates, in all brokenness and fallibility, the end of all things, exactly as the end is the Trinity's embrace of 'all in all.' We may say: the communion that is now the church is itself constituted by an event of communion or participation, with the communion that is the Trinity. It is this last twist that locates the church at the gate of heaven." (Robert Jenson, ST Vol II, 222).

We participate in God's missional nature as we participate in triune communion. Over the years, I've discovered that God's way of working in the world does not always happen according to our "make-it-happen" plans that are shaped by our activism and pragmatism. If I were God, I would have done something a long time ago to convince people that Jesus is the way, but that would have been contrary to his nature. He does not force or cajole. Jesus came with a way of living that put on display an attractive alternative to the patterns of this world and it got him killed. It was veiled beauty and our call today is quite similar. We are called to live out veiled beauty that offers an attractive alternative, a "deposit" that anticipates the future of full communion with God. Here are a few questions to ask:
  • Is the way that we are trying to be missional attractive? 
  • Is our way of life a beautiful alternative? 
  • Is our current experience a foretaste of what is to come?
Or are we just adopting the patterns of the "make-it-happen" world of leadership, and with it the stress, the isolation, and the compulsion to succeed?

This is a call to "go & be" a people who participate in triune communion. My prayer is that we will be sent as people who know the communion of the triune God. This is at the heart of "missional." This is a beautiful, attractive way of being the church.

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