Sunday, October 5, 2014

Practicing the Missional Church

I have many fond memories of the church of my childhood, Foote Baptist Church, located in McKinney, Texas, in what was then a rural setting north of Dallas about 30 miles. One of the most significant memories was the altar call, the time at the end of the three weekly services when the pastor would extend an invitation to make decision for Christ. This decision time was the culmination of the entire service. It was a call to walk the aisle and make a public demonstration that a person was “getting saved.”

Later, I was a part of a charismatic church in Houston. At the end of our services, we too emphasized an altar call, though the invitation was not as focused on people making decisions for salvation as much as making decisions to come and get a touch from God’s presence.

However, both focused on the importance of making a decision.

This practice of making a decision has been shaped historically by the revivalist experiences of the American church. The first and second Great Awakenings, followed by 200 years of tent revival meetings, has taught us this. Speakers would articulate a clear message and they would call people to express this decision publicly. This decision-making spirituality is part of our way of doing church.

The call to a decision inside church meetings illustrates much of the way we do Christianity in other arenas. We are deciders. As a default, without even thinking about it, we live according to a decision-based Christianity. It forms a kind of rhythm to the way we do spirituality. It's a kind of music our lives play without our even thinking about it.

While some might argue that this decision-focused mentality is specific to the Evangelical tradition of the church—scholars have defined Evanglicalism around the core of “conversionism,” (See David Fitch’s The End of Evangelicalism?)—the idea of focusing on decisions is much more pervasive. Decision-focused living shapes how we think, without our even necessarily thinking about it. The assumption is that if we want something, then we should decide for that something and then stay focused on that something. Then if we do this, then we will get that something.

But reality does not work this way. If I were a salesperson, I might decide to increase my sales every month, but focusing on increasing my sales numbers won’t change anything. I have to learn to focus on the practices that will lead to greater sales.

Sometimes, in Christianity, we have have this belief that if we decide for the right thing, then the floodgates of the good life will open up. If I decide to believe the right doctrines, or if I decide to repent in the right way, or if I decide to act in the right ways, etc, then all will be well.

In some circles, this decision-based mentality has crept into the missional church conversation. If we see the truth of doctrine of the missio dei (that God is a missional God), and we understand that the church is a missional church (that we are participants in God’s missional nature), then we decide to be missional. Then we get to work doing the stuff that fits with being missional, things like evangelism, social justice, discipleship, movement multiplication. Then we establish metrics that will measure our missional focus.

But like the sales person who has decided to sell more product by focusing on his sales numbers, we often fall into the trap of focusing on the end results, thereby forcing us to do the try-harder approach to be more missional. We don’t get what we decide for by focusing on what we decide for. We don’t get missional, in other words, by focusing on missional. Or if we were to put it in a different way, we don’t make a difference in the world by focusing on making a difference. (This is the point behind my introductory book on missional living entitled Difference Makers.)

That’s like a husband who decides that he wants a great marriage and focuses on all of the leading indicators of what a great marriage should look like. Everyday he makes a list of all the things that great husbands do and don’t do. But the problem is that he is not actually practicing the things that demonstrate love for his wife because he is so concerned about being the “right” kind of husband.

We participate in God’s missional life by developing practices that will shape us into being the kind of people who are missional. Doing a bunch of stuff that looks missional might make for good stories in books and on blogs, but doing missional stuff does not necessarily mean that we are missional.

Consider the salesperson again. If he wants to increase his sales, he must develop practices, most of which will be unseen, that will make him a better salesperson. This might include learning more about his products, going to a sales seminar, and showing more interest in his clients. It might also require him to deal with hidden character issues like impatience or that he needs to work on following through with his commitments. This takes time, effort, and lots of repetition.

We don’t become missional simply because we decide to be so. Missional is an act of the Spirit who transforms us from the inside out. For this we need missional practices. We must develop disciplines or practices that shape us for the journey. Tim Morey writes in his book Embodying Our Faith, “A spiritual discipline is any practice that enables a person to do through training what he or she is not able to do simply by trying. They are practices, relationships and experiences that bring our minds and bodies into cooperation with God’s work in our lives, making us more capable of receiving more of his life and power.”

According to Lyn Dykstra, “Practices are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy and presence of God may be known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, they are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God.” These practices train us to move beyond doing missional stuff as if we were the if we were the agents of change to participating in the work of God, who is the acting in our world.

We are shaped by practices. The problem is that most of us who have been around the church for any length of time have been shaped by practices that conform to the ways of the attractional church. We know how to do the attractional church without even thinking about it. It’s part of who we are. That’s the way practices work. We practice them until they become part of us.

Practices are specific in nature. They are the specific actions we are going to make a part of our lives that will make space in our souls for the Spirit to work in an through us. They are both a work of the Spirit and they are things that we do. We are participating in the life of the Spirit as we do them.

In my book, Missional Small Groups, I introduce 21 different practices that can shape individuals and communities for mission. As we move into a few of them and they generate a way of life in Christ and with one another that is missional. Practices shape this way as we develop through basic rhythms that are organized into three categories.
  • Missional Communion—A way of connecting with God together that shapes our life patterns so that we are no longer shaped by those of this world but changed from the inside out and thereby can impact people in our neighborhoods.
  • Missional Relating—A way of loving one another that stands in contrast to typical relational patterns of the culture, of mutual service and self-sacrifice that is visible to others and impacts them.
  • Missional Engagement—A way of being in neighborhoods and in networks (friends, next-door neighbors, family members, co- workers) that displays Christ’s love in tangible ways.

All three of these rhythms are “missional.” The way we pray and the way we love one another shapes how we participate in God’s missional nature. We cannot say that missional is only about doing stuff like evangelism and social justice. As we move into these three rhythms, we find that missional manifest in the overlap of the three.


As we practice these rhythms of life, we learn to play a different kind of music, missional music that is not based on our deciding for something and then acting, but the kind of music that flows out of us because it is part of who we are.

1 comment:

swadie said...

Interesting - I think there is a kind of discipleship that means you hunger deeply for each of these 3 facets - intimacy/fellowship with God, love for others both in and out of the church. If you want those things bad enough, I think you'll want to train / learn to improve in all of them.