The New Mission - Joining God in the Neighborhood

The old mission was get people to join the church, and discover God there.  We've spent 500 years with that focus, and particularly in the United States that has been our focus in the post WW II era.  The incredible growth of Christian congregations that occured after my parents generation returned from the global conflict to hault fascism resulted in a huge economic boom.  That was accompanied by a baby boom, that included a church boom.  Denominations expanded and grew in the 40's, 50's and 60's.  But, then it all started to shift in a different direction in the 1970's.  The steady decline of institutional forms of Christian expression began. A new school of thought emerged in the 1970's. It started with Donald McGavern and later Peter Wagner at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.  It was called the Church Growth Movement.  I'm a disciple of that movement and as a parish pastor I borrowed some of the principles that enabled two congregations I served to expand their outreach.  Yes we grew.  We grew through an approach to ministry that emphasized removing the barriers that were discouraging people from coming to church.  This meant genuinely welcoming children, sermons that were rooted in real life, celebrating broken people as embraced by God, rearranging the worship service to be contextualized to where we resided. I was always suspect of some of the theological tenets connected with the movement, but more so, I was deeply uncomfortable with the marriage of consumer capitalism and congregaional marketing.  The movement needed a corrective, and it received it.

In the 1990's and early 2000's, many of us sought to deepen our congregational life in both the historic roots of the Christian faith as well as the practices that had for centuries deepened people's spiritual vitality.  We shifted the focus to the Schema Creed, found in Jesus emphasis on Loving God and Loving Others.  The idea was that a spiritually formed person loves God by following Jesus and loving others.  While still maintaining certain adjustments from the church growth movement, we moved down and out.  In other words, the idea was let's get deeper (down) so that we can serve others (out).  Faith in Action became a central part of our ministry focus.  The new mission, or as I prefer to call it the ancient/future mission, is to join God in the neighborhood.

This is a very difficult shift for many who have been conditioned and trained in the church culture of the 20th century.  But, I now believe that the future of the Jesus movement will be much more diverse that it is today. In the future, we will have congregations.  But we will also have other expressions, such as spiritual life centers that teach yoga, Tai Chai, meditation, prayer all with a Jesus centered philosophy.  There will also be businesses such as Bean Towne Coffee, which function as businesses but have a covert Christian philosophy of service and charity.  We are also going to have small communities where people gather a couple times a month, maybe for a meal, faith conversations, service.  In other words, more explicity in the world expressions of the Christian movement, as opposed to retreat from the world expressions.

The biblical basis for all this can be found in Luke 10:1-12.  Typically known as the sending of the 70.  I've come to love this chapter of Luke's gospel.  (Click the scripture link if you want to read the passage now.) As Jesus is sending out these disciples, in pairs, he exhorts them to find a house and stay there, eat what they eat, shower them with peace, and as you go take no purse or bag.  In other words, leave the baggage behind.  In our time, you could translate this passage as: "Go be anthropologists.  Go immerse yourself in the culture, eat what they eat, wear their clothes, shop in their shops, watch the TV and movies of the people in the neighborhood.  As you get to know them, develop friendships.  Be the person people look to as the source of something deeper.  Don't sell Jesus and his philosophy, live Jesus and his philosophy."

Alan Roxburgh's great, and I mean this book knocks my socks off every time I pull it off the shelf, goes into this thinking deeply.  It's called Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood.  (I've got an autographed copy, bet you are super jealous. Maybe in the future I'll put it on ebay and become a very rich man, and donate all the proceeds to some cool Jesus movement)

Some quotesfrom the book:

The good news is that God is doing something far bigger and more imaginative than can be placed in these small, parochial categories.

It is through the ordinary people of God, the nameless people who never stand on stages or get their photo in the news, that the gospel will indwell their space.

It may be that Christian but not churched, is the new expression of spiritual but not religious.

The lord of creation is out there ahead of us;  he has left the temple and is calling the church to followin a risky path of leaving behind its baggage.

Roxburgh makes us nervous, because he is challenging deeply held assumptions about what it means to be a Christian and to be the church.  But, he is not doing this only in books and lectures, he is living it out in his home in Vancover, BC. He lives in a house of family and Jesus followers attempting to exlore what this all looks like.


How does this fit here in New England, the synod of grand experimentation.?

Last Sunday, I was at St. Ansgar Lutheran Church in Portland, ME, where we celebrated the beginning of a new ministry in the neighborhood.  Together with a whole host of partners, chief of which is the people of St. Ansgar but includes Episcopalians and others, we installed Pastor Maria Anderson.  She's half time at St. Ansgar and half time in the neighborhood.  That's right, 55% of her time is going to be spent in the neighborhood.  No, not recruiting people to come to church.  Instead she'll be entering into the lives of people, exploring and understanding the culture of spiritually curious but institutionally allergic Portlandiars. Who knows what will develop over time? - a small group in a coffee shop, a monthly dinner club, a weekly book club, a mission and service core.  We honestly don't know.  We are giving up a bit of control here.  We are saying, Jesus you lead.  We've been trying it our way, we'll now try it your way, Luke 10 way.  

If this ministry sounds exciting, interesting, curiously wonderful, and you want more information.  Send me an email, I'll connect you. If you are sensing this is something that needs some Holy Spirit mojo, stop reading right now, and offer a prayer for Maria and St. Ansgar.  Offer thanks for their courage, and wisdom going forward. You can also offer up a prayer of thanks for Pastor Tim Roser, my Associate for Maine who pushed this experiment forward. If you are inspired and thinking how can I support this ministry, and you want to help it continue, consider a donation.  If this ministry makes you think, wholly molly Batman, this is not the church I grew up in - you are right.  It is different.  You weren't wrong, you aren't a bad person, it's just that the world has changed, and is changing.  It's not your fault.  But, I believe that a big part of our calling in this time is to explore ways to move the mission of Jesus forward into the next millenium.  I'm not entirely sure how to do that, so we are just gonna keep experimenting our way into God's future.