February 2011


“Missional Church” lingo has, let’s face it, given church leaders like us a language that makes us appear hip, rad, trendy, dope, and cool. Too many church leaders are jumping onto the coolness bandwagon of the missional church movement without seriously reflecting, I’m afraid, on the cost. As far as I can tell, a missional church is neither cool nor clever but courageously committed to the cost involved in such an ecclesiological conviction.      

There is nothing glamorous about being a missional church. The impact of these churches may never show up on a statistical report since most churches track only those attendees who come into the building and not those who go out in service to the community. Becoming a missional church means giving financial and volunteer resources away to the community, even if it means a lean budget and personnel for church-based programs. Furthermore, a church that begins to look outward to serve the needs of people beyond the walls of the church will experience an increased level of stress and strain. No, this move toward mission is not cool at all. Why, then, would any church decide to go missional? Because the very word defines the character of the Father who sends the Son and the Spirit in order to send the Church out into the world to be ‘glocal’ (global and local) missionaries.

Think about it. The Trinitarian God did not stay in His holy huddle of three waiting for us to come to Him. The Father sent the Son onto our turf. The Son “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and the cost for God was substantial. Not too long after that, the Father sends out the Spirit to a bunch of fearful Christian Jews who are congregated in another kind of huddle, disconnected from and fearful of people outside of the Christian faith. But when the Spirit comes the Church goes. In other words, from Acts 2 and following, the Early Church gets missional. They start serving the poor, feeding the hungry, liberating captives, and healing the hurting in the name of Jesus. The missional church movement is not some new and original trend; it’s as old as that first Pentecost.

Like the Early Church in Acts, the Wesleyan Church has its roots in the missional movement. John Wesley, like most of his contemporaries, spent lots of time in the church building, so much so that he was disconnected from the desperate needs of people in his community. However, when the Spirit came to “warm” his heart, Wesley went out. He got missional! He began to go out to the poor drunk masses of English society who weren’t welcome in the church, a church led and controlled predominantly by the rich Anglican elite. Wesley took the stuff that makes the church, the “church,” to the streets. He got caught up in the missio dei, the “mission of God” in the world, and partnered with God to do what God has always been doing. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” and any church that is truly “Christian” will incarnate the good news of Christ by venturing out of our safe and predictable holy huddle to dwell among broken people on their turf. “There is no holiness but social holiness,” wrote Wesley, and he practiced this in a manner that cost him significantly.

If you are still reading then you just might be crazy enough to roll up your sleeves and get missional. This is good! Now it’s time to consider some of the practical applications of our theological convictions. While your unique community context will determine the specifics, here are some of start-up costs for churches wanting to become missional:

-Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Commit to spending at least as much money on the practical needs of people in your community as you do on your worship service. Monitors and new microphones are important. Cutting edge technology can, in my estimation, enhance the quality of a worship experience. However, a missional church decides that when push comes to shove they will pay the electric bill so that a family of five can have heat in January even if it means postponing the purchase of that much needed monitor. Other missional expenditures might include a food pantry, a clothing drive for the homeless, and an ongoing benevolence fund for people with financial emergencies.

-Volunteer Outside of the Church: Every church deals with the challenge of begging, I mean recruiting, enough volunteers to serve in church-based programs (usually children’s ministry!). So, the following advice may seem counter-intuitive. Encourage your congregation to volunteer a portion of their time through community service organizations that are meeting the needs of people in the community. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, Habitat for Humanity, Women’s Resources, and Soup Kitchens are just a few of the volunteer possibilities that may exist in your community. Get involved in global issues too, such as fighting human trafficking in Thailand, offering disaster relief in Haiti, and providing clean water in Zambia. Our sacrificial service in the name of Jesus will proclaim that Jesus is Lord beyond our words. Church leaders, remember to celebrate the service of those who volunteer outside of the church as much as you appreciate those who serve in church-based ministries.

-Become a Hospitable Hospital: A low-cost, low-energy step toward becoming a missional church is opening your doors to share space with people meeting community needs. Many service organizations are experiencing a funding crunch due, in part, to our nation’s economic struggles and political policy revisions. Why not invite these organizations to utilize your church building…for free! Invite recovery groups (Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Grief Recovery) and support groups (Cancer Survivors, Victims of Domestic Violence, Easter Seals) to utilize your church building. This, too, may seem counter-intuitive but it will go a long way in communicating that your church cares for the community. What is more, as people who don’t attend your church show up for a recovery or support group they just might become so comfortable in the building that they venture into your weekend worship service.     

The bottom line is that missional churches share their resources (money, people, facility) to meet the real needs of real people in the name of the real Jesus. The church I most recently served grew significantly, in terms of attendance, but that was not the goal. The goal was to be the church in the world by embodying the values of an eternal King who came onto our turf as a peasant Jew. People were attracted to our church not because of some marketing strategy, concert, or elaborate facility. God can use strategies, concerts, and facilities for His glorious purposes. The church I served, however, experienced increased vitality, momentum, and growth simply because we decided to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and liberate the addicted and afflicted in the name of Jesus. So can your church, as long as you’re willing to forsake coolness and endure the cost.

Lenny Luchetti

Prayer — talking and listening to God — has been on my mind lately.  I’m sure this is mainly because I just came back from a church prayer retreat followed by a convicting and insightful sermon on listening to God this Sunday.  But it’s also because there’s been a lot of personal needs on my mind that drive me to my knees.  I wish it wasn’t the case that I think about prayer mostly when I’m feeling needy.  But I suspect that’s the case for most of us.  So let me take this opportunity to share with you what’s been on my mind.  I’ll save the personal stuff for more personal conversations.  These thoughts are directed more towards what Christian prayer is all about.  Perhaps you will find them helpful in your own practice of prayer.

Prayer — talking and listening to God — is a central Christian practice.  Such a claim is uncontroversial.  In fact, prayer is central to most religious traditions.  Furthermore, what makes prayer Christian is not primarily its content, form, or technique.  What makes Christian prayer unique is the identity of the One to whom we pray and from whom we expect to hear.  If prayer is conversation with God, then Christian prayer is conversation with the Christian God, i.e., the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  What makes prayer Christian is that it is prayer in Jesus’ name.

But surely there’s something more to Christian conversation with God than tacking “in Jesus’ name Amen” to an otherwise pagan prayer.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the best way to get at this “something more” is to think less about our talking to God and more about how we listen to God.  For the fact is, we are human beings, and prayer is a deeply human act.  Hence we cannot expect that our words to God will be fundamentally different from every other kind of human religious speech.  So what is fundamentally different about Christian prayer is the one who answers our prayers.  He is absolutely unique, and so listening to him is a unique activity — still human, but unique nonetheless.  In fact, its uniqueness consists in its unequivocally human character.  Let me explain what I mean by that.

The Christian God is unique not only because he is different from us humans.  What object of religious devotion is not different from his or her devotees?  Isn’t that the point of religion, i.e., that the gods have something that we want but don’t yet have?  But the Christian God is unique from all other gods on offer because he is not only different from us but also became one of us.  “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14).  God’s word to us takes human form.  Jesus is God’s central and definitive speech-act.  God’s speech to us is not only divine, but also human.

What does this mean for prayer, i.e., talking and listening to God?  Well, it at least entails that learning to discern the voice of God is not as spooky as it sometimes seems to be.  Jesus says that his sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10:4).  This metaphor does not simply refer the generic search to discern the will of God for my life.  This metaphor refers to the very specific act of being a disciple of Jesus, knowing his voice, learning to discern the will of God in him, and in no other.  The Word of God is Jesus.

So discerning God’s voice means, at its core, recognizing the voice of Jesus.  And Jesus was a man.  He was a human being like you and me.  So we can really know his voice.  We can read it in a book.  We can hear it spoken.  We can discern him speaking here and now in and through the records of his speaking there and then.  In other words, listening to God means first and foremost reading the Bible.

But just because it’s not so spooky after all to hear God’s voice, doesn’t mean it is easy!  In fact, it’s quite hard.  Not because God is so inaccessible to us.  The whole point of the incarnation is that God is knowable.  The reason it’s so hard is because we are dead in our sins.  We can’t hear because we’re dead, and dead people don’t do anything, least of all listen to the living.  That’s part of why we mourn death so much: we can no longer speak to those who are gone, no longer say the things we wish we would have said.  That’s the sort of situation sin creates between us and God.  We can no longer hear him, because we have died.  Our deadness in sin constitutes our deafness to the voice of God made audible in Jesus Christ.

But there’s hope.  For the voice of Jesus, though it is human like ours, is not only human.  In the voice of Jesus there resounds the words of eternal life (John 6:68).  His voice, without ceasing to be a recognizable human voice, can breath life into the dead so that they can hear again.  “Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).  Jesus doesn’t hear the voices of dead people, like some of us claim to do.  Dead people hear the voice of Jesus!  Why?  Because in his human life dwells the very life of God.  Because in his human words resounds the very words of God.  Jesus is the Word of God.

We seem to be getting far away from prayer.  But we’re not.  If prayer is conversation with God, then we must identify the parties of this conversation to make make any practical headway.  The Christian God is the God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made audible in his life.  And those who talk and listen to this God are the dead who are raised by the voice of Jesus.  So far, so good.

However, this kind of makes it sound like we won’t get to really converse with God until the end, i.e., when Jesus Christ returns, raises us from the dead, and glorifies us so that we may hear his glorified human voice.  Well, in a certain sense, prayer is only possible at the end.  But the good news is, the end is here!  The kingdom of God is at hand!  “A time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God.”  We can lean into our future with God because the future is made present in the living Jesus Christ.  We can hear the voice of Jesus today, for he is risen.  He is not only human (and therefore recognizable).  He is not only divine (and so able to speak to the dead).  He is also risen (and so speaks to dead people like us now).

With all this in mind, let’s eavesdrop on one particular conversation with the risen Jesus:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.  (John 20:11-18)

Note: Although not immediately, Mary eventually recognizes the voice of Jesus.  He has fulfilled his promise that his sheep would know his voice.

Note also: She doesn’t recognize him until he reveals himself by speaking her name.  She was looking for a dead man, when she herself was dead, unable to recognize her living Lord.  The dead man she was looking for was alive, and he awakens her with his voice.

Note finally: All this takes place after Christ’s resurrection.  Conversing with Jesus is not a thing of the past known only to those around during his earthly ministry.  Nor is it a thing of the future known only to those who are raised bodily at the end of time.  No!  Conversing with Jesus is a present-tense reality, something that happens in the time between his resurrection and his return.

Our conversations with Jesus are made possible by his Spirit, whom he gives to us upon his ascension to the Father.  But they are no less real.  In fact, he claims that they are even better because of this (cf. John 14 and 16).  By the Holy Spirit, we cry out to God, joining the eternal conversation between the risen Christ and his Father, who by his grace is also our Father.  And though it is wonderfully divine, this conversation is also thoroughly human. And so we can actually participate in it, i.e., understand what’s going on, contribute to the conversation, and be taken up into it so that we are changed.

Those are my thoughts on prayer today.  They have helped me to deepen my understanding and pratice of talking and listening to God.  Perhaps they will be helpful to you too.

-John

If you were to ask many Christians which book of the Bible is their favorite, many would point to the book of James.  And understandably so–it is full of verses that so aptly capture life.  Many Christians have committed portions of it to memory.  On Valentine’s Day, I was somehow drawn to one of those verses in James with which we so easily identify, namely, James 3:8: “No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (NRSV).

Now, of course, God can do anything.  But I’ll confess, James 3 is about the only passage in the whole Bible that comes close to being an exception in my theology of sanctification.  If you ask me about Romans 7, I along with the majority of biblical experts would tell you with great confidence that it is not about the inevitability of sin in the life of a believer.  If you ask me about Philippians 3:12, I’ll point to the previous verse to argue that “perfection” in that verse is about resurrection, not about the inevitability of failure.

Yet despite the optimism of the New Testament, despite what I believe is a consistently positive message in the New Testament in relation to temptation (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:13), James 3:2 captures well the inevitability of us messing up with our tongues: “all of us make many mistakes” (NRSV).  The chapter then goes on to mourn our constant human struggle with our mouths.  Who of us does not identify with its words?  How many of us cannot think of a time when our tongue manifested itself as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison”?

Perhaps finances are the number one cause of marital conflict.  Perhaps tensions over children are second.  Perhaps issues relating to sex are third.  But the instrument by which we torture is almost always the tongue.

At various times I have put a 5 minute delay on my email.  Although I am usually quite restrained in person, those who only know me electronically may at times get a different impression.  During some of the tense times of founding the seminary, Russ Gunsalus wisely steered me to put a delay on my Outbox so that I had a little time to think about the effect of my words.

Oh, that we could do this with our tongues!  How many marriages would be saved?  How many relationships retained?  Forgiveness is not easy, nor is it easy for us to see our own faults.  James might just as well have written a chapter on these matters.  If we could even just put a five second delay before our words launched, how many relationships would be spared?

In this light I marvel all the more at Jesus before the high priest.  Even though false witnesses were saying vile things about him, Jesus did not open his mouth (e.g., Mark 14:61).  Silence takes tongue control to the next level of sanctification.  We somehow think we can lash out when we are in the right.  The fact of the matter is, we are almost always at least a little in the wrong, and often we have massive blind spots to how wrong we are.

Can we be silent, even when we are convinced we are in the right?  And not in a condescending way.  Look at me, the martyr.  I will be silent because I am morally superior to you.  The ability of human nature to twist virtue into sinfulness is nothing short of astounding.

Valentine’s Day may not be a Christian holiday, but it is a wonderful day to celebrate the love commandment.  We are not only to love our neighbors, but our enemies.  Indeed, we are to love our families and our spouses!  Do to others what you would have them do to you.  Use your tongue for blessing today and every day.  And leave the cursing in your Deleted folder (and be sure to empty it often… but that is another post).

As an instructor at Wesley Seminary (Marion, IN), I teach a class called “The Missional Church.”  It is a joy to see “lights go on” in the hearts of students when they consider the priority of believers to share the message—and experience—of God’s love beyond the walls of their church.  The “missional movement” is bringing many church leaders to the important realization that Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their world.

I have observed, however, that after reading books by missional authors and viewing videos of missional teachers, some students seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  That is, they conclude that the ultimate goal of a “missional church” is to go into the community to do good works in the name of Christ and the expansion of “the Kingdom.”  And whether these needy folks ever come to faith, and membership in a local church, is not a criteria to define “success” in their missional endeavors.

For example, a missionally inclined blogger recently lit into Andy Stanley’s “5 million dollar bridge.”  North Point Community Church, a church known for its commitment to outreach and evangelism, has grown to the point where parking has become problematic.  Stanley told his parishioners of the need to ease traffic congestion by constructing a bridge off of the main thoroughfare into the church.  His letter to members included the following paragraph:

Is it [the bridge] worth it?  It all depends.  If our mission is to be a church that’s perfectly designed for the people who already attend, then we don’t need a bridge.  But if we want to continue to be a church unchurched people love to attend, then yes, it’s worth it.  From my perspective, this is not a “nice to have” option.  Honestly, I don’t want to raise money for, or give money to, something that’s not mission critical.  I believe creating a second access point allows us to stay on mission. [i]

It seems obvious that Stanley’s commitment, as pastor, is to make disciples and assimilate them into the local church.  But the missional blogger responds:

This makes me sick.  This is completely un-missional.  Missional churches are not attractional churches.  Missional churches send out their parishioners as missionaries to the world, not bring them to church over a five million dollar edifice set up to speed up their exit and entry.[ii]

In their zeal to create the Kingdom of God in the world, some who “buy into” the missional movement seem to have (or develop) a bias against the established church.  Their commitment is to “bring the Kingdom of God into the community.”  But, the success of those kingdom-building efforts does not seem to be evaluated on whether those who are exposed to “the Kingdom” are ever reached and assimilated into active membership and participation in a local church.

A commitment to the great commission (Mt. 28:19-20) demands a “high view” of the church—that the church is absolutely essential.  It is not a Body of Christ; it is the Body of Christ.  Not just a bride, but the bride of Christ. The Church is held to be the central part of God’s plan for the salvation and discipling of people and nations.  New converts must not only believe in Jesus Christ, but must become responsible members of the Church.  If the Bible is to be taken seriously, we cannot hold any other point of view.  Becoming a Christian means becoming a part of the Body.  In fact, unless non-Christians believe and become part of the Church, personified through the local congregation, the ultimate value of our “missional” activities must be questioned.  This is the high view of the Church.  A low view of the Church is that whether or not you belong to the Church is more or less a matter of choice.  If you like it, you belong; if you don’t, you don’t.

As we lead our congregations forward in a re-commitment to focusing beyond the walls of our churches, I hope we will keep a balanced notion of Christ’s ultimate objective, and thus ours: to seek and to save those who are lost (Lk. 19:10), and to be an instrument of Christ in building His Church (Mt. 16:18).