There is a lot of talk today about being missional. But what does that mean? If a church group does an outreach once a year, does that make them missional? If a church gives $10 to a missionary during the course of a year, does that make them missional? Categorically, yes. But so many groups are actually doing so little that they’re actually closer to “mission-ish.”
Honestly, is it working?
There is a more serious tribe in the American church that see themselves as mission-based. These groups work hard to spend large portions of their energy and money on mission initiatives. They see evangelism as the first purpose of the church and are organize themselves around their next outreach.
While mission-based churches are more aligned with the great commission than most, they can still find themselves constantly engaged in outreach activity but experiencing few conversions. One group I talked to held several events a year drawing 250 to each one. Yet after several years of doing this, they have failed to have even one person from the event attend one of their weekend gatherings more than two times.
While I applaud the thousands of groups that engage in outreaches in the name of Jesus across our land, it does us well to stop and ask if these outreaches are actually effective at populating our weekend gatherings, and even more importantly populating heaven. Such an analysis reveals that outreaches are statistically failing, across all denominational lines, to get lost people started on a journey of faith.
Many people who will receive the help offered from outreaches will kindly refuse the invitation to join host group for a worship gathering. With few exceptions, the concept of “outreach” is statistically dead as an evangelistic tool – a point many churches might want to consider. Numerous outreaches does not equal “mission accomplished.”
Out of the 425,000 Christian churches in the US, only one percent are growing as a result of bringing sinners to the Savior, and I seriously doubt many of them are not using outreach concepts as much as incarnation concepts. All to say, many churches are engaged in numerous outreach activities, but not many are effective getting the secular populations introduced to Christ.
Reflecting on the scriptures
When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, there were possibly as many as 40,000 Christian’s who had felt “sent” to Rome for the sake of the Gospel. However, when they arrived they were shocked by the deplorable lifestyle of the Romans. Israel’s 700 year history with the Law of Moses had created a Judeo-decency that stood in stark contrast to the Roman excesses and perversions. So these “sent” Christians sequestered themselves in private churches out of fear.
One of the underlying reasons Paul wrote his letter to them was to “call them out” from their self-protective Judeo-Christian circles, to instead engage in the life of the Roman people. Douglas Moo commented that Paul was unwilling to even give “church” status to the Christians in Rome because of their disassociation with the mission of introducing Romans to Christ.
If Moo is right, there might not be nearly as many actual “churches” in America as we think. I am concerned the same thing is happening today. Many churches are providing a refuge from the “world”, rather than entering into the lives of that “world” like Christ did when he incarnated among us–was born among us. Doing outreaches for people is not the same thing as doing life with a particular circle of lost people.
Back to the basics
The concept is mission has become blurry for most Christians today for the same reason it became blurry for the Christians in Rome, who knew they were sent to Rome, but had withdrawn. In fact, they withdrew so entirely, they didn’t even know the lost ones that made up the city of Rome.
Here is the big point: Mission is confusing until you know who you are sent to reach!
Churches that do lots of mission activity are doing so out of their Christian identity. But the theology of “sent-ness” focuses our eyes on a particular group of under-gospeled people that live nearby, and we just can’t stop thinking about.
They might be abandoned senior citizens who are eating pet food behind closed doors (an alarmingly high reality in the US); they might be mentally/socially challenged children and their exhausted parents (example: autism now affects 1 of 8 births in America); they might be an apartment building that is full of second-life singles (those who have ruined one life and are hoping not to ruin another). These three groups are representative of many isolated people-groups the live within the shadow of church steeples, and yet feel invisible.
Once a church feels “sent” to a particular isolated group that lives around them, the concept of mission starts to clear up. They start seeing ways they can enter the lives of that particular circle of people, and in time they can even see how to “do church” for them in a way that fits their sociology. (Note: the traditional form of church only fits the “already saved”, so don’t assume that will fit your isolated people-circle).
The mission question most churches are asking themselves is, “How should we do our church services to attract new people?” That question needs to change to, “Who exactly is Jesus sending us to reach?” That question will lead a church to something beyond “mission-ish”, “missional”, or “mission-outreaches”; it will lead them into the lives of a peculiar people and into a mission that actually populates heaven.
Dr. Verlon and Melodee Fosner have led a multi-site Assemblies of God dinner church in Seattle, Washington since 1999 (www.CommunityDinners.com). They joined the FX team in 2016 and founded the Dinner Church Collective. In this decade when more churches in the U.S. are declining than thriving, and when eighty churches a week are closing, Verlon and Melodee sensed that a different way of doing church was needed for their 85-year old Seattle congregation. It soon became obvious that they were not the only ones in need of a different path. There is a lot to be gained when church leaders begin to see open doors in the American landscape that they had previously overlooked. Therein lies the journey for those who will forge a new future for the American Church.