A few years ago I was in a chat conversation with a young “missional church” pastor who was planting a missional community and was encountering some problems. He asked “I like the idea of incarnating the gospel, bringing the good news in tangible ways to the neighborhood and community we are a part of, but how do we do it without it just seeming like we’re just super nice people?”
It was a good question; a practical question. One that I’ve seen many young missionally-minded people struggle with.
For a long time western evangelicalism has been primarily about communicating a message, the gospel, in word. And evangelicals got really good at allowing paid professionals to speak the gospel to the world around us. For many years, this model of evangelism, that is, announcing the good news in compelling and convincing ways, worked really well. This was largely due to the fact that people who heard the gospel message were working from the same language set as those who were speaking the message. The problem in this model was that the average church-goer really didn’t look, sound, act as if they themselves believed the gospel. This reality has had an erosive effect on the church for a century or more. Deed did not necessarily follow word (James 1:22), and the word that was given wasn’t given by the Church necessarily, but by people paid by the Church. The Church had forgotten and forsaken its primary identity as a movement of missionaries sent by Jesus.
Along came the 1980’s and 1990’s and the Missional movement was birthed. Influences such as Lesslie Newbigin (The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 1989 ; The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, 1978), Robert E. Coleman (The Master Plan of Evangelism, 1963) and Roland Allen (Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? 1912; The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church | And the Causes Which Hinder It, 1927), began to produce real fruit in the discussion of what the nature of the church was meant to be, and how to change its current trajectory. By the late 2000’s the Missional movement had begun to gain some real traction in the general evangelical community in the United States. Names like Roxburgh, Frost, Hirsch, Chan, Cole, Breen and others began to fetch more and more of a hearing, especially with the younger evangelicals who wanted to remain Biblically orthodox, but saw that the churches they were raised in didn’t have a missional bone in their body. These younger faithful felt underprepared to step into the world of church planting, discipleship and mission in a cultural milieu that had become largely post-Christian and so they developed networks and associations like Acts29, GCM Collective, Verge Network and others. A new paradigm of what the Church needed to become if it was going to see people come to Christ and become part of God’s family needed to be developed and implemented. The church needed to regain its identity as a missionary band of people who were living, in various ways and by various means, the life and message of Jesus right where they were, among the people and places they were already a part of.
The Church needed to be retaught what it meant to become real disciples of Jesus and how to disciple others. This shift in mindset from “going to church” to “being the church” was, is, and continues to be crucial. As Mike Breen of 3DM has stated:
For many who grew up in a church growth paradigm which sought to utilize corporate strategy to build the church, creating environments where people showed up to church buildings on Sundays in order to consume religious goods and services, this mindset has been difficult to understand and implement. They built cultures and environments which were attractive, but not necessarily missionally focused. Their church growth strategies generally consisted of marketing, promotion, providing good Sunday productions, a pleasant atmosphere, good teen and youth programs and perhaps some deeper study of the Bible in some way, shape or form. But the problem, as Willow Creek found out in their landmark Reveal study, was that they weren’t producing disciples of Jesus. They were simply producing people who were part of a closed loop cycle. More people meant more money, more money meant they could attract more people, but more people meant they needed more money (for buildings, staff, programs, etc.) and so they needed to keep as many people as possible coming to church on Sundays as possible in order to keep as much money as possible in order to support as many people as possible in order to see as much growth as possible. This is a commercial enterprise mindset and is, in my opinion, largely antithetical to the gospel and to the mission of making disciples of Jesus.
So, back to the frustrated young man I described at the beginning of this article who was planting missional communities. He was all for discipleship, saw his primary identity as a missionary, and was committed to incarnating the gospel to those around him. What’s the issue?
The Missional movement, for all it has going for it, is, by-and-large, missing a major element of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is missing a primary, central hallmark that we read about in the book of Acts: the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to perform signs and wonders. It’s not enough to see yourself as sent if your “good news” has no power base from which it operates.
To be sure, signs and wonders are NOT a silver bullet to the issues the Church in the West is now facing, but to answer the question of that young, committed, missionally-minded pastor: The way that the culture around you will recognize the difference between a group of people who just want to be nice and do good things and a group of people who know the living God in Christ Jesus is the difference between night and day. A group of people who understands, embraces and moves in the miraculous cannot be ignored. A nice group of people can be ignored, taken for granted, taken advantage of, etc. But a group of committed people who, in addition to being really nice, live and move in the things of the Spirit is this:
And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles…And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Acts 2:43, 47
The Missional movement has great theology. It understands what is at stake if the Church fails to make this necessary and inevitable shift from the mindset of a privileged people to the mindset of a missional people.
The Missional movement has great strategies and tactics for encountering the culture in everyday ways, and has great resources for encouraging everyday people to everyday mission.
The Missional movement needs power. They need Spiritual power. They need a reshaping of their understanding of what it means to make disciples: that in order to make and multiply disciples of Jesus that will necessarily include the outworking of the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer who encounters everyday people in the flow of everyday life and is ready and willing to be used by God to demonstrate and incarnate the Kingdom of God.
For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
1 Corinthians 4:20