Recently I’ve been wondering if our motivation for missional church planting is getting in the way of what God may be doing within the missional movement. I am not suggesting that our motivations are necessarily wrong. I’m not sure that I could have started my journey into missional planting any other way than I did. I saw the Church (in America) was on the decline, and from my experience, there was very little to no room for discipleship or time for missional practice. I concluded, as I’m sure many of you have, that if we were going to save the Church (odd thinking) we were going to have to get missional. So a group of us stepped into the neighborhood, fired up the grill, filled the cooler full of beer, and invited our neighbors to “do life with us.” We now have weekly community and neighborhood dinners. We have served one another, shared resources, prayed together, played tag, soccer, and hide-and-seek with the kids, and confessed sins and asked one another for forgiveness. Oh...and we have baptized some people. My point is not so much that our motivations or practices are false as much as they may be shortsighted or limited. My wife and I are both from Kansas and now live just outside of Washington, D.C. We take the long journey home once or twice a year to see family. West on I-66, down I-81, west again on I-64, to I-70, and finally south on I-35. The journey takes us close to 20 hours but it only takes our kids about 20 minutes to get antsy and start asking the question, “Are we there yet?”
We (Hill City Church) are five years into this missional journey and I am sensing that some of our people are getting antsy. For some, the “Are we there yet?” question comes regarding growth trajectory, for others it pertains to this or that program, and still for others it centers around the right way to do Sunday. What I am realizing in these questions is that our people want to know if we are home yet. I have no doubt that we have have been fully invested in this missional journey for the past five years, but I am beginning to wonder what our motivation has been. I am sensing similar frustrations or questions from other missional church leaders as well. The question we must ask is whether we embarked on this journey to fix the church or to join in what God is doing? Did we go on this journey to meet with and participate in the things God is doing or did we assume that if we got “missional” people would eventually come back to church on Sunday?
When God sent Abram away from his family, he said, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Abram and Sarai were sent from Ur into a place of complete unfamiliarity to become a people who would bless all the families on earth. Abram was not asked to bring Ur to the land God would show him (Israel) and he was not bringing Israel back to Ur. God was establishing a new thing (covenant people) in Abram and Sarai that would require a new imagination.
When Moses led Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness towards the promise land several mistakes were made. They lacked patience to wait for God to give guidance and direction, and instead turned to their abilities to craft “gods” with their hands. They lacked contentment and trust in God’s provisions and longed for what they had in Egypt. They also lacked the courage to live into God’s faithfulness when they saw the giants of Canaan. All their lacking came from a lack of imagination for what God was doing because their social imaginary (the framework or bounds of our imagination) was stuck in Egypt. Fast forward several hundred years and we see that Israel successfully brought Egypt to Israel, i.e. the empire had come to Jerusalem.
My fear is that we (Hill City) and many other missional churches like us have ventured into the missional movement as a strategy for fixing the Church rather than truly entering “into” the missio Dei. Our social imaginary is stuck in Christendom where all roads lead to Sunday morning experiences and the institution or business of our 501c3. From what I can tell, the dominant or mainstream missional church is a coalescence of the New Perspectives movement and the social gospel. In this regard, our function (stories and practics) changes but our form (structure) stays the same.
Newbigin seeks a new imagination for the local church as a communal hermeneutic of the gospel, or else the social embodiment of the gospel in and for the local community. Brueggemann imagines the church as an alternative prophetic community that is a foretaste of what is coming. Bryan Stone, channeling Yoder and Hauerwas, among others, writes, “"[T]he way Christians eat together, keep time, celebrate, forgive debts, express thanks, show hospitality, demonstrate compassion, live simply, and share their material resources with one another is an actual participation in the life of the triune God through whose Spirit we have been incorporated into a body whose head is Christ. Likewise, it is in practices such as these that the church shares this divine life with the world thereby living out its mission as a model "family of believers" (1 Peter 2:17)."
I assume that every missional leader cheers these voices on. And some of us are saying, “Wait a minute! This is what we are doing.” And I believe you. We are too. The question I am asking Hill City is, “Why?” “Why are we doing these things?” Are we doing them in order to restore the vitality of our Sunday experience and the 501c3, or because these functions or practices are what is so beautiful about the life God in the Gospel grants us? Even further, what is the survivability of these functions? Can you continue to practice them when you get married, have kids, and/or advance in your career? Is eating together, showing hospitality, and demonstrating compassion a means to an end or an end in themselves?
Unless we begin to change our form, these practices will have an expiration date. I am not ready to call our practices an end in themselves but I do believe they are the means to a new ecclesiological (social) imagination. One in which the church actually becomes something alternative to the current reality. In order to change our form, we will have to change our imagination. To do that we will have to change the telos or end goal of our missional practice. It will have to move beyond the Christendom form of church and into a new economy and body politic. This is nothing new in the realm of ideas but, at least for us, it has not quite settled into the way we imagine church.
As my friends begin asking the “Are we there yet?” questions, I realize we have not done an adequate job, up to this point, in helping to cultivate the right telos point for this journey. Neither growth trajectories nor various programs or worship styles were the intention of this missional church plant. Participating in the mission of God and being crafted into his family in and for the local neighborhood community is our intent. In this sense, we are both on our way and at home already if we are embodying the presence of Jesus and cultivating the Kingdom of God through our practices.