Thinking about church missionally is much different than to think about church for maintenance. In the previous post, Church Re-Formatted 1, the challenge was to think about the fringes of American culture that are growing and how to reach out and communicate them. That article was not to suggest that we need to throw out our present models and efforts. Likewise, this one is not suggesting that maintenance (discipleship, at least as it is largely done in today’s churches) needs to be abandoned for missional efforts (evangelism and church planting). The fact is that both are needed in today’s American culture.
It is unfortunate that the established church looks upon those pushing the envelope of evangelism efforts to reach spiritual lost and damaged people with a bit of disdain. They often wonder why these leaders cannot work within the confines of existing structures and churches. Their leaders often work against these efforts by looking for wholes in the methodologies or even their messages and then point out their short-comings. It is as if they believe that they somehow maintain their own credibility within the faith community by discrediting the efforts of others.
History teaches us that change, revolution and innovation most often comes from the fringes and not the mainstream. So it is with church plants and church planters. However, it is just as unfortunate that these leaders often look skeptically upon the established churches and their leaders as if they have gotten it all wrong and are missing something important. As a result, established churches and their leaders become territorial and uninviting to new evangelistic and church planting efforts. And, new church efforts and church planters alienate themselves from the resources and histories of churches long established in communities.
Round Beach Stone ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012
When we talk about mission and church planting efforts in the U.S., we are, for the most part, not talking about planting one where no church yet exists. The truth is that most of the country still has a very real, viable church presence. When we discuss true missional communities that attempt church planting, it is often in regards to unreached/unchurched communities within communities.
This was the point of the first article, Church Re-Formatted 1: It is one thing to start a new church just to be another faith community in competition with all of the other existing ones. That, in my opinion, is like just adding another store to the “church mall” offerings of a community. It ends up competing for the same customers and must come up with marketing strategies to attract them. In the end, it is largely “sheep swapping”.
It is quite another thing, however, to be one that is reaching a part of a community, perhaps a sub-community or sub-culture, that is largely unreached. It is this latter that Church Re-Formatted 1 argues needs the greatest focus of our evangelistic and church planting efforts. The ever growing unchurched population of the U.S. needs to be the focus of new mission/evangelistic efforts.
The challenge, as noted previously, is the fracturing of American culture. We can better be described as a tribal culture than a monolithic one. The things that used to tie us into a common identity are becoming frayed and fragile. This sets up competing values and interests that isolate groups as they cloister around common interests and identities.
In order for the church to become more missional in orientation, it will need a radical change – perhaps even a re-formatting. This is nothing new to the church, actually. It has experienced this on many occasions as people have risen to the challenge of communicating the gospel to a changing culture. We only need to look back on recent church history to find examples.
For instance, in the 18th centurty, John Wesley and John Whitefield had the audacity to take the Bible’s message right to the masses where they lived and worked. This got them into all sorts of hot water with the established church (the Church of England) because it was considered a defilement of the gospel to have it proclaimed anywhere other than in a church behind a pulpit. They were told it was unfitting for clergy persons to preach outside of the sanctuary. However, many of the working class had abandoned church as irrelevant at that time, plus many of the poor worked on Sunday. How were they going to hear? Who was going to go tell them? Who would send a messenger?
It was perhaps the hand of God at work when John Wesley was locked out of preaching at churches in England because out of this he determined to take the good news message right to the masses. It can best be seen in Wesley’s words,
“I am well assured that I did far more good to my Lincolnshire parishioners by preaching three days on my father’s tomb than I did by preaching three years in his pulpit.” … To this day field preaching is a cross to me, but I know my commission and see no other way of preaching the gospel to every creature“. (2)
John Whitefield had a similar experience on the other side of the pond in the American colonies. What resulted was the beginning of modern American Evangelicalism. The American Methodist Church would later claim up to two-thirds of all believers in the U.S. by the time of the Civil War. Since he was not allowed in most American churches, he was left to preaching in open fields, often to thousands.
In the 19th century, England was once again in need of a fresh infusion of the hope found in the message that Christ brought to earth. Within a short span of time, even the new Methodist church in England was losing spiritual ground. William Booth, an English Methodist preacher, decided to do something to stem the tide of cultural decay. Despite his denomination’s efforts to place him in a pastorate, William Booth felt the urgency for evangelism and considered the pastorate a hindrance to such efforts.
Through a series of events, William Booth founded the Salvation Army. Its focus was upon bringing salvation to the least of society. The starting point began in the slums of East London and most ever after always looked to establish itself among the poor and needy in communities.
William Booth and his “army” became known for their street preaching and street meetings. Their efforts, once again, focused upon taking the gospel to where the people were living and working. Not surprisingly, William Booth and the Salvation Army caught a lot of heat from the Church of England as well as the Methodist Church of England. Booth’s fiery preaching and passion can be summed up in this part of a message of a vision of hell:
“To go down among the perishing crowds is your duty. Your happiness from now on will consist in sharing their misery, your ease in sharing their pain, your crown in helping them to bear their cross, and your heaven in going into the very jaws of hell to rescue them.” (1)
Graveyard of the Giants at Sunset Off Taylor Point ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012
A contemporary of William Booth’s was Hudson Taylor. He became a missionary to China and founded the China Inland Mission (now OMF International). When Hudson Taylor first arrived in China, he found most of the missionaries there living comfortably in walled communes in the large cities of China. No one was going outside of these to reach the aboriginal Chinese. Only those Chinese who had become “westernized” or “civilized” were thought worthy or able of being reached and discipled.
Hudson Taylor, disgusted with the attitudes and complacency of his peers, attempted to go inland and plant churches among the villages. At first he found stiff resistance. He found out that the native Chinese considered him to be only another “black devil” (their word for the foreign missionaries). So, Hudson Taylor changed his approach. He donned Chinese clothing, grew his hair into a braided pony-tail, shaved his forehead and lived among the locals just like they lived. Incredibly, Hudson Taylor’s efforts paid off in not only acceptance, but converts and then a church multiplication movement that continues to this day despite 60 years of Communism.
Hudson Taylor was harshly criticized by his peers and the established missionary societies. There were churches that shunned his efforts because of his methods. Others even questioned the necessity of needing to reach the indigenous Chinese at all. Still, it was Hudson Taylor that led the way across the language and cultural bridge barrier that opened the door for many Chinese to not only embrace Christianity but to also form the Chinese church into something that would impact its nation. Husdon Taylor’s burning passion comes through and challenges us when he says,
“It will not do to say that you have no special call to go to China…with the command of the Lord Jesus to go and preach the gospel to every creature, you need rather to ascertain whether you have a special call to stay at home.” (3)
These same passions, visions and strategies were used many times in the U.S. in the late-19th century and early-20th century. With the rise of immigrant communities, churches worked to establish themselves in those communities with disciples and leaders who new the culture and spoke the language. Up until recent history, evangelical and pentecostal churches had indigenous churches that still spoke German, Norwegian and Swedish. We see them today among the Spanish, Brazilian and various Asian and African communities in the U.S.
In an effort to change cities, churches were planted in storefronts. Even taverns are known to have housed a few early Assembly of God church planting efforts. Many cities in America today still have some type of “Union Gospel Mission” at work in their city centers. These are true missional communities in the midst of people who are not reached by the average church. However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such micro-communities all over the U.S. today without an adequate gospel presentation.
It is these missionary kinds of efforts that we have seen before in our church histories that are needed once again today in America. However, today’s strategies may not just need to cross language and foreign cultural barriers. Some of the hardest to reach may be in those communities and people groups who are closest in language and culture, but desperately far away from us spiritually; so much so that they seem to us as foreign. They are living in our neighborhoods and cities. The question remains, Who is going to take the effort to cross the street to reach them?
In light of this urgent question, every church and church leader needs to ask some questions about their city, community and neighborhoods:
- Where are the least reached? Are we reaching them or partnering with someone who is reaching them?
- Who are the most vulnerable? Are we meeting their needs or partnering with someone who is meeting their needs?
- Where are the gathering places of our community? Do we have a presence there or partnering with someone who does?
- What community events define and shape our community, town, city? Do we participate and serve there or partnering with someone who does or will help us do so?
- What social groups exist within your community or city? Which ones does your church have members of them, they are your closest connection, or which ones do you feel the Holy Spirit leading you to reach out to in order to build relational bridges to reach them?
Sunset from Toleak Point ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012
As I mentioned before, the answers to these kinds of questions may lead to some surprising answers that challenge our idea of evangelism and “doing” church. Do not be surprised if it leads you to skate parks, parades, community parties and celebrations, taverns, sports competitions, school events, post offices, stores, etc. In these places, people gather who will never come to a church event. Maybe it’s time we go be among them – incarnate the gospel message and see what the Holy Spirit does to provide opportunities to share and show God’s kingdom.
Just as Wesley, Booth and Taylor needed to “re-format” their understanding of church, it may be time for some within the American church to do so now. This will not be for everybody, though it should concern everybody. There are many others in Church history than just these three mentioned above that began to see church, their faith community and its purposes differently. They, and others like them, “re-formatted” church and started – intentionally or unintentionally - new faith communities that were, in their beginnings anyway, primarily missional communities. They journeyed to those closest to hell and farthest from heaven to seek and save the lost. That journey needs to be taken again.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 20, 2012