I grew up believing that missions was something that happens elsewhere, anywhere but here. By that I mean, anywhere but in average run-of-the-mill USA, whether in cities, suburbia, or small towns. My one direct childhood exposure to missions occurred when my family took clothing to Indians in Arizona, and then to the north of Mexico. That was a grand adventure that sparked fire which has smoldered ever since. As I grew older I used to look at the world globe and pray for people all over the world. I figured if I couldn’t go myself, then at least I could pray and give. But still, missions was always something which happened elsewhere. And indeed it does happen all over the world, for which I am grateful. But what about here? What about right where I live? Where I work and shop in the marketplace? Is it possible for missions to happen in my local community as well? These questions are relevant for any area of ministry in the church, but they are especially important for those of us responsible for leading our churches in connecting with the community. Yes, this includes those of us involved in children’s and family ministry.
Whenever I raise this topic I seem to receive a mixture of responses. Some people are so indoctrinated in the mindset I described above that they automatically say that it is called something different here, such as evangelism, or social justice activism, or simply being the church in our community. All of those things might well be true, as far as they go. But why the reticent attitude toward missions where we live? Why not approach our local culture as missionaries?
I am encouraged to point out that many seminaries and pastors are beginning to see the value of missionary approaches to doing ministry. The term “missional” has been borrowed from missions literature and has gained a great deal of traction in popular literature. Although I sometimes wonder if specific authors have a rounded understanding of what is meant by “missional,” I am glad they are readily adopting it into their vocabulary.
I passionately believe that in order for us to regain effectiveness in reaching our local communities in the USA (for readers outside of the USA, ask yourselves if this might be true for your communities as well), we need to think, pray, behave, and plan like missionaries. We need to learn from the mistakes missionaries once made in the early centuries, and integrate a mature theology of ministry with the readily available cultural research tools that have been developed by leading missionary thinkers and practitioners. It wouldn’t hurt to take missions courses as such leading seminaries as Fuller in Pasedena, California or Western in Portland, Oregon. You should also read the literature of notable authors such as David J. Bosch (Trasforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission), Leslie Newbigin (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society), James P Spradely and David W. McCurdy (The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society), and Donald K. Smith (Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication Across Cultural Landscapes). This is just a sampling of some of the seminal publications which have influenced my perspective.
It is likely that those of you who live in ethnically diverse densely populated urban areas resonate with the point I am trying to make. Yet I encourage those of you who minister in primarily homogeneous communities to consider its application for your contexts as well. We all have to ask ourselves, “How well do we know our local culture? Are we sure? How can we be sure we have a reasonably accurate portrait of our cultural landscape?” The books I listed above will help you develop approaches which can help you arrive at some answers. They are readily available to order from academic bookstores, or you can simply go to Christianhouse.com to shop for them.
Here is a provocative challenge for you to consider. The marketing strategists of leading product manufacturers do a better job of understanding the culture than most churches. Thus, these businesses place their new product mixes and their company branding at the forefront of cultural conversation, thereby leading the conversation and influencing the hearts and minds of millions, while churches teeter on the precipice of cultural irrelevance because of a largely inward looking, reactionary, foxhole mentality. Do you think I am overstating it? Then ask yourself why so much of the Evangelical interaction with the local culture is adversarial? Is there ever a time to be adversarial? Of course. Just look at the prophets, not least Jesus in the temple. The prophets were notorious for confronting the evils of their day and they often were killed because of it. I doubt that is the issue in much of what is happening today.
Be that as it may, Jesus also connected with the culture. He engaged in conversation, albeit often speaking in parables to those who plotted to kill him. But he also spoke plainly with sinners (prostitutes, drunks, tax collectors, reviled occupying Roman soldiers, common fishermen, women (notably one from Samaria, a land at enmity with Israel), all of whom genuinely wanted to learn. Are we in the church willing to do the same? Are we willing to prove it by our actions? How might this affect how we approach mission in our neighborhoods? In what ways will we need to change our strategies, or to use less crass terminology, our attitudes and actions? How might we become “real” to our neighbors. Like it or not, many of the unchurched in the local culture might not like you, even though they don’t know you, simply because of the damage perpetrated by so-called Christian media. This really can be overcome, both individually, and as a church. Be prayerful. Be real. Be relevant. Be available. Be servants. Be listeners. Be prophetic. Be like Jesus. Be missionaries.
I look forward to reading how God is using you as missionaries in your contexts.