Maybe you’re asking the wrong question

In follow up to my earlier post, the following is what I presented this past weekend at the Believers Church Conference (Believers Church includes Baptists, Penticostals, Mennonites, Brethren, etc…adult baptizers). I was the the young adult representative on a panel discussing mission and evangelism in light of denominationalism and congregationalism in the Believers church in our time. My answer is based on a personal theology of mission and recent reading as well as conversations I have had with young adults in the Mennonite church.

Question: “How do young adults desire to engage in the church’s ministry of mission and evangelism? Where do you see possibilities and problems in the church’s approach to mission in our day? Provide illustrations.

The question asked assumes that mission and evangelism exist as departments or branches owned by the church. We know that ultimately mission and evangelism belong to God and so every Christian should naturally engage the world with mission and evangelism through the way they live. The church then is a group of Christians who gather together for mutual encouragement and building up and worship of God. Therefore mission is at the heart of this group of Christians called the church. The church does not design, select, and control mission and evangelism unless the church is purely viewed as a structural organization. If the church is viewed as a body of believers living in the way of Christ, then Christians of all ages, young adult, middle-aged adult, baby adult and old adult, are part of this body and together they engage the world with mission and evangelism because it is integral to who they are as individuals and as a larger body that God has called, is calling and will continue to call.

Michael Frost sums this up well in his book Exiles when he says “In fact I believe that our proper understanding of Christ (Christology) leads us into an appropriate commitment to mission (missiology) which forces us to develop the means of a common life together (ecclesiology). It must happen in that order. Too many churches begin by trying to artificially develop an ecclesiology, determining first where to meet, what songs to sing, what to preach, how to have small groups and leadership structures. Instead…to build a ship, you must first create a hunger for the sea. That hunger comes form our familiarity with Jesus.”

The church cannot exist without mission or evangelism. The church functions as an earthly representative of the body of Christ. It should be seen as a sign of the kingdom of God which is to come and should reflect the truths of the kingdom that we experience here on earth. Any true representation of the kingdom arises out of a unity in Christ. That in essence should be the basis for groups of churches with similar views (known as denominations).

The early church operated as a community in which members served one another following the example of Christ. The wealthier Christians shared what they had with those Christians in need (see Romans 15:25-28, 12:13, 2Cor 8:13-14, Gal 6:10). This generosity was based on Jesus’command to love your neighbour as yourself (Matt 22: 27-40). Healthy relationships and the possibility for reconciliation among members of the body of Christ are possible through this same command (Romans 13:9). The commandment was not new to the believing community since it had been in effect since the time of the exodus (Lev 19:18).

A community cannot function as a Christ-like unit without an attitude of servanthood. The apostle Paul saw his mission intimately connected with the identity of Christ as the Servant in Isaiah. The whole-life mission of the church or the church in mission must be realized within the greater context of God’s salvation-history. This principle was the basis for Paul’s theology of mission and in the same way it should also be central to the core of the church. As a natural result it will be seen in the mission theology of the church. In order to achieve any real unity and fellowship in the church, each member must see others as better than themselves (Phil 2:3-5). This is foundational to our being as local bodies (known as congregations).

Michael and Allen Hirsch, in The Shaping of Things to Come, remind us, “Mission is not merely an activity of the church. It is the very heartbeat and work of God. It is in the very being of God that the basis for the missionary enterprise is found. God is a sending God, with a desire to see human kind and creation reconciled, redeemed, and healed.”

Mission is the church and the church is mission. As members within the church are ministered to, they become energized for mission outside the church and as they minister outside the church, they are energized for mission within the church. As long as the church does not become too inwardly focused and is open to the Spirit of God, it is able to continually give of itself and is thereby representative of the body of Christ. The example of the early church can be used to avoid the dangers of extreme self-focus and misplacement of priorities. Tom Sine says that the churches mission now seems to be the designing of programs to meet the needs of those inside the building or inside the denomination. I would have to agree with him.

I realize that much of what I have said thus far can be labeled “missional” church talk. I know at least that we Mennonites have talked the talk and write prolifically about the walk, but I’m afraid that collectively we Mennonites do not yet walk the walk.

As the individual in the church lives out the call to follow the example of Christ, to love God first and secondly to love your neighbor as yourself, a holistic embodiment of the message results. A “people-orientation” that respects, loves and approaches the “Other” in humility is central to mission. I think that number oriented mission (whether budget, souls converted, or lives physically saved) should be replaced by an emphasis on a whole-life and relationship-centred service in the message and life of Christ. This whole-life orientation that serves to help others is certainly counter-cultural in today’s individualistic society.

In his book The New Conspirators, Tom Sine asks a tough question: Have we settled for a dualistic discipleship in which our faith has very little influence on how we live our daily lives? Have we settled for a compartmentalized piety that has little impact on the direction or major decisions of our lives? Stuart Murray, in his book Post Christendom, indicts much of the Western church for largely abandoning the countercultural, prophetic role in society that often characterized premodern Christian communities. He argues that established churches out of the Christendom model have become little more than a chaplain to the modern culture. For many of us, the dominant culture is more influential in defining the focus and character of our lives than we realize….In spite of our best attempts, we wind up with a dualistic form of discipleship and rarely seem to notice.”

Walter Brugemann has explored a counter-cultural perspective of Christ-like service when he identified this counter to the dominant culture as the alternative consciousness in The Prophetic Imagination. This new perspective is very important mainly because it opens our eyes to the amazing alternatives that Jesus offers in his radical message which contrasted strongly with the cultural message of his time. It is this type of realization that will keep the Christian from becoming complacent or comfortable in a society that numbs us to injustice, inequality, violence, and materialism.

Those young adults who understand and accept the institutionalism of the church are sometimes content to engage the church’s ministry of mission and evangelism through occasional missions trips ( that I believe cater largely to our increasing consumeristic and individualistic culture), and through other approved programs. But their actions most likely will not display the denominational loyalty of times past because they are constantly bombarded by a myriad of choices from every denominational direction and culture dictates an individualistic right to filter these choices. Again from Tom Sine’s The New Conspirators, “Christian leaders need a wake-up call. While interest in traditional religion in declining, interest in spirituality is experiencing a remarkable revival. Australian commentator Philip Johnson states, “Put simply, many people are highly suspicious of institutional and organized religions…The Net generations are growing up in a flood of choices, lifestyles and information. Authority figures in religion are less likely to have “street-creed” because religious ideas can be sussed out with the click of a mouse. ..”

Others, who may be seen as “on the fringe” of the institutional church choose to make mission (as they understand it) a way of life, living in community, focusing on social justice issues and ecological concerns close to home because these are equally aspects of being missional. If loving God means obeying Jesus and this means action then action means living the Way everyday. This means pursuing kingdom here even as we wait for kingdom come. It is most likely a matter of eschatology which impacts our view of stewardship and which impacts our view of social justice.

The possibilities for the church’s approach are many. We exist in a North American culture displaying rampant individualism, consumerism, and materialism together with increased attention to the spiritual, increased desire for community, and increased desire for down to earth products and increased concern for the environment. How does this translate for the church? As a church we are a body that can offer God’s community, God’s down-to-earth integrity and honesty, and God’s love that fills that spiritual hunger as we act in accordance with God’s concern for social justice and stewardship. In addition we live in a world where the church outside North America and Europe is growing at an unprecedented rate. We have the opportunity to learn from these Christian brothers and sisters in partnership and in equality in the eyes of God.

What are the problems? Can we get past our quibbling about music styles, how much technology to incorporate, how many worship bands, what theological interpretations and so on long enough to recognize the hunger that is out there and within ourselves, realize the legitimate basis to accusations of Christian hypocrisy, tune into this, realize how short we have fallen as a church, fall in humility on our knees, and in brokenness embrace those who are crying out to God in their own brokenness? Can we get past patting ourselves on the back for a job well done when the job remains to be done? This is the engagement that the majority of young adults that I know want with the church: An engagement that is the body of Christ, not priding itself on what makes this or that denomination different than another but rather a body that together re-discovers the pain and joy that led real Believers with real life issues together in the first place. This is the real-life joy and pain that results in whole-life worship of God.

In Exiles Michael Frost says “Mission is an expression of Christian worship…the central and most powerful expression of worship” and further “Our works of generosity and hospitality are acts of worship…We are racing into an uncertain future in which our world and our churches face daunting new challenges. To respond to these challenges we must resolve, by the power of God, to become whole life disciples and whole-life communities committed to placing God’s mission purposes at the center or our lives and churches, giving compassionate, creative and celebrative expression to that world that is already here.”

Many say our numbers are declining, many churches are losing people under the age of 35 at a rapid pace. Perhaps some day soon we will no longer have the luxury of meeting to discuss what makes our various denominations distinct from one another or what Christian distinctives make us more alike than other denominations. Perhaps we will have to pull together out of sheer hunger for community in a culture where Christians are no longer the majority, where Christian morals cannot be assumed, where we are forced to explain our in-house language and our lives because they are considered oddities in a society largely defined by a new dominant culture in which our children were raised. Perhaps that day is already here. The answer is not complete separation from this dominant culture, because after all, we are already more greatly influenced by its characteristics than we will ever know. The answer might be to re-realize what makes us unique and counter to the dominant culture as a Believing community living in relationship as people with real problems and weaknesses, as well as gifts and strengths to be celebrated; To creatively re-realize the amazingly difficult simplicity of living our Christian faith every day on the street, at work, on a Sunday or a Monday or a Thursday here or in another country. That is truly how the young adult (who still has interest in the church) desires the church to engage God’s ministry of mission and evangelism.

Note: I’d like to add a comment that someone brought up in response to this paper – There may be communities of Mennonite young adults who are striving to “live out” faith, but there seems to be a lack of people in general who can verbalize what they are living and share that with others in an understandable way (I hope I’m remembering what was said correctly).

I would add that perhaps this is where we can begin to re-define the word “evangelism”… a simple verbalization of what we are doing when we live out a whole-life faith. This verbalization should be understandable to those inside and outside the church and connect with our contemporary culture in a relevant way. This language should be simple and minimal and must always be accompanied by action since we are guilty of producing far too much language as a denomination already. Perhaps this would cure those of us Mennonites who have an aversion to the word “evangelism”, and help us to realize that the problem does not lie with the word or its real roots, but with the baggage that we understand the word carries.

Another note: what I’m saying is nothing new. Yes I realize that. So what’s wrong with being reminded again….lest we forget?

Comments (2)

  1. joe

    To some extent churches have determined structures through which we can ‘perform’ our Christian duty.

    For me the issue is that these structures largely do not meet the needs of people today, hence it is easy to get discouraged.

    Conversely, our society makes it extremely difficult to live a life anywhere close to that demanded by the gospels.

    So we are stuck between being ‘hobby’ Christians or being forced to stand against the culture in which we live. I’m not convinced we can have mortgages, pensions and corporate careers etc and claim we are followers of the Christ.

  2. TimN

    A “people-orientation” that respects, loves and approaches the “Other” in humility is central to mission. I think that number oriented mission (whether budget, souls converted, or lives physically saved) should be replaced by an emphasis on a whole-life and relationship-centred service in the message and life of Christ. This whole-life orientation that serves to help others is certainly counter-cultural in today’s individualistic society.

    Well said. This is a really important distinction that’s often difficult to communicate. But as you say it comes down to people orientation vs. numbers orientation.

    One book that’s been really influential on my thinking in this area is Dissident Discipleship by David Augsburger. Augsburger describes other-oriented mission as tri-polar spirituality. Graham over at Leaving Muenster has a great introduction to Augsburger’s thinking (see part 2 as well).

    In short, tri-polar spirituality is “discovering and knowing the self by knowing and loving God through the experience of loving the neighbour who images God”. It is recognizing that in loving the other fully we come to fully love God. Loving our enemy is a logical conclusion of this understanding of Jesus’ call.

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