The North American church is suffering from severe mission amnesia. It has forgotten why it exists.
Have you ever been on a mission trip? If so, did you ever take such a trip to another country? Imagine for a moment your church gathered this coming Lord's Day as usual, but this day would be anything but normal. Today the entire congregation is loading buses following the final morning service. Passports in hand, you head to the airport and board as a group. Why? Your entire congregation is heading to a city in Asia where the gospel has never been proclaimed. You have decided as a congregation to do something adventurous, something quite revolutionary for your church.
Upon arrival your church begins to team up with nationals and missionaries to begin loving and serving the city, sharing Christ at every opportunity. Children are loved, lives are helped, communities are changed, and the good news is heard. After three wearying but gratifying weeks, your entire fellowship boards a jumbo jet and heads home, exhausted, jet lagged, but amazingly fulfilled.
Fast forward to Christmas season. Through video uplink, your morning services telecast live the leaders of the church you helped to birth in that Asian city. For the first time in the history of the world, a group of Christ followers wishes your church a merry Christmas from that city. Never in the history of man has this happened from this city, and you were a part of making this happen. Don't you think that would energize your church? No doubt many lives would be changed.
Here is the amazing news. Tomorrow morning your church can do the same thing. You do not need to board a plane to Asia to go on a mission trip. Every day believers across the United States awaken and step into the fourth largest unchurched nation on earth. We are a mission field.
Mission trips are a wonderful thing. I have been on many across the U.S. and around the globe. But what if you thought of life as a mission trip? What if you and I and every believer in the West took the posture of a missionary and began to raise our children, approach our jobs, and look at our neighbors from the view of a missionary? It could be revolutionary.
Life is a mission trip. Take it! Cultivate that vision in your people and watch them begin to function like missionaries. And relive the book of Acts in your very lifetime. It will take a movement like that not only to reach the world but also to reach the West.
In the fall of 1989 my wife, Michelle, and I were commissioned as home missionaries with the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention. My assignment: to assist the state Baptist convention in Indiana in evangelism, from training to youth work to hosting conferences and strategic planning. I was 29 at the time and pretty much ignorance-on-fire. I was concerned because our state convention had declined for 10 straight years in evangelistic effectiveness and thankful because my executive director gave me a long leash (not a good idea).
We tried lots of things, some of which actually worked. We took a big twelve-foot cross and signed up churches to help carry it from the state border near Chicago to the southeastern corner near Louisville. I carried it 26 miles myself. Now I scratch my head a little remembering those days where zeal often burned hotter than light, but that little exercise actually did encourage more than a few churches to do something more than sit in a building. We changed our youth conference and watched it grow from a few hundred to almost two thousand in three years. We trained many to share their faith. And, for the next few years, we grew in evangelistic effectiveness annually, no doubt because the power of God can even work through ignorant young leaders who truly love Him and the gospel.
That three-year term in Indiana taught me a lot. I had never lived outside the south until then. I began to realize how much churches in the south assumed that people really ought to be in church. I began to meet large populations in which no one gave a second thought about Christianity. I saw large church buildings with a handful of believers because so many had been planted by southerners who moved north to the "Rust Belt" for work in the 1950s. These churches, and there were more than a few, became spiritual forts for the southern believers to continue their particular version of Christianity. Most of them were ineffective in reaching the people who lived in northern Indiana. When those who built these churches began to move back to the south, the buildings remained large, but the congregations shrunk. It bothered me that all these churches failed when it came to reaching the people around them.
I have watched from then until now the waning impact of the church on society in the West. Certainly there have been wonderful examples of effective ministry. Some today act as though the conventional church of our day has made no positive impact, which would be inaccurate. But neither would it be inaccurate to say that in my lifetime the church has lost much ground for the gospel in the West.
That we are in decline as Christians in the West is simply undeniable. From 1990-2000, the U.S. population increased by 11 percent while membership in Protestant denominations declined by 9.5 percent. The Methodist church reported in 2007 its lowest membership totals since 1930. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, known for its conservative and evangelistic heritage, has seen historic decline in evangelistic effectiveness and more recently a drop in total membership. But the picture is bleaker than that. From the 1950s until now the SBC has averaged just over 384,000 baptisms annually. But in that same period of time the U.S. population has doubled in population from 152 million to 305 million. We are not keeping up with the population growth. Not even close.
I could give far more statistics than these, but you can see the point. This book seeks to challenge and to equip students and leaders to build on the best of what the church has been doing, and to form a renewed passion for a movement of God to change our culture through the power of the gospel. It builds on an unchanging biblical foundation with a view to reach this culture in a contextualized way. Just because a given church was effective 20 years ago with a certain approach does not mean that same approach will reach its present culture today! We do not need a new gospel for a new day. Truth does not need to be revised or amended. But neither do we need an outdated or ineffective approach to sharing the timeless gospel in our day.
We must find a renewed passion for our Lord. Our task as followers of Christ is to be living witnesses, to take the timeless message to a particular time and place in a timely manner. We would do well to lash ourselves to the unchanging Word, to learn from the best (and for that matter, the worst) of the past, and to become ambassadors of Christ for our time. From a biblical foundation, I will seek to walk the reader through key spiritual resources, while emphasizing the intentional nature of our witness. But in addition to this, I will spend much time exhorting the reader to move to a new posture for proclaiming the good news. The posture can be summarized in the word "missional."
If we keep doing what we are doing, we will keep getting what we are getting. A fundamental shift must happen in established churches and must be in the DNA of new churches. Throughout this book I will speak much of Christianity as a movement to be advanced rather than an institution to be maintained. We must recover the apostolic yearning to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth. The shift that must occur can best be summed up in one term: missional. Missional means a lot of things to a lot of people. So before I say more, let me define what I mean by the term.
The American church has enjoyed a position like few in history. From a favored status with a decided home-field advantage in the culture, the church today enjoys less influence than in previous times. No longer can we merely put up a sign that says "Visitors Welcome" in front of a church building or hold an evangelistic meeting expecting people in the community or the church to change their calendars for several days. We can complain about that and mourn the loss of impact, or we can look at the early church who had no standing in the culture, had no buildings to invite people to enter, and yet so lived the gospel in the culture that they turned the world upside down.
We can add without subtracting. Without losing the best of our heritage and the bedrock of truth, the church can move forward in our time; without surrendering time-tested approaches that continue to be used of God, we can add new insights to help us in effectively reaching people for Christ. But we must change our posture as the people of God as much as Paul changed from preaching Jesus the Messiah to Jews in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) to preaching Jesus as the one true God to Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17). We need a God-intervention not unlike the Great Awakening that swept Britain and the American colonies, sweeping multitudes into the kingdom and birthing new approaches in evangelism, missions, and church planting. We need theological renewal in a consumer culture not unlike the Reformation. In short, we need a biblical, spiritual, intentional, and missional movement.
The terms "missional" and "missional church" were first used by a group of North American missiologists and practitioners called the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN). These leaders gathered to seek ways to apply in the North American context those implications gained from missionary thinker Lesslie Newbigin. After returning from decades as a missionary in India, Newbigin realized how secularized and pagan Western civilization had become. He argued that we in the West must see our world as a mission field, and that the church must adopt the posture of a missionary as we relate to culture. That approach has been slow to gain acceptance in the Western church as a whole. But that reality is changing as a generation of younger leaders of the church understand and embrace this idea.
So what exactly do I mean by "missional"? Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson defined the term:
In its simplest form, the term "missional" is the noun "missionary" modified to be an adjective. Missional churches do what missionaries do, regardless of the context…. If they do what missionaries do—study and learn language, become a part of the culture, proclaim the good news, be the presence of Christ, and contextualize biblical life and church for that culture—they are missional churches.
A simple way of thinking about "missional" is this. Evangelism means to share the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost person. Missions means getting to know a people and their culture to be more effective in sharing Christ. Missional means that I, though living in the West, take the posture of a missionary. This will include attractional evangelism, which the conventional church in my lifetime has done pretty well. But it will mean adding a focus on building churches where believers sees themselves as missionaries in the culture, sharing Christ and living out the implications of a Christ-following lifestyle at every level, and raising children to do the same. I recall a time in my tradition when the focus was to help every member discover he or she is a minister. Authors were writing books on the topic "Every Member a Minister." I believe the better focus would be "Every Member a Missionary." I will unpack this idea throughout the pages of this book.
What are the marks of a missional church? A missional church focuses as much or more outside its fellowship (and thus outside the walls of the building!) as it does on the inside. Missional believers think of themselves as being sent into the culture as ambassadors for Christ. The typical conventional church today magnifies what happens inside its fellowship and often even more inside a building (which is not the church, by the way). The missional shift will help believers see the importance of living Great Commission lives 24/7 as opposed to thinking of church as a place. We often use "church" as an adjective (church service, church clothes, church activities) when the term "missional" would be the better choice for an adjective. Best to leave "church" as a noun.
Stetzer and Dodson identified the following as marks of a missional church: (1) Incarnational—"missional churches are deeply entrenched in their communities. They are not focused on their facilities, but on living, demonstrating, and offering biblical community to a lost world." (2) Indigenous—this means "taking root in the soil of their society and reflecting, appropriately, their culture." They note how hard this is for established churches since they already have a culture of their own and find it hard to change when what they find meaningful no longer communicates to a changing community around them. Instead of expecting lost people to become like the church culture, missional churches "are driven by Scripture, but people from the community see people like them—just radically different in the way they live." (3) Intentional—"In missional churches, biblical preaching, discipleship, baptism, and other functions are vital. But worship style, evangelistic methods, attire, service times, locations, and other matters are determined by their effectiveness in a specific cultural context."
I came to Christ in 1970 as an eleven-year-old boy at a young church in Alabama touched by the Jesus Movement. I witnessed rapid growth, changed lives, and new ministries for the gospel in a short period of time. I saw a loving congregation welcome people who did not fit in with those inside the congregation. I sensed the presence of God in power. I know at least in a small way how the work of God in revival can bring many people to a radical transformation in a brief time. I have never recovered from witnessing the remarkable passion for Jesus seen in those young hippie freaks once they became Jesus freaks! A strong youth ministry showed me the impact youth could have on a church. In college, I spent a summer as an itinerant evangelist, and I have preached almost 2,000 events in churches, at colleges, and other venues in the years since. I learned to share my faith in college by doing street evangelism and have been trained in most of the programs of our time.
My pilgrimage has included time as a pastor, interim pastor, minister of music and education, as well as in denominational staff positions in two states. Evangelism has always played a critical role in these areas of service. My wife and I served as home missionaries in Indiana. As a consultant in evangelism, I have had the privilege of teaching evangelism and sharing Christ in several foreign countries on four continents. While my personal tradition is that of a Southern Baptist, I have enjoyed ministry with many groups of believers over the years, from Pentecostal to Presbyterian, from Free Methodist to Independent Baptist, from Nazarene to Church of God, and from Campus Crusade for Christ to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. All have taught me about the many ways God has blessed His people with the honor of sharing His great news. I taught evangelism at a university and now teach at one of the largest and most missions-focused seminaries in the world. I have also been privileged to serve on a number of interdenominational committees and organizations. My point in sharing this is to say that for me evangelism is not a job; it is the passion of my life. And the need of the hour is for the church to become more missional in its focus, a challenge for which I will give the rest of my life.
We learn either by contrast—facing opposing views to our own—or through confirmation—by being encouraged to stand on what we believe. Preachers and teachers are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable! My primary focus in this book is the latter. After all, the Western church has to be the most comfortable in history, which is part of our problem. Most people who read this book will already know more than enough to be effective in evangelism. I seek to give you a vision that you can do that to which God has called you. However, I do hope to challenge the way you think about evangelism and to challenge the paradigms we sometimes accept uncritically.
Here are some convictions you can stand on with confidence.
A vortex of change and ideas challenge church leaders today. I like a challenge; this book is my best attempt to take on the challenge of leading the church to a more effective and comprehensive evangelism without abandoning the gospel.
I hope to take you on a journey—a trek from Creation's dawn to contemporary times, walking where giants in Scripture and history laid a path that will guide us forward. I seek to tell a story about The Story we are privileged to share. Our journey begins with a look at what the journey is about; part I is an overview of biblical, foundational matters and how the church has practiced these in history. Our culture may have gone the way of relativism, but truth has not changed. Before talking about how to share Christ, we will spend time examining just what it is we share: the message of the gospel—walking through the Bible, examining the great message of redemption, stopping to learn from Jesus, Paul, and the early church along the way, taking snapshots to form an album to guide our perspective of reality today. We will explore the garden of truth, considering vital theological matters related to our witness. We will walk through the valley of history, learning from both the mistakes and the victories of the church as she advanced this great movement of God from the time of the early church until our day.
In part II we cast our sails across the ocean of spiritual growth, charting our course through pitfalls that can hinder or help our witness, features too often overlooked. We can no more be effective witnesses without the Spirit than a boat can sail without the wind, so the work of the Spirit begins our course. Prayer's role in evangelism strengthens us as the stars at night reflect His infinite might. Our testimony aids our witness as the map guides our way. We will see the place of character in our telling of the good news, as our lives must reflect the reality of a changed life as the sea reflects the sun. Finally, spiritual disciplines give us the ongoing fortitude to stay the course through the storms of this world until we reach our destination.
Part III takes us on a journey toward intentionality, recognizing theory is of little effect if we are not intentional in our application of it. We head up the treacherous path through the mountain range of contemporary effectiveness. Many have lost their way in these parts, falling off the cliff of overemphasis on relevance on the one hand or tumbling over the ledge of traditionalism on the other. Mountain climbing warrants both nimble feet, being able to adjust to the terrain, and a strong back, careful not to give in to fads. Capable leaders, like tested guides who lead people to hike the Himalayas, must guide our journey. We will climb to the summit of effectiveness not by blazing a new trail haphazardly or by going down older paths long considered unreliable. Instead, we will look at practical topics like personal and mass evangelism and the work of the church in the gospel with confidence and creativity. Blazing new trails of church planting will take us forward.
Finally, we will journey through the forest of Today and the missional focus of the church. If we will reach our destination, we will move from an attractional-based witness focused on the church as an institution to a missional approach from the view of the church as a movement. From examining paradigms that must be changed to reaching various groups from the unchurched to children and students to helping those blinded by false faiths, our journey will end at the place that is really the beginning—with a vision to reach the world with the gospel! I have enjoyed taking this journey myself. I hope you will as well.