I did a google search last week for “missional church in Jacksonville.” I got a few hits. And I was a little disappointed. What I found was that if a church had mission projects, they called themselves “missional.” If they packed back-packs for kids, they call themselves “missional.” I get it. Missional is an adjective. People want to communicate that their church actually does care about making the world a better place. They want to communicate that they intend to bless the world. That’s not a bad thing. These churches are doing a lot of good. But – and this is key – they are not doing anything that actually transforms the world.
You’ve heard the cliche, “Give me a fish and I eat for a day. Teach me to fish and I will eat for a lifetime.” What a lot of churches are calling “missional” resonates more with the first half.
This morning, I talked with my church planting coach, Jessica Neely, about what it means to be missional. She gave me two very helpful terms. The first term is “missional gestures.” These gestures can be small or they may be expensive, requiring heroic administrative efforts – but they are still gestures, Here are a few examples that cover the range: stuffing backpacks for poor kids, raising money for the shelter, volunteering once a year at a food ministry, getting gifts for kids at Christmas, building a habitat house, going on a trip to a foreign country to do a construction project, etc. If I participate in a missional gesture, I probably feel good about myself. I have a hope that those benefiting feel good about what they receive. But neither of us is transformed much. If I walked up to the person receiving the gesture and said, “I really care about you”, it would be disingenuous. Moreover, the missional gesture was a gesture. It did not reflect the God who loves us so much that he entered into our mess in person, and revealed the fullness of grace and truth in Jesus. And that is our calling.
The other term is “ministries of engagement”. Just like it sounds, a ministry of engagement requires that we give ourselves in the effort. It requires going to uncomfortable places, includes and element of sacrifice, and involves building relationships with people we don’t know, It may involve risk, loss, and heartbreak. And you’ll be changed. You’ll probably find yourself blessed. You’ll see the world differently.
I recall two examples of ministries of engagement. One of the churches I served had a weekly food ministry. They opened the doors of the fellowship hall twice a week at lunch time and fed anyone who wanted a meal. The volunteers would prepare the meal, serve it, and then sit and visit with their “customers”. The people involved began to change because they got to know, really know, the people who were in need. The servers formed deep friendships. They became a community. They had war stories to share from the ministry. Their faith grew as God answered prayers. They did Bible studies on their own and tried to apply what they were learning. Spiritually, they asked me (their pastor) less self-centered questions and became more open and vulnerable in their prayers and prayer requests. As for the customers, our church actually developed relationships with the people in our town who had needs. A few of the “customers” even became members of the church. Some saw their situation improve and got out of poverty. Some didn’t change at all. But I think our church came to understand better the God who is mindful of the least of these.
Another example of ministries of engagement are the relational mission trips to partner with Vida Joven in Nicaragua. We went back year after year to the same place to work along side the same people in Esteli, Nicaragua. We built relationships. We learned stories. We worked side-by-side. We shared jokes. We encouraged one another. We prayed for one another. We got to know their ministry and we wanted to find ways to serve. Speaking for myself, I grew to know God better and to understand the Body of Christ better. Ministry of engagement bears lasting fruit.
Two closing thoughts:
As we set up missional communities, I want to avoid the trap of becoming small groups that do missional gestures. I’ve not been at this long, but I’ve already made the mistake. Our mission activities – our “outs” – need to fall into the category of ministries of engagement. Up until now, I’ve been using these four touch points: relational, sustainable, attractional, Christ-centered. I think I need to work on that list a bit. Our outs need to lead us to a place of engaging the world.
Last thing, if you are a pastor of an established, traditional church, be careful if you sense the call to reform any culture of missional gestures in your church. Those gestures often mean a great deal to the people in your church who pull them together. They may fear you are trying to take something away from them. They may resent it if you refer to their activities as gestures. They have probably poured time, energy, and money into the work. And they may also resent celebrations of ministries of engagement. So pray a lot.
Blessings on the journey.