A RANT ON THE THEME: “DOES THE CHURCH STILL SEND MISSIONARIES?”

A benevolent wrinkle in cyberspace provides me with the ELCA Gulf Coast Synod’s “Connections”. I receive about a half-dozen specialized mini-newsletters each month. I love seeing how different Christian “tribes” do church. The latest newsletters included an article entitled “Does the Church Still Send Missionaries?”  Peggy Zahn, author of the article and Assistant to the Bishop, must have heard the question one time too many. Well-meaning church folks wanted to know if the church still sends missionaries “out there” [beyond our comfort zone, where “our kind” dare not go, to lands teeming with “those people” living out their miserable existence].Peggy’s informative article clearly explained how ELCA missionaries work in partnership with nationals in various countries, and how they connect and engage churches in the synod with ministries all over the world.

But the title pushed my buttons—hard! I am not typically a ranter, but this theme deserves a rant. “DOES THE CHURCH STILL SEND MISSIONARIES???” ( ALL-CAPS is like yelling on the web, in case you didn’t know.) The question perfectly diagnoses the church’s sickness-unto-death. Decades after Ken Callahan, Bill Easum, and many others began urging  us to wake up and face post-Christendom reality, we still prefer to hit the snooze button and burrow deeper under the covers. I am aware of some courageous exceptions, but I know too many Christians and churches that still refuse to confront this disturbing (for some) new world. The church has been squeezed out of the center to the margins of society. While we still send missionaries “out there”, the inescapable new reality is that we live on the mission field–all of us. Our culture contains a rich and sometimes confusing mix of different languages and dialects (e.g. rap/hiphop, Spanglish, etc.), cultures, and belief systems. Christian missionaries have faced these challenges since the first century—and now it’s our turn.

Tragically, too many Christians and churches are still singing, “La-la-la I can’t hear you!” with their fingers in their ears.[Again,I’m thankful for notable, hopeful exceptions. Let the exceptions become the rule!] Too often we try to get by with cosmetic changes that upset no-one–and make no real difference. Or we seek to become more “welcoming”—in other words, fine-tune our sales and marketing.  Some brave folks make more substantial adjustments in worship style, Sunday schedule, etc.—with far more roaring and screaming from “the saints” than the changes warrant. They (we) talk a good game about wanting to reach out to new people. But they (we) still believe in our  heart of hearts that taking care of church members matters more than building relationships with “outsiders” . You can check this out in your own situation. Take a look at your church’s and pastor’s calendars. Look at your church’s finances—not that idealistic dream budget but where the money actually goes.  If I were a gambler, I’d lay very attractive odds that the bulk of both time and money are spent on members and maintenance. To the extent that’s true, we are not “missional” churches and people, no matter what our strategic plans say.

“Does the church still send missionaries?”  Some churches have a slogan above the door through which most people leave the sanctuary: “You are now entering the mission field.” The church sends missionaries into the world every time the benediction is pronounced and we head for the door!  Wherever we live our lives is the mission field where God has sent us to serve alongside his Risen Son. (“Missionaries” are the “sent” ones.) We proclaim the Gospel or deny it in every personal interaction, both face-to-face and electronic. Sometimes we use traditional religious language. Always the spirit and tone of our presence either proclaim Jesus or deny him.

None of this is new stuff. And none of it is rocket science. So why am I moved to rant? BECAUSE NOBODY’S PAYING ATTENTION! NOBODY’S DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT! (BOLD CAPS IS BEYOND YELLING.)  Again, I’m thankful for notable and hopeful exceptions I see. Bishop Mike Rinehart of that Gulf Coast ELCA Synod writes about “Rethinking Everything”. The article is a progress report on the Synod’s Strategic Plan. Why a new Strategic Plan? “It would be so much easier to just keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them,” Rinehart writes, “but that was not getting us where we needed to go…We are swimming upstream against a cultural current of secularism and declining confidence in the church as an institution.” In other words, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more! We can’t control external circumstances. But we can choose our response. We can whine and complain forever. We can demand and even pray for the return of the “good old days”. Or we can accept the fact that the world has changed and the church must respond to that change in order to accomplish our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

What determines our choice? It’s not rocket science.  Effective missional change will not happen in us and in our churches until  nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us. Other loves have gotten in the way. Let’s be completely honest, we’re talking about idols. We love ourselves and our religious comfort zone more than we love our neighbors who are starving for love. We love “the way we’ve always done it” more than we love our neighbors for whom Christ died. We love stable, convenient familiarity more than the wondrously messy transformation the bible calls “new birth” (1 Peter 1:3).

Speaking of stables and birth—Christmas is the story of God’s missionary journey to an obscure corner of an obscure planet in an obscure corner of Creation. In Jesus God came and entered fully into human life—our life. “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message) Bishop Rinehart describes his vision of “…re-rooting congregations in their communities. We simply cannot serve or evangelize communities we do not know, and with whom we are not deeply engaged.” How can we as disciples, how can our churches (at least a pilot group initially) “re-root” ourselves and become “deeply engaged” as God became “deeply engaged” with us in Christ? How can we get to “nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us”?

     End of Rant

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  10. 22 Betsy January 2, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    I have come to the unhappy realization that my own beloved United Methodist Chruch has failed abysmally in grounding people in the gospel, capable of going out and having anything to share. The tipping point came when I read Donald Haynes’ book, “On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals”. He said two things about how the UMC had drifted: the first that Christ and the cross had become almost censored and second that people who were babes in Christ needing spiritual nourishment were put on finance committees, etc. Those described my experience to a “t”. I have spent the bulk of my 50 pus years as a faithful member of the United Methodist Church struggling to make sense of Christ. I no longer do. I crashed and burned and a person opened a door and I started reading and becoming friends with John Wesley. Over a decade of fatihfully “serving” one particular UMC did not bring it about–I was too busy serving on committees. Unfortunatelyu, just as I was beginning to get a glimmer of understanding, a pastor arrived whose focus was “out there” and in his zeal to bring them in, I retreated to the fringes while the focus was “out there–a strange thing from my perspective since I “in here” had not quite “got it.”

    So, in that regards, many local UMC’s, need to start with an inward focus: deciding what it means to live a life centered in God as seen in Christ Jesus (something you have touched on) and developing a vocabulary to be able to share the gospel.

    Ironically, the motto for the local UMC I have been apart of is “Share the Joy of Knowing Christ”. Not once did anyone ever share it with me and I sincerely doubt there are very many persons who have truly experienced the joy of knowing Christ much less being capable of sharing it. And chances are, those that can did not “grow up Methodist” in the 1950’s and ’60’s. My Methodist pastor grandfather shared many things with me, but not once did he share what drove him–I had no idea Christ was part of the picture until the church choir sang his favorite anthem at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary: “Footsteps of Jesus”.

    John Wesley identified three reasons the church as a gathering of people is in existence: firstly for an individual to work out his own salvation; secondly to assist each other in that endeavor; thirdly, as opportunity presented, reach out to others with the gospel.

    • 23 soulmanlv January 2, 2013 at 2:02 PM

      Betsy, Your experience is tragically typical of many folks I’ve known in my ministry–and, to be honest, of the style of ministry I often practiced, especially in early years. We equated “discipleship” with committee service and church busywork. Realistically, the institution would have ground to a halt in many places had we insisted on spiritual maturity criteria in order for people to serve in key leadership positions. There often weren’t that many. With some notable exceptions (e.g. Ginghamsburg, Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, KS) we still don’t make depth leadership/discipleship development a sufficiently high priority. I love your description of Wesley’s three purposes for the church. I see them not in numerical order, but running in parallel and overlapping. So much of what we do serves two or all three of those ends. I’m seeing possibilities and may push this further in a future post. Thanks for your thoughtful sharing.

      > Date: Wed, 2 Jan 2013 17:30:01 +0000 > To: soulmanlv@msn.com >

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