Is our expression of the church changing the communities we live in today?


All generation’s experiences change. I sense we are in the middle of genuinely profound change, the kind of change that happens only every few hundred years. As a fifty-year-old, I was born into the Irish culture that could plausibly still be called Christian. Yet, with the ever-changing culture, it will not be too long in the future where the unchurched will outnumber the churched. 

It was in August 1948 in Amsterdam at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches where one of Europe’s Leading theologians was quoted as saying, “Post-Christian Era”? Nonsense!’

It seems that by 1948 the term “Post Christian Era” was being spoken of regularly in Church council circles. It appears that this post-Christian age was becoming more secularised. Fast forward 50 years or so, and we hear the term “humanism” has become a familiar turn of phrase in our society. God and religion have been pushed to the backbenches. This leads me to ask myself the question, “Has Church any influence on changing culture or is culture now changing Church? And it comes as no surprise to learn that most churches today have allowed or adopted the culture into their buildings and dictate or even distort the meaning of the Church.

Outwardly, new technology, globalisation, and new organisational structures have overtaken the beliefs and traditions under which most churches and denominations work. On the inside, the Church has grown old, and the buildings that have offered so much stability have aged, too. I have lost count of times I have been told that the Church belongs in the past.

Contemporary culture has been shaped dominantly by the internet via social media, and nowhere can this be seen more than in our younger generations. If we consider that today’s youth and everybody else lives in a world of declining trust in larger institutions, Church included. In the “post-Christian era” in which we live, the mission’s ways have to change to keep the mission alive.

So let me begin with the question, “what does it mean to be a missionary pioneer?” A simple answer to that is, “they went where no Christian had gone before”. If we take it back to the bible, the word for pioneer is חָלוּץ (chalets), meaning one equipped for war (coming from a fighting background, I quite like that). In Modern Hebrew, the word implies pioneer, the one who goes first in a great venture.

Before one goes in first, time should be spent developing the right mindset, if possible learning the language and most essentially, learning about the culture wherever in the world one is pioneering in. I can clearly speak from experience when I say the biggest mistake anyone can make is to assume we know what the local people are thinking and need just because we read it in some book. Learning how to plant a church and share the gospel in today’s culture must begin by knowing what the local culture already knows and believes. Starting here can save a lot of time in the long run.

Our mindset and our attitudes need to change if we are to continue participating in the mission of God. We can start any amount of modern new worship services, invite the most popular preacher to speak, and internally modernise our buildings and yet most still aren’t going to come.

Francis Chan nails it in this quote – “If we focus too much of our attention on what people want, we will only increase the amount of complaining.” (Chan, 2018)

What I don’t want to see or create is another new worship service designed around the trendiness or coolness of today’s world. What I do want to see happen is a mission that connects with those who are not likely to engage with the word of God. To build a community that will have the capacity to become a strong expression of the practical love of God suitable to its cultural context.

In Forrest McPhail’s book, “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings”, McPhail offers his insight into the nuts and bolts of the Church in pioneer settings, namely, keep it simple and stick to New Testament basics. He warns against missionaries being overly directive in shaping the growth and development of the Church.

He writes, “the missionary must teach God’s Word and emphasise its principles but leave the major task of application primarily to the local believers.” (McPhail, n.d.)

(McPhail’s book is written from his 15 years of on-field experience church planting in rural Cambodia, a book I wish I had come to read before pioneering in Cambodia myself, which would have saved me a couple of years)

I am moving on to engaging with fresh expressions or missional projects. Due to the time of year (our busiest time of year), I struggled with this. So I share some projects I have been involved with over the past couple of years.

After many, many mistakes at the outset of missional projects, looking back, my formula was Missional, Ecclesial and finally Christological. My excitement outweighed the process and could have quite easily built on sand. I was off to convert Cambodia with no thoughts about local culture, traditions, and beliefs, armed with money in my pocket and my Bible. God wills it!

How wrong was I? I had read the stories of those missionaries that had gone out across the globe. The Nike motto rang in my head, “Just do It”, and I went, and I failed miserably. Perhaps God did not want me there after all.

 “I would much rather hire someone who prayed and did nothing else than someone who worked tirelessly without praying.” (Chan, 2011)

That was me, working tirelessly; yes, there were some prayers but not enough seeking the will of God. Tired and beaten, it was never my intention to return. On the last day of that first trip, I took a tuk-tuk to go and see the Killing Fields museum. An experience in itself. The place is fenced off, and in areas, some beg outside, those who have lost limbs during the Pol Pot regime. Cambodia still hurts from the damage caused by the crushing and brutal reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (1975–79), when an approximate three million people died and were murdered. It divided the country in two, those on either the Khmer Rouge or those against. Major social problems still exist today, even decades after the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime

On this particular day I felt God was about to teach me something, and He did. The first principle I learned in missional pioneering was being partners in a missional project, and cross-cultural relationships require a commitment for the long haul. Relationships are essential for any project to work. If we are going to work together, we are going to have to be friends first. Is not the word of God about a relationship?

The second principle I learned was about money.

“we may be good of a one-off appeal, but there is no real evidence of a general movement (or wave) of compassion or generosity sweeping through the West. There were appeals for financial support after the Bangladesh floods in 1991 (138,00 dead), the north-western Iraq earthquake the year before (50,00 dead), the Rwandan genocide, the Ethiopian drought, the 1976 Tang-Shan earthquake in China (up to 750,00 dead) and in each case money was donated, but Westerners continued to live as they always did without allowing the scale of these tragedies to affect their ongoing spending patterns or priorities” (Michael, 2006.)

 I have come to understand that a lack of economic means is not the root problem of poverty, but we see it this way in the western world. This is the mindset we have created in most projects we plan. Our vision needs to change, so instead of seeing the solution in keeping this or that project going, we can bless our partners with a share of the economic wealth with which we ourselves have been blessed or set up services that will provide basic needs for others. Many churches give lots of money, and nothing really changes. Yet we still insist that our money will solve the problem. This can and does set a harmful practice; it creates dependency and unwittingly puts those mission leaders into the position of financial sponsors for the local believers.

“He who says he believes in Christ ought to walk as Christ walked, poor and humble and always preaching the truth” (Columban 543–615).

We need to stop jumping from project to project to ensure monetary benefit or provision for a felt need. Remember, we all share at the “Fathers Table”. Our resources are not ours; they are Gods. They are not ours to stockpile. Our mindset must shift from “mine or yours” to “We are all resources”. Each one of us is an important part of making that happen and blessing each other as we all sit at the same table.

The 5:2 principle from Matthew 14 is simply giving what we have, what we know and all our experiences to Jesus because He does the miracle. Our job is to take that step of faith and give all we have over to Him. Maybe, just maybe, the miracle wasn’t in the loaves and fishes being multiplied, but maybe the miracle was the giving up by one young boy the five loaves and two fish.

And we should apply this principle in every pioneering mission we undertake. We must give up all our control over what we think we have and allow Jesus to take it in order for the miracle to happen.

Over the last number of years, and I believe this is so important, is that we identify those who share this passion for coming together and watching what God will do. I tend to look for those who are already doing something with their five loaves and two fish.

I have learnt that ignoring these principles can become an expensive and difficult way.

I don’t start anything with people who are not using what they already have. For a partnership to begin, we must pray first and become friends first.

Having learned these principles, I was much better prepared for pioneering missional projects in Laos, Kenya, and Myanmar. Perhaps the third principle I have learned is “Keep it Local”. We have kept it local in each of these places, using what God has given me, the ability to cook. Buy local; you don’t have many other options; it is a great way to strike up conversations, build relationships, and be a practical example of God’s love. Let’s be honest, how often would they get to meet a fat white bald Irishman who comes into their village, buys a goat or a chicken and then cooks it for them!

More recently, our pioneering mission is in the local town of Youghal. And I take that word “pioneer” back to its meaning in Hebrew, “one equipped for war” one of the ways we reach out to the youth is via Muay Thai. The cost to train is a bible verse.

The question was asked, “In your view, what ecclesial shape should a missional church adopt?”. In missional ecclesiology, the Church is to be a community of witnesses, not a building or an organisation. We are called into going, equipped by God into the world to join in Christ’s work and make disciples. The Church does not have a mission; instead, the mission of God establishes the Church.

CONCLUSION:

Yes, we live in exciting times, a time that presents many opportunities in our local communities to reach out with the love of God, to become pioneers for the Kingdom. And with all opportunities, challenges will arise. It is a great time to be a missional pioneer. I believe we are in a better position than ever before to move forward and advance the Kingdom. We have more knowledge, many who have gone before us as pioneers and share their stories, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Mary Slessor, William Carey or what about John G. Paton, a Christian missionary to the cannibals on the New Hebrides Islands of the South Pacific. We are a long way from having to run from someone who wants to stick us in a pot for supper. Are the challenges we will encounter be any more complicated than that? The mission before is not intended to be easy or safe. It is mobile, being the hands and feet of Jesus wherever we are, in total surrender and dependence on Christ.

“So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognise what he wants from you and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, and develops well-formed maturity in you.” (Romans 12:1-2 The Message)

This is a call to committed ministry that keeps the main thing, the main thing. Sacrifice is necessary, and missionaries need to be willing to lay down their lives if they want to see the Church grow. It is, for this reason, I “bow my knees before the Father” (Ephesians 3:14-21)

Bibliography

Chan, F., 2011. BASIC.we are church. Colorado Spring, CO: David C Cook.

Chan, F., 2018. Letters To The Church. [ S.I.]: David C Cook.

McPhail, F., n.d.. Pioneer missions. s.l.:s.n.

Michael, F., 2006.. Exiles.. 8 ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Eugene H. 2017. The Message.  Colorado Springs, CO, United States. NavPress


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