Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Missional in the Bible Belt

In The Jollyblogger's archives is a good post called Eclipse of the Gospel in the Church. In it David Wayne builds off this Marcus Honeysett quote:
"At some point in the life of most local churches a critical point is reached when the core fellowship of those committed to gospel vision are outnumbered by a fringe who are there for quite different reasons, be it spiritual comfort, kids activities, personal support, or whatever. Regardless of the particular type of church government, all fellowships struggle to maintain focus around core vision when the fringe, be they believers or not, outnumber the gospel-oriented core. It is very hard to maintain focus, or alter any aspect of church life to reflect the gospel needs of a fresh generation, when the majority are committed to maintaining their comfort. When this happens "Christians" have been replaced with "churchgoers" who assume they are Christians."

Um, yep.

Expanding this beyond an individual congregation, I would say this is a predicament for all gospel-centered churches in areas where the inordinately attractional church is king, particularly in the Bible Belt, where Christianity is "cultural" and the church with the most toys wins.

Wayne follows up:
That seems to be the nature of the beast when it comes to the church. The Exodus people of Israel quickly forgot their redemption and pined for their leeks and onions and devolved into complaints and idolatry. So much so that God had to let a generation die out before they could enter the promised land. And, if you read through the history of Israel it's easy to see how quickly the pattern that Honeysett describes here happens. The people of God forget or jettison their identity as redeemed people, and they jettison a redemption-driven agenda for other agendas. The church in Corinth is a good New Testament example of this.

It's probably just something we have to accept and accept that getting the gospel into the church is an even greater priority than getting it into the world. I remember vaguely hearing Tim Keller talk about Redeemer in Manhattan. Redeemer is well known around the world as a leading light in gospel based, missionally driven ministry, yet if I remember correctly Keller said there were probably only a third or a little more at his church who were really getting the whole gospel-missional thing . . .

So the point is that our first and greatest battle is to gospelize the church.

We are in a weird -- but frequently exhilarating -- position where the gospel is scandalous even to Christians.

So many of our brothers and sisters want the compartmentalized spirituality (putting in their religious time on Sunday mornings), the six steps to such-and-such messages, and the superficiality of apathy towards real community, that missional thinking and living, gospel-saturated and Jesus-centered messages, and the demands of relational intimacy freak them out. This stuff is a foreign language to them, and I see it constantly in the so-called "Christian South," where "everyone" is a Christian, "everyone" goes to church.

Once upon a time, reading on a Nashville church shopper's blog, I noticed a commenter urging her to look for a church that focused on Jesus. Her reply was, "I've already found Jesus."

This is the default mode of Bible Belt Christianity. I've got my ticket punched, just give me the show now. I need a dynamic speaker on Sunday mornings, a rockin' band on the stage, a full service childcare facility, a big youth group, a coffee bar near the sanctuary, etc.
I've got Jesus already; give me something that matters to me now, something "relevant," something applicable.

And there is a never-ending appetite for this stuff because this stuff doesn't fix or fulfill anything. Seven steps to conquering conflict in your marriage won't eradicate conflict. So there's always demand for seven more steps next time around.

What I find especially ironic about the churches catering to gospel-unawakened Christians is that they claim they exist for the unchurched. They are the ones actually reaching lost people, they say.
The data does not support this, of course. The number of megachurches has increased; the number of Christians has decreased. This does not compute. And when folks like Sally Morgenthaler start looking at the research, what they find is that the attractional machine, which purports to be for the lost and unchurched, basically just ends up attracting Christians from smaller or less "exciting" churches.

Should missional church pastors care? Do we want these folks?

Speaking for myself, yes. Except, I want to win them. They're no fun as they are. ;-) But frankly, as they are, they don't want what we've got anyway. To the cultural Christian, there is nothing attractive about a small church that expects relational community, practices regular neighborhood service, highlights the cost of discipleship in every message, has a minimalist menu of programs to partake from, and gives most of its money away (precluding a "nice" facility and assorted bells and whistles). But I want to reach them. All Christians are family. I love the big-C Church dearly.

There are some who would say the missional communities should just write off their attractional brothers and sisters and focus on reaching the lost. I defy false dichotomies. And while I never poach (I've never invited members of other churches to mine before they themselves have first expressed interest in visiting), I pray and preach AND BLOG and try to live a life of witness so that my churched brothers and sisters will begin to crave the gospel and gospel-centrism in their congregations.

The more churched converts gospel-centrism receives -- we're talking about revival here, by the way -- the greater impact for the kingdom among the lost and "least of these" there will be, in the Bible Belt and beyond.

If indeed cultural evangelicalism in the Bible Belt is dying, what do we do about it?


Bill Blair said...

I don't really have time to elaborate, but trying to do missional in the Bible belt is, well, interesting. There is such a strain trying to think through providing services, like good children's stuff, and calling people to self-sacrifice. I highlight the children's stuff because that almost seems non-negotiable here. It is like some parents want to live missional themselves, but want amenities for their kids. We are close to figuring out a balance there (at least for us), but it is a challenge.

I guess I did have time to elaborate. ;-)

salguod said...

"I pray and preach AND BLOG and try to live a life of witness so that my churched brothers and sisters will begin to crave the gospel and gospel-centrism in their congregations"

It's working. Reading you regularly has changed my thinking of what my church should be, and it's made me more appreciative of the good, Jesus focused preaching we get on a regular basis.

Unknown said...

Keep going, we're hard at it in Mississippi. Attractional has its place. But lots of people will never hear or see the Gospel if the missional guys don't do their thing.

We love it. Our people are fulfilled... the people who won't "go" to church are getting the church to come to them. Win Win.

The Bible Belt is starved for Missional... least they are here.

Rob said...

Great post, Jared. I hear ya!

aggieben said...

Jared - I just found your blog last week (interestingly enough, it was in my recommendations list in Google Reader), and have been sucking in as many posts as I can ever since. I find that your approach to the gospel and church (without knowing any details of how you actually "do church") resonates with me, so I'm curious:

What would you say to someone currently plugged in at a church that has shades of these problems you mention? For example, in my church, there exist those who are gospel awakened and those who aren't, and one collective failure is that both sides fail to submit to the authority of scripture and to love each other. One the one hand, there is a group that has a huge authority problem and will twist (or ignore) scripture every which way to avoid being held accountable to other brothers or having to submit to any kind of authority (you know..."The Holy Spirit disciples me") or submit to anything that disrupts their comfort, and on the other hand, there's a group that is so afraid of offending that they refuse to confront even the most blatant sin in a biblical way, or to even teach the scriptures authoritatively in hopes that the revealed word could change hearts. For example, in one particular case, steps 1-2 from Matthew 18 has been performed ad nauseum on one individual (to no avail), and yet we won't complete the process. Of course, discussion of church governance is taboo, particularly the word "Elders" (nevermind what the Bible actually says - we have to defend our Baptist identity, you see).

I've contemplated leaving, but I'm hugely conflicted about that. I've been at this church long enough to have true fellowship with a core group of brothers, despite our collective problems, and it would be painful to break that fellowship. At the same time, we have a broken leadership in this church and consequently fail to be what Jesus intended the bride of Christ to be. I realize that any other local body would have some or many of the same problems, so I'm not entirely sure there's anywhere to go - not to mention that church migrations might very well be the mechanism that allows unhealthy churches to stumble along.

Jared said...

AggieBen, I don't know if this post may apply to your situation, but I have written on "What to do If Your Pastor Doesn't Preach Jesus" before, which touches on some of these same issues:

One I would say, going by your description, and I say it delicately because I don't know your church obviously, is that it doesn't sound as though there is much gospel wakefulness in your church. Gospel wakefulness produces both humility and confidence. And it sounds like one side in your church lacks humility and the other lacks confidence.

My first inclination in situations like that would be to stay and continue to work patiently, gracefully for the good. But I know there are times when that is just not feasible b/c of heresy, stalemated or unhealthy conflict, family concerns, etc.

I think your heart is good to want to stay if you can. This is a good indication that you are probably free to leave if you can do so in good conscience.
I can't be the Holy Spirit and know what you should or shouldn't do.

But, yes, you're right: the dearth of gospel wakefulness is something that affects most churches. There's no perfect place and switching places is often just switching one set of problems for another.

You sound like you've got a good spirit and thoughtfulness about the predicament. I pray you can be a good missionary for the gospel even in your church, no matter where that ends up being.

Jared said...

Oh, here's another one I forgot about.
"Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

PeteT said...

Please forgive my lengthy post. I haven't felt compelled to respond like this in quite a while. 4600 characters won't allow me to say what I want. I have to say my ire was piqued when I read this article. It's the thought processes and the mindsets that get me.

Missional; Attractional; Gospel Driven; Christian South; cultural Christianity; etc... Man! This article wears me down just trying to figure out what all the labels mean. There’s a truckload of memes to unpack in this article. My first thought was: What an awful lot of non-productive energy is being directed at labeling churches and defining how the Church should look/work/function, pitting one method/philosophy against another. Which leads me to my next thought: it’s no wonder people are turned off by Christianity. The author decries the creation of false dichotomies, yet creates a false tri-chotomy by throwing Gospel Driven in the mix with Missional/Attractional. "I defy false dichotomies. ... I pray and preach AND BLOG and try to live a life of witness so that my churched brothers and sisters will begin to crave the gospel and gospel-centrism in their congregations." Wow. What a loaded statement. If you are gospel Centric, doesn’t that mean you would be praying, preaching, blogging and trying to live a life of witness to reach those that aren’t Christ followers? I don’t know you, other than what I briefly read on the blog site where you state you are a pastor of a church, but this sounded really pretentious to me as I read the article. Without saying it directly, you pretty much state that "I/we are doing it the right way". Which means the rest of us are doing it wrong (especially the “Christian South”), which probably means I am part of the group defined as Cultural Christianity, which is summarily dismissed in the article. (by the way, I do belong to a missional church that functions pretty much the way you describe yours.)

The way I read it, Gospel Centrism defined in this article is just another list of activities and rules/regulations to be substituted for the original Old Testament master list, the Jewish halakhah. In this instance you define it as: "a small church that expects relational community, practices regular neighborhood service, highlights the cost of discipleship in every message, has a minimalist menu of programs to partake from, and gives most of its money away (precluding a "nice" facility and assorted bells and whistles)". Really? From my perspective, I think it is a whole lot simpler than what is being written in books and propounded on blog sites like this, which feels to me like gnawing on an old bone: lots of effort with little result.

I think it was captured very succinctly in a quote from an article I read today by Os Hillman: "The primary focus...(of the church)... has been teaching and discipleship (plug in your ‘model’ here) instead of the development of a personal and intimate relationship with God. This has resulted in a form of religion, but one without power." The form of religion. A sham in other words: hollow activity that doesn’t produce life. This has been the bane of our faith since the beginning. It’s not, as David Wayne is quoted in the article, “the people of God forget or jettison their identity as redeemed people”, it’s that they chose never to enter in to an intimate relationship with God (Israelites in Exodus refusing to engage with God and telling Moses to do it). This is the issue: Relationship; intimacy with Father God.

Christ addressed this when he quoted Isaiah 29:13 in Matthew 15:8: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” In Isaiah the verse goes on to say: “Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Sounds a lot like when people use the terms “missional/attractional/Gospel driven model” of doing church, doesn’t it? Merely human rules they have been taught (or are teaching). Substituting one form of religion for another.

PeteT said...

(2nd half of post)
I have a dear friend, Stan. But we weren’t always friends. In fact, for a greater portion of my life, I didn’t even know he existed. I first met Stan through another dear friend, Cameron. Cameron knew Stan. I didn’t. When I would spend time with Cameron, I often got the opportunity to spend some time with Stan, usually in the presence of Cameron, but then eventually, as we got to know each other, it would just be Stan and I. Our relationship grew over time. We are dear friends now. He has shared his concerns/his heart with me. Those concerns/matters of the heart have affected me and have at times compelled me to act on them.

I share this because this is such a simple, yet clear picture of how I believe Christianity works when it is Jesus centric, which is to say, about our relationship with God. We get to know God intimately, over time, His heart infecting and changing ours, and we respond to life out of that relationship, not because it is or isn't in the 'model' of church we subscribe to. If we are blessed, we are introduced, relationally, to Jesus by someone who knows him. We spend time with that person, who is filled with the Spirit and is intimate with Jesus, and we in turn become more intimate with the Father. As a result of this intimacy, the external 'cultural markers' that everyone seems to be so focused on, occurs naturally. (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10; Hebrews 10:16—“This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”) God does it and it occurs naturally, relationally. Man substitutes a model of activity, in place of relationship with God and we are left with religious activity, which is not compelling to anyone, and for most not worth sharing.

I don’t profess to have intimacy with God down. But I do know I hunger for more of God than I have now, and I struggle over my personal failures in this area. In the words of U2- I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I look around and I don’t know many people who are intimate with God, or even talk about it. Oh they know a great deal about God, or so it seems. And there is a lot of 'christian' activity going on, but there is no relational depth there. Christ Jesus said: I came that they might have life, and have it to the full. That’s the real marker that is the entire gospel and is at once both attractional and missional: an intimate relationship with the Eternal God that yields a life to the full; that God can use to draw others to Himself.

My take away is this: pray/beg/beseech God that you “may know Him, and the power of His resurrection”. The sharing of the Gospel (good news) is simple: Jesus Christ offers forgiveness for our sins (freedom), and wants you to know Him: Father, Son and Spirit(meaningful relationship). And you can't share that unless know Him, which is not to be confused with knowing about Him, which is why I think so many are afraid to share Jesus, and why so many church leaders fail. They create programs becasue they can't propagate intimacy with God.

Jared said...

Pete, for someone upset about the amount of energy put into the blog post, you sure left a couple of long comments.

I have one response:
You have no grounds to judge the "little results" of the thoughtfulness put into this post because you neither know me nor my ministry.

Your phrase "The way I read it" is correct. You are reacting to the way you read it. And that way is wrong.

This was written to a particular audience who does get the shorthand terminology; if that ain't you, feel free to focus your energy elsewhere. Sharing your "ire" on a stranger's blog is surely not worth your time.