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