Confession: How I Get Church Wrong

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I have confessed that I have been guilty of three leadership assumptions that work against the missional work of God. In case you missed it, here are those assumptions (the more I confess, the better it is for my healing):

  1. We just need to find the right program.
  2. More is better.
  3. Hub-and-spoke leadership is effective for missional leadership.

The truth is, I’m not quite done confessing. There are more modern, Christendom defaults that tempt me to seek technical solutions to adaptive challenges; to avoid the space between and stay in the space I’m familiar with and think I can control.

There are three more assumptions that I myself, and, I believe, many in the North American church today continue to struggle with as we step out and seek to participate in God’s mission in the space between.

It’s All About Me

Let’s be honest, an individualistic approach to life and faith is prevalent in the Western church’s understanding of who she is and what she is to be about.

It’s about me: my needs, my relationship with Jesus, my comfort, salvation, etc.”

Not only does this cause church leaders to give their attention to the needs and perspectives of the individual, it also forces leaders themselves into hierarchical relationships. Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan deems both problems idolatrous.

Love of the heirarchy, Donovan asserts, consumes the vast majority of the church’s resources, time, energy and talent producing “a plethora of meetings and chapters and synods and councils and committees.” Meanwhile, “individualism has its obsessions also: individual responsibility, individual morality, individual vocation to the priesthood, self-fulfillment, individual holiness and salvation…with little room for community in between.” (Christianity Rediscovered)

Charles Taylor calls this “the unprecedented primacy of the individual.” (Modern Social Imaginaries) This primacy has led church leadership to seek, train, pastor, and cater to the individual. In this way, many churches are in reality associations or collections of self-selecting individuals whose particular preferences and priorities determine the length and depth of their engagement in the voluntary association we call church. But does Christianity make any sense outside of “communitas”—the community of God’s people formed by, bearing witness to, and participating in God’s mission?[1]

In contrast, the space between beckons us to recognize the importance of “we”. To disciple and be discipled is to be part of a community. In addition, it is the community—“you” plural—whose vocation and identity are, as that city on the hill, the salt and light of the world in the world. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk assert the following on the issue:

Missional leadership is not effectiveness in meeting the inner, spiritual needs of self-actualizing and self-differentiating individuals or creating numerical growth. It is different from building healthy, non-anxious relationships among members of a congregation so that they appear attractive to people outside the church. Missional leadership is cultivating an environment that releases the missional imagination of the people of God (The Missional Leader).

Jesus sends out the twelve as well as the seventy/seventy-two in pairs, implying not only that it is about our going, but also that we cannot bring good news on our own. We are sent together to do so (see Mark 6:7, Luke 10:1). The togetherness of the Gospel reminds us that “it is Jesus who heals, not I; it is Jesus who is Lord, not I…we proclaim the redeeming power of God together. Indeed, whenever we minister together, it is easier for people to recognize that we do not come in our own name, but in the name of the Lord Jesus who sent us” (Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus).

In fact, it is when we are in community in Jesus’ name that we are assured that Jesus is among us (see Matthew 18:19, 20). Ministry and mission (therefore, missional leadership) are not only communal experiences but also mutual experiences (Nouwen).

We are in this together!

Just Believe

“We are not Christians because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices” (The Missional Leader).

Contrary to this statement, another leadership default, particularly in the tradition of which I am a part, assumes that if we just believe the right things, everything else will fall into place. Our positions on theological issues and our confessional statements and deliberations must therefore be articulated with greater clarity and agreement for the church to be strong and effective.

Clearly, what we believe is important. But are such statements enough to prepare us for and engage us with a world where actions speak louder than words and experience, more than argument, communicates truth? The truth is we can have incredibly beautiful, thorough confessions framed in our foyers and even established in our minds yet change nothing.

Even after having invested a great deal of time, energy, and effort into making these statements just right, we may yet find ourselves disconnected from the agency of God and unmoved by the wind of the Spirit stirring up Kingdom life next door.

In contrast, the missional leader recognizes that actions shape beliefs. Additionally, missional leaders understand that when ordinary people of God come to know “that [they] can hear and discern the ways of God” in their neighborhoods, right statements become more about right questions, and attentiveness to the Spirit and the people among whom God has placed his church grows in importance. (See Roxburgh’s Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood).

Church in Space

A final notion that I think has distorted who we are and what we’re about as God’s sent ones relates to a prepositional element in that last statement, namely “among whom God has placed his church.” The North American church functions and seeks to achieve its purposes in “space”. Once or twice a week, commuter congregations occupy a generic space where it is believed that what is done there will attract, bear witness, disciple, and grow those who attend: those for whom the church “does outreach”. But you can’t be a stakeholder in a space. (There’s nothing to put a stake into!)

In a space, we are service providers with our own agendas. We can commute to our church activity, do it well, pat ourselves on the back, and go home without ever making real connections, taking ownership, or getting out of our comfort zones.

However, when God goes on mission, he goes in person and in place. He lives among and engages with humanity. Moreover, he lives as one of.

It’s incarnational. It’s faithful presence—which has a street address. It’s a call to inhabit, to be somewhere. As Simon Carey Holt puts it in God Next Door, “it’s a call to the neighborhood”. In Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson expounds upon God, us, and place: “Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything that has to do with God is also in place. All living is local”.

A few pages later, Peterson writes:

What we often consider to be the concerns of the spiritual life—ideas, truths, prayers, promises, beliefs—are never in the Christian gospel permitted to have a life of their own apart from particular persons and actual places. Biblical spirituality/religion has a low tolerance for “great ideas” or “sublime truths” or “inspirational thoughts” apart from the places in which they occur.…” Getting to know the neighborhood, the nature and conditions of the neighborhood, is fundamental to living to the glory of God. It is slow and complex work.

Slow and complex are not my preferred descriptors. Generally, that’s not what people want to hear either—we want quick and easy!

Confession Leads to Challenge

How will I (we) embrace slow and complex?

I don’t know. And that, friends, is the whole point of what it means to embrace the space between—the adaptive challenges of our postmodern, post-Christendom world.

Can we—will we—trust enough? Will we be vulnerable and humble enough to abandon our defaults and say, “I don’t know, but I’ll step out in faith and obedience anyway”?

Confess in a Safe Community of Missional Church Planters

 

Footnotes

[1] “Communitas” is “a community infused with a grand sense of purpose; a purpose that lies outside of its current internal reality and constitution. It’s the kind of community that ‘happens’ to people in actual pursuit of a common vision of what could be. It involves movement and it describes the experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people actually engaging in a mission outside itself.” Alan Hirsch, quoted by Michael Frost in Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson, 2006), 123.

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Dr. Karen Wilk
Dr. Karen Wilk is a National Team Member of Forge Canada’s Missional Training Network, and a Missional Leader Developer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Karen is the Lead Catalyser of Neighbourhood Life/NEW (Neighbourhood Engagement Workers) Community in Alberta, where she actively engages church leadership in moving their congregations out into neighborhoods. She has been a pastor in Edmonton for almost 28 years and completed a Doctorate in Missional Leadership at Northern Seminary in Chicago. Karen is the author of Don’t Invite Them To Church: Moving From a Come and See to a Go and Be Church. She is also a neighbor, wife, mom, and minister who is leading her own neighborhood community.
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