The well-known idiom, “if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door” is often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. What he actually said was, “If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” Though he was misquoted, the intent is still the same. The point being, if someone thinks of a better way of doing something, then it can become the next model that will solve that issue. Ironically, this mouse-trap idea has fostered more patents than any other machine in the USA’s patent office.
This approach to invention, the better mousetrap, can also inform our discussions on ecclesiology and our innovations in this particular cultural time. If you think about it, a new mouse trap may operate in a very different fashion than its predecessors. It may have different parts, a different way of catching the mouse, new ways of attracting them, or even humane ways of releasing them. What is common to all of these designs is the desire to remove the mouse. That is the baseline intent; the function, if you will. What may determine the use of various mouse trap models might be the context in which they are used. Some might be better in a house with kids and pets, while another might be better in a food prep area like a restaurant kitchen.
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
In this post-pandemic, shaky, finding-our-way culture, pastors are looking for a way to answer the current tensions that exist in prevailing church models. The church now faces a season where already declining attendance has accelerated, financial giving is down, and pressures are mounting to figure out how to engage faith communities in innovative ways. Opinions vary and the only agreement on the street (of church leadership) is, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” (I’ve heard this line verbatim, several times).
It seems the tensions of the day are finally forcing churches to examine attractional/consumer models of the church built during the past several decades. Attractional isn’t working with neither believers nor non-believers. Better preaching, more lights and fog, and better children’s ministries aren’t bringing people back, nor are they bringing in those who are not Christ followers. This is leading to discussions about experimenting with some other iterations of church ecclesiology. Experimentation is not a bad thing to do to offer possible solutions to the tensions dispersing the church today. However, just like at the start of the church growth era, new models are not our answer; they never were."Just like at the start of the church growth era, new models are not our answer; they never were." ~ Rowland Smith Click To Tweet
Many claim that the church growth era began in the 1970s with the work of Donald McGavran, first Dean of Missions at Fuller Seminary. McGavran’s correct premise, that a Christian needs to understand their context and present the gospel in a culturally relevant way, became the marching orders for many evangelical churches. The result was to examine the Western, American culture and shape the Church to communicate in ways that the culture would understand.
This began a long road in the development of church models that utilized popular music, technology, family-oriented programming, children’s ministries that wow the senses, as well as other experiments in cultural communication. A good goal of engaging cross-culturally in the mission of God became, unintentionally, a discipleship method of creating Christian consumers who then moved from church to church looking for the best example of these things being offered. Churches ended up competing, in a sense, as their metrics of growth forced a self-examination, asking if their Sunday production and other programming were meeting the needs and wants of those coming. What began as a good missional function of the church, to reach across cultural lines and communicate the gospel, became a model of church that gave unintended consequences and discipled unwanted behaviors toward consumerism.
Again, we are at a crossroads. This divisive, post-pandemic culture has the church seeking new ways of being all that God has called it to be. “Brick and Mortars” are feeling the pressure of reduced attendance and giving, as well as looking for new ways to engage those that used to come on Sunday, but now stay home.
Some of us in the “missional communities” space are starting to hear the phrase micro-church thrown around more and more. This can be exciting to us, as we’ve been preaching the message of “smaller” for some time now, seeing the prophetic reality of now-present issues of building large attractional systems. Micro-church networks are fast becoming all the rage it seems, and even large church planting organizations and denominations are recently engaging the “micro-church” conversation.
What worries me and many of my missional friends, is that we are once again searching for a model. Like the advent of church growth, we’re asking what methodology will get us across the cultural barriers of our times. I would offer that it’s not the model that is the secret sauce. It is not a model that originally announced the Kingdom. When we rely on models, on structures, we risk losing our contextual intelligence for a place. We risk engaging our own blindness to the best methodology of announcing the kingdom in our particular space and time."When we rely on models, on structures, we risk losing our contextual intelligence for a place. We risk engaging our own blindness to the best methodology of announcing the kingdom in our particular space and time." ~ Rowland Smith Click To Tweet
Function is Key
My friend (and my pastor) Jonathan Cleveland recently said, “The function of the church is given by God, the model of church is a gift of people guided by the Holy Spirit.” His point, and I think a key one at this crossroads, is that we all share a common function as the church. Our function is found in several biblical descriptors: unity, gathering, community, and please let us not forget, our sentness/mission (John 20:21).
However, models are flexible, contextual, and are guided by the Holy Spirit into relevance within the cultural space we find ourselves. Should the model be a prevailing church that has a Sunday worship service? Yes, possibly. Should it be a house church within a neighborhood? Yes, possibly. Should it be centered around biblical justice or para-church activity? Yes, possibly. The question is not what the new model should be, or worse, what we can add to the past, prevailing model to bring it back to life.
I could argue that scripturally the Church is called to mimic what Jesus did. In fact, that is His suggestion, not mine, according to the gospel writer John and Jesus’s proclamation to His disciples, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). If our commission by Jesus is to mimic him in the same way the Father sent him, then the question for today gains clarity: how do we as the church announce and display a new kingdom, with kingdom values, ruled by a new king?"If our commission by Jesus is to mimic him in the same way the Father sent him, then the question for today gains clarity: how do we as the church announce and display a new kingdom, with kingdom values, ruled by a new king?" ~ Rowland Smith Click To Tweet
How do we build our methodologies around announcing the things Jesus announced: good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, setting the oppressed free, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (from Luke 4)? Or, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, to name just a few from Matthew 5. The “tone” of these announcements and others like them gives a sense of actionable movement into our city with a posture of healing, peace, and freedom. It is larger than better programs, larger than information about Jesus and the Kingdom. It’s the Kingdom in action; the Kingdom as a verb. This was how Jesus was sent by the Father, and so, are we not also?
A Need for the Kingdom
It won’t be a new model that moves the church forward. It won’t be a new discipleship plan or a new strategy. It will be returning to the function of the church, our sent identity to take the kingdom into our city in a tangible way. To work out the gospel in people’s lives, not just talk about it. Ironically, the elements of the kingdom are exactly what tired, lonely people are looking for in this post-pandemic, divisive world.
However, words won’t be enough. Idealism won’t heal them; they need to experience it. How do we engage people life-on-life to bring the salve of the Kingdom into their hurting lives? How can we mobilize as the people of God, Jesus people, that show the reality of the Kingdom now? Is it possible for churches to do this, to shift from attractional to missional? I know it is, as I’ve seen it happen. It’s not micro-church, it’s not dinner church, it’s not mega-church, or meta-verse church. Those are simply tools for a greater calling…to be the voice and life of Jesus, if he were here. However, He’s not, so he sent you and he sent me.
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