The missional movement of the past few decades has done wonders for the Church in many ways. It has caused us to reconsider the primary functions of the church and the disciple. It has helped us ask what it means to follow Jesus outside the four walls of the church. And it has sparked a lot of good trial and error. These things are invaluable for the Church, and we will reap the rewards for a good time to come.
Missional leaders and church planters, however, need to move forward and begin thinking about the end of church--both the terminus end and the telos end. I have witnessed many gifted missional leaders give up too early. I believe this can be attributed to our subconscious motivations of revitalizing the Sunday experience, the 501c3, and/or our cultural privilege (see my last post). I want to begin thinking about the terminus end of church as we have known it so that we can become the church as God sees it.
The greatest roadblock to the missional movement is the imagination we inherited from previous generations. If we can put an end to our current ecclesiological imagination (ideas and expectations of what church is or should be), we can reverse this trend of losing missional leaders and cultivate a new imagination that frees the Spirit to move and form us in ways appropriate for our contextual realities. In order to do so, we need to take a look at the language we use to motivate ourselves and others. Language is a good indication of how our current imagination motivates and gives direction to our endeavors.
Recently, David Fitch** (my bro whom I love) put out a promotion video with Northern Seminary that utilizes the motivations I am trying to expose. In the video, he comments on the cultural movement that has been happening for the past 50+ years in the West. We have moved from a Christendom to a post-Christendom culture, which is to say that we have moved from a world dominated by the church to one in which the church holds little to no influence or authority. He is correct here (see my thoughts on post-Christendom) but his language reveals a mistake that I believe is at the root of our problematic motivations.
His choice of words sound like a lament. He points out that our institutions no longer support Christian values and that there is no more Christian language in our culture, no more status for Christians and/or the Church, no more authority, no more influence, and no more habits or orbits that will inevitably lead people into our church buildings again on Sunday mornings. These laments almost give the impression that he is grieving the loss of what was and longing for a way back.
As a student of Fitch’s, I realize this is not his intention, but rather a hook that he is using to empathize with current pastors seeking a way forward. Unfortunately, it opens a window to wonder if the missional imagination would be necessary if there were still butts in our seats on Sunday or a Ronald Reagan in the oval office. If all we’re aiming for is a revitalized Sunday experience or cultural privilege, there are much easier ways to get there than missional living.
Fitch is not intending to call us back to some golden age of American Christendom, but his language plants this type of imagination. Many, if not most, young missional leaders get introduced to the missional movement with references to the crumbling Church of the West. This is how the missional movement has been marketed for years. Missional promoters speak to our situations--dwindling attendance and cultural influence--in order that we might adopt their solution (buy their book or attend their conference). And yes, this is an excellent marketing ploy, as the viewer really feels like they get her situation or understand his predicament. But it also limits our imagination from the beginning by not properly diagnosing the situation or clarifying the proper telos.
Fitch’s “lament” concludes with a few questions: “How do we lead a church into the neighborhoods to witness the salvation that God is doing in Jesus Christ?” “How do we be the church?” “How now do we make church a way of life?”
These are the right questions to be asking. They can help reposition the church within the proper telos. But they also border on sounding like last ditch efforts to rally the troops to recover what was “lost”. If the viewer hears them in the context of revitalizing the Sunday experience, the “salvation” language quickly gets co-opted by a soterian gospel memory as well as culture war frameworks--language and frameworks I know for certain Fitch is not attempting to convey. Latent within these questions and this lament is the idea that if we want the church to make a comeback we’ll first need to go to the neighborhoods. First implies a next step that is bound to be the re-introduction of the Sunday experience once we have enough people.
To be clear, when I am writing here about our motivations of revitalizing the Sunday experience and/or the 501c3, I am speaking of our inability to imagine planting a church where all roads don’t lead back to the Sunday morning experience, sound equipment, great music, excellent programs, and all. More often than not, if our churches don’t grow to the point of supporting these things, many or most of us feel as though we have failed. And our people start asking the “Are we there yet?” questions. When I talk to missional leaders long enough, the language inevitably reveals that Sunday morning is still where our imagination lives in the realm of church. When we look at the energy and effort that goes into their ministry, most of it is directed towards those one to two hours on Sunday.
Interestingly, most missional church plants are not self-sufficient but depend on established churches, denominational and/or network support, as well as individual supporters from outside the local church. Once this money dries up and we can no longer afford the Sunday service and/or pastor's salary the church shuts down and the members disperse while the planter either drops out of ministry or finds a job at a larger church. Again, this is a sign that our mission was to revitalize the Sunday service rather than become the church of God for that particular community. If the church shuts down when it can no longer support the Sunday program, then we ultimately reveal our imagination and reinforce it within our current members--”Church IS about Sunday.”
We must put an end to this. Church is not a worship service, and no matter how much you agree with this, as long as we use the loss of Sunday attendance as motivation, give the Sunday worship experience the majority of our attention, and continue shutting churches down when they can no longer financially support the Sunday experience, then it is still holding our imaginations captive. Church is not a 501c3 and it is not a worship service.
This sparks the question--then what is Church? I’m glad you asked.
**I am currently a doctoral student at Northern Seminary under the direction of David Fitch. He has developed a top notch missional leadership program, the Doctorate of Ministry in Contextual Theology, and I am indebted to him, the program, and Northern Seminary. From my perspective, Fitch is one of the sharpest minds available to the church today.