Just recently, I received a little book called Forming the Missional Church which talks about some of the deep shifts that are happening in the way we understand the emphasis in congregational life. For centuries now, there has been a tremendous emphasis on church membership, on bringing folks into the church to “get God” so to speak; that is, understanding the church as the place we encounter God and receive salvation through Christ. In this view the church is understood as “ark”, a place of safe haven where believers gather to find deliverance from the sin and evil of the world. It sees the mission of the church as primarily “bringing them in.”
In today’s post-modern culture, we are encountering many new perspectives, including understanding that our God- the God of the Bible- is much more dynamic and diverse that we have been proclaiming. God appears to, once again, be bursting out of the box we have so carefully placed God in. God is just too big to fit into a box of our own making.
One central shift of perspective can be pared down to this: God does not live in the church alone. God is at work in the world, and it is there that God’s central mission is to be discovered. One author put it this way: It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world. The church’s primary missional task is to ‘find out what God is doing and join in”. This perspective restores the original understanding of church as an “apostolic” community – as those who are “sent out” to join in God’s work of loving the world.
This shift makes me think of one of the kingdom images that Jesus used: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened. (Matt. 13:33) Leaven is a transforming agent that mixes in and changes the essential nature of a thing. Flat dough becomes filled with air; a hard world is filled with the lightness of the Spirit. God’s vision of the Kingdom changes everything as it is spread.
There is a very challenging thing about joining the mission of God, though. There is no “one size fits all” instruction manual. We must do the prayerful, listening work of discovering “God’s desired future” here, in this place, in this time. But one thing is clear: it is time to step out of the box.