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Two very different styles of mission

by on February 6, 2014

In talking to evangelical people about the outreach we try to do here, I sometimes notice that there’s a difficulty connecting with them on the subject. We seem to be talking from two quite different places. It’s made me realise that here in Canterbury there may be something different about our outreach, at a fairly deep level. Something about our basic approach to the business.

If I can simplify a bit, you might say that in the evangelical tradition I grew up in, outreach and mission was something you did in a short time-frame. Mission meant an event, a dinner, a rally, a talk, a beach-mission, or something like that. It took hours, days, even a week. Or maybe it was a short course of bible studies: 2 ways 2 live was one of the better ones. Mission went for 6 weeks. That was long.

After that time, after the event, or the course, people were invited to put their trust in Jesus, and basically ‘sign up’ for the whole Christian faith/church thing. Some would, and they were channelled into the life of the local church. They moved from being ‘outside’ to being ‘inside’. Most would not sign, and they were let go. We moved on, and thought about someone else.

This ‘quick’ approach may or may not be relational. I have given talks where I encouraged unchurched people to trust in Jesus, and none of the Christians present knew those people much at all, before or after the event.

What the ‘short time frame’ approach does is basically seeks to skim off the top of society those who are most ready and willing to respond. There may be, say, 1% of people out there who just need an invitation from a stranger, and they’ll join in. If we reach enough people, we can gather up that 1%. Kind of like dragging a net through the water at a depth of 1m. You’ll catch the few fish near the surface. But if you drag far enough, that should add up to quite a lot of fish. At least compared to our present numbers! This approach perhaps doesn’t have much to offer for the other 99% who live deeper down…

This is all an oversimplification, but true on the whole. It’s not the only way we evangelicals approach evangelism – but it’s still the dominant model and the one we constantly fall back to. The default, if you like. Perhaps you recognise churches or ministries you’ve attended, in this description?

This ‘short-time-frame’ approach appeals to that strong impulse we have in the evangelical sub-culture – the sense of urgency. 

But there is a different approach to mission, one where you live among people. When you live among people you automatically do things differently.

You realise that being a faithful, loving, calm presence in their lives – a friend, in short – that this is the main game. In other words, relationship comes to the fore in this sort of mission.

You have to do something to deal with your sense of urgency, so that it doesn’t highjack and crash your friendship. The time frame of your outreach gets stretched from days or weeks, to yearsIt feels pretty weird, this. If after three years your neighbours still don’t trust in Jesus, what the heck is going on?

There can be no skimming in the ‘live among’ approach. You can’t get friendly, confront them with Jesus, and then drop those who don’t respond. You’d leave a trail of hurt and bitter neighbours, and your reputation in the neighbourhood would be mud.

So you reach out to whoever is there. To all and any of your neighbours. And you persevere in friendship, go on loving the same people. It forces you to be patient. To pray hard and long for the people you live among. You throw in your fishing line at your local waterhole and you sit there and go back day after day hoping to catch whatever’s in there. 

Some neighbours may take years to become open to Jesus. Some never will. These last two groups look the same for a long time. You won’t know who is going to take years and who is never going to respond – not until you’ve been there for years!

Eventually you will see people come to faith in Christ, not just from the 1% of ‘skimmable’ people who were primed and ready to go, but from the other 99% as well. Because you’ve gone in deep, you haven’t just skimmed the surface of your community.

‘Short-time-frame’ skimming – and long-term living-among. The two approaches to mission could hardly be more different. I know different people who argue for one of these or the other. You’ll have to work out for yourself which one is more like Jesus’ approach.

Here in Canterbury we’re going with the second approach. And what are we finding?

We’re finding it’s really slow.


From → General

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