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The scary dynamics of effective mission

by on April 20, 2015

68-4707-7In Canterbury we have spent the past few years studying gospel mission in Sydney, discussing, analysing it, and above all trying to practice it. Gradually we’ve seen patterns emerge. I want to try to outline the most significant of these, as a set of dynamics. By ‘dynamics’ I mean ‘how things work and flow when we try to do mission.’

There are some dynamics that are location-specific. Others are more generalised. I’m going for the generalisations here, things that seem like they hold true across the city, and possibly beyond.

Each of these dynamics has been disturbing for us and for others we’ve shared it with. It may well be threatening for you too.

DYNAMIC 1: Effective mission is not an event but a lifestyle

Our event-based approach to mission in Sydney seemed like it was working for a while when Billy Graham was around. But that was 50 years ago now. It hasn’t worked well since then. Now it’s hardly working at all. We could have an interesting discussion about why that is, but for our purposes here, the fact itself is the main thing. Clearly Sydney people are not in a place where they can come along to a meeting, hear a message, and respond by making a radical life-commitment to follow Christ and join a local church. I’m sure it happens for a few people, but statistically it’s got to be negligible.

In spite of the continued failure of this approach to outreach, we are still travelling the same rut, all these years later. Well, it’s time someone blew the whistle. It’s time to say, ‘Let’s stop doing it, it’s not working.’  So I’m saying it.

Let’s stop doing it.

I think there is evidence that outreach events can be helpful as part of a very different overall approach to mission. But so strong is our attachment to this event-based method, that I believe the only way to kick the habit is to cut events out of our mission program for at least five years. We need to go cold turkey on this. Get it out of our system.

It may not be easy to achieve five years ‘clean’, without a relapse. There will be people in our churches screaming out for an event ‘fix’. To help get through the withdrawal years, I suggest a mantra be employed, that we can repeat over and over whenever someone begs for an outreach event. It goes like this:

‘They aren’t working.

They aren’t working.

They aren’t working.’

This can be repeated as often as is needed until people settle down.

So if we’re not doing events, what will we do instead?

If you thought that stuff above was hard to take, actually that was the easy bit. The alternative to ineffective, event-mission is lifestyle-mission, where reaching out is something we do day by day, week by week, in our ordinary lives. We’ve found that it’s the only thing that works to reach ordinary unchurched people for Jesus. In Canterbury over the past four years we have seen many people come into the church and begin to follow Jesus, and they’ve all come in through relationship with Christian people.

When I say mission is week to week, I don’t mean standing on street corners once a week handing out tracts. I mean mission that’s integrated into your ordinary life. Here’s what that looks like, at the big-picture, structural, broadest possible level:

a. Live alongside people who don’t know Jesus. Spend regular time with them as friends.

b. Gather regularly with other believers to pray for those local people.

c. repeat steps a and b. See what God does with you, and where he takes it.

There’s heaps of room for variety within that structure, but that’s the outline.  It’s not complex is it. No special qualifications needed. Any Christian person could do it. Simple – but it’s not easy. Not for us. We have a whole bunch of hangups that make it a real challenge. Here’s the top three:

1. It’s not preachy: it doesn’t lead with word ministry. That will come later, but it’s not usually where you start. You start, instead with normal human relationship. We evangelicals feel a bit uncomfortable about that sort of thing. We prefer preachy. Normal human relationships feel wrong. Preachy feels right. That’s why we don’t have non-Christian friends, right!

2. It’s not controlled: it doesn’t happen on our turf, with a program we’ve planned and a neat ‘yes or no’ outcome. It happens on their turf, out in the messy, scary real world. We lose control of the whole thing and have no idea where it might take us. It’s so unplanned. Mission has always been something we’ve structured from A to Z. So this is scary stuff. Doesn’t feel right.

3. It involves too much time wasted on prayer: we evangelicals are a bit allergic to prayer aren’t we. Most of us will not come together regularly to pray in any focussed or sustained way – because we don’t feel it’s time well spent. We like to make things happen ourselves, organise stuff, run stuff. We don’t like the idea of asking God’s Spirit to do all the real work. How can we justify all that time spent sitting around doing nothing?!

So those are three of the main hangups that make it hard for us to do lifestyle-mission. It would need a change of outlook for our churches.

Even if you get past those hangups, there is still the reality that this is costly.  If I have to give regular time to my neighbours, and make friends with people I don’t naturally click with; if I have to give up a TV night to go pray for these people – just say it all took three hours a week? Where am I going to find that sort of time and energy? I’m busy already.

The scary fact is that the lifestyle approach to mission calls for a change of lifestyle. That’s hard stuff. Costly stuff. People in our churches might be willing to do an occasional event. They might even be willing to give money to mission. But how many of us are willing to change our lifestyle?

So that’s dynamic 1. Churches everywhere are still doing events, but events aren’t working. The one thing we’ve found that works is mission as a way of life. (I think there’s something about it in the NT also…)

Sound unworkable? It’s not much of an alternative, if people won’t do it. At least with the events, church people get on board. I agree that there’s perhaps not much point trying to convince your whole church to do this, straight away. But there’s probably a handful of people in your church who would be willing to do life-mission with you. You could start with them.

A good book to read on this is Total Church by Timmis and Chester.

From → General

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