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The scary dynamics of effective mission -2: Losing control

by on April 22, 2015

UnknownThere’s a second reason effective mission is scary. Consider this story I heard from a Christian young mum at a Sydney church:

“We set up a playgroup to reach local mums. It’s been really popular, lots of families coming along. But after nearly a year, none of them has come to church, none of them has shown much interest in taking things further. I’m starting to feel like they’re just using us.”

Let’s give some credit to this woman: she’s realised the event thing isn’t working and has set up something much more ‘week-to-week’, much more ‘lifestyle’-orientated. Nice work. She’s got a whole bunch of unchurched contacts who are gradually becoming friends.

But now she’s feeling bad about it. She’s feeling like it hasn’t gone according to plan, like the unchurched families are taking advantage of her.

There’s a whole lot of things we could say about this story, but there’s a dynamic at work here that I want to notice, and it’s this:

Once you build bridges and open doorways into your church community, you lose control over what people will do with them. 

This is our Scary Dynamic number 2. You have a certain outcome in mind as you create an outreach ministry. This mum was hoping to see women come to the Sunday service. But there’s no way to make a contract or agreement with the locals that they will treat your ministry in the spirit you meant it! They may not even realise that ‘taking things further’ is on the agenda.

Even if they do realise, each person is going to respond in a different way. They may know that you’d like them to get right into this Christian stuff. But that might not be where they are at right now. Some will come all the way across the bridge you’ve built and in through the doors and ask you, ‘How do I get right with God?’ Others will come some distance and then stop outside the gates. Others will be halfway over the bridge, and apparently quite happy to stay there.

If the only way into your church family is through an event and a response card, or through an evangelistic biblestudy course – then you can control the thing fully. People will either be ‘out’ or ‘in’. Not many may want to come that way, but at least it’s all tidy and clear, and you’re in charge of the process. It’s safe.

But if you open up multiple gateways, if you build several bridges to your local community, if your church’s edges become porous and passable, then you effectively hand control over to the outsiders about what they do. They will decide how close they wish to come, and which pathway they wish to take. They will decide the speed at which they approach, and where they stop. And everyone will do something different!

You’re going to end up with something pretty messy and unclear and quite out of control. Out of your control, that is. There are now all these people, doing things their way not my way. Church never used to look like that! If you’re not cool with that, then you’ll end up feeling ‘used’.

Of course coming close to us is not the only thing that matters. We want people to come close to Jesus! Traditionally we’ve kept open a regular faith-path through which people can accept Christ: an event, a course, a prayer or whatever. If they did our pathway thing, we would affirm them as a believer. Faith is invisible: we can’t see into people’s hearts. But in our churches we’ve always judged it based on whether people were willing to take the particular faith-path we offered. A bit arbitrary, perhaps – but it keeps things clear.

But a church with multiple openings for the outside world to come in, loses that clarity. There’s going to be a whole bunch of people in unsatisfactory places: some who just want a playgroup, others who just want community and friendship, some who are starting to learn about Jesus and starting to trust and love him, but it’s not clear where their heart is yet, and so on. There’ll be the guy who’s happy to be visited but won’t come to meetings. The woman who comes to your English class and calls it ‘going to church’. The family who will come to your house any time, and talk faith stuff – but never into the church building. Others will blow hot and cold, no commitment to turning up! People on a journey and sometimes we’re not even sure what sort of journey they’re on.

Of course individuals will change over time. There will be movement. But that messy overall situation for the church is not going to be temporary, it’s permanent. There will always be people in the unsatisfactory places, as long as we keep the bridges up and the gates open.

That’s a pretty scary reality.

We will feel very tempted to take back control, confront people, force them to declare their allegiances, bring things to a head. Right, you’ve had long enough: Are you in or out? It’s time you got on our authorised faith-path, and did this course.

That is, of course, to close up the church again. To tear down the bridge, to slam the gates shut, offering only the one or two approved entry-points that we can fully control. Back to where we started. It’s us losing our nerve. Putting ourselves back in the driving seat, where we feel safe.

What would that look like for our young mum? She would probably eventually shut down the playgroup, and just run a bible-study for women who were serious about Christian faith. She won’t feel used, there. The church women who helped her run the playgroup would likely come to the bible study instead, and maybe one or two others. The rest would start looking for a new playgroup…

The scary reality is that a church that is open and connected to its neighbourhood has a church-life that is necessarily and permanently untidy and ambiguous. Necessarily: the untidiness is a direct result of the openness.

And that is a reality not everyone is willing to live.

So which sort of church do we want to be?

From → General

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