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The scary dynamics of effective mission – 3: Try before you buy

by on April 25, 2015
I've come to...join your church!

I’ve come to…join your church!

The third dynamic we’ve noticed that really winds us up, is that people want to get involved before they’ve made a clear commitment to Jesus.

In fact, when you stop doing event-mission and start doing lifestyle-mission, the order is almost always

 involvement  – -> faith

rather than

faith –> involvement

It goes like this: you’ve adopted an open stance towards outsiders, your edges have become porous and passable. People can get involved in all sorts of ways now. The church is starting to look more like a community, rather than just a Sunday service. It’s a living, breathing body of people sharing their lives together. It’s centred around Jesus, but it’s pretty messy around the edges!

And that’s about 100 times as attractive to outsiders as a bare Sunday service is. All sorts of people are drawn for all sorts of reasons. What I’ve sometimes heard evangelicals call ‘the wrong reasons.’ They might be lonely. They might like the feeling of community that they’ve never experienced before in Sydney suburbia. They might have time to kill. They might want a playgroup for their child. They might have made friends with someone from the church, and they like that friend and want to hang out. Could be anything.

If you do mission through events, then at the end of the event, those who profess faith or are interested to learn more, get followed up. Depending on how much they like the gospel, they will get involved more, or less. It’s pretty much a faith –> involvement dynamic. We will only do faith stuff with you once you have signed on the dotted line.

It’s simple – but it doesn’t work for many people. That’s not how most people are going to come to faith in Jesus. People these days want to try before they buy.

Before they commit to Jesus, they want to throw themselves into a faith community, experience it from the inside, come to understand faith in that hands-on way, and then make up their mind about it.

Or to put it another way, they need to first experience the welcome and love of Jesus that we are always teaching about, they need to feel it first hand, before they can believe in it. They need to find it among us, to know it’s real.

For many people, our ‘faith first, then involvement, thankyou’ approach is like a closed door. All the things that would persuade them that Jesus is true, are kept on the other side of the door, inaccessible until they are persuaded! And the fact is, not many people are coming in through this door to join our churches.

But as soon as you switch to a lifestyle-mission approach, the other dynamic takes over. Now people are getting involved with you for all kinds of reasons. Now you have lots and lots of contacts in your local area. Now you know everyone. Your church is still centred around Jesus. But now all kinds of people are gathering around the edges of your community, joining in, a getting a taste. The church community is not just people like you any more. There’s all sorts. You can’t say they’re all members, exactly – not fully in. They don’t all love Jesus. But you can’t say they’re out, either.

This is in a sense the opposite problem to the one in the last post. There, a Christian mum was frustrated that people were not taking things further through her playgroup ministry. Here the problem – and this tends to really freak out us evangelicals – the problem is people wanting to take things further before we feel ready! People wanting to get involved, become part of the church community, join in our activities and church-life, thriving on being accepted and experiencing the welcome of Jesus. They’re tasting the reality they are looking for. But they still haven’t signed the commitment card. They are trying before they buy.

And we wish they’d stop.

Maybe they’re on a journey, they’re coming closer in their own way, exploring Christian faith at their own pace, in a non-pressured environment where they feel safe and welcome. Something hugely significant is happening in their life.  But it’s taking time, and right now it’s not clear where they stand. Yet here they are in our meetings, in our faces, wanting involvement.

And we don’t like it.

I’ve seen it time and again. Christians start doing lifestyle evangelism and then it leads to this and we just don’t want it. We back off, drop out, stop doing it. We go somewhere event-y, where non-believers keep a safe distance and we can feel at home again.

It’s not the uninterested people that cause us the real stress: it’s the interested ones! It’s the ones who are pushing forward, but doing it in their own way, out of our control. Which is what you generally get when you do lifestyle-mission.

It might be a couple who turn up at your prayer meetings. They are not  ‘church-goers’ (in terms of our old, closed-church model of thinking) but they want to come to your place and pray. And they want to join in and lead in prayer! What do we do with these guys?!

It might be someone who wants to come visiting with you and help needy people in the neighbourhood. But he wants to do it in the name of your church! Because he’s already ‘bought in’ to your community to that extent.

Why do we find this so stressful? I think the stress comes partly from a particular chain of thoughts. We look at these new people and we think,

‘If you are acting as part of the church community, that means you’re saying you’re a Christian (old, closed-church model). But I don’t feel at all sure you’re a Christian. If I let you join in church activities, then I’m saying I think you’re a Christian. Which I don’t. So I’m misleading you. Therefore, I don’t want to be involved with you in church activities. But you want to be. And now I don’t know what to do.’ 

 Of course the newcomer themself is not working with our old, closed-church model. They never dreamt that joining in implied they were making a profession of faith. No, they’re just exploring Christian faith, and enjoying relationship. They want to try before they buy. So they totally don’t get our stress.

In other words, lifestyle-mission creates a church community which unchurched people feel drawn to, but where many evangelical Christians feel scared and stressed.


A related article from across the Pacific is here.

From → General

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