Sunday, February 4, 2007

Renewing our Vision: The Missional Church

On Being a Sent People
Luke 10:1-12

This is the second in a series of three sermons
that I have unrealistically high hopes for.
I heard some expert claim one time that the average shelf life
for a 20-minute sermon is about an hour.
After that, most of what was said is completely forgotten.
So, if we preachers hope to make a lasting impact,
well, we’ve probably set our hopes too high.

I do, nevertheless, have high hopes for these three sermons—
on the communal church, missional church, and practicing church.
But my hope does not rest on what happens in these twenty minutes.
My hope rests on you, the church,
and the Spirit of Jesus that gives you life.
My hope rests on the fact that you’ll talk about what you hear—
that you’ll take what I say merely as a starting point,
and will speak honestly and openly with one another,
not only about the concepts you hear,
but about what it could mean for you, for us, here and now.
I was gratified that my sermon last Sunday seemed to do that.
I laid out what I believe was a biblical vision of a communal church,
and people got to talking.
I know that, because I was in a Sunday School class
that got pretty animated talking about that vision.
I heard second-hand about some other animated discussions.
And during the week,
several folks talked to me more about it.
One even made an appointment to talk.
There’s nothing that makes this preacher happier.

Sure, I enjoy smiles and compliments at the door,
But what really thrills my soul,
is when I can get people talking together about important things.
And I can’t think of anything more important,
than getting clear about who we are as a church,
and as disciples of Jesus.
That’s what this series is about—
renewing our vision is about getting clear,
removing some fog,
relocating our focal point,
in order to live with more integrity.
We need to see rightly to live rightly,
and living rightly helps us see ourselves more clearly.
Vision shapes practices, practices shape vision.
It’s an ever-growing circle that leads to
a more full, joyful, and abundant life,
the kind of life for which God created us.

In many ways it’s difficult to divide last Sunday from this one.
The communal and missional aspects of the church
cannot be separated.
They are one.
The church is a “mission community.”
Being communal, and being missional,
both spring from the same fountain—
our identity as citizens of the kingdom of God.
The Gospel of Jesus—that is, the proclamation of the reign of God—
naturally and spontaneously gave birth
to a missional and communal church.
In this sermon, you’ll often hear me refer to the reign of God
(or kingdom of God), same thing.
By “reign of God” I mean, wherever God’s rule is recognized
and being lived out, however imperfectly...
wherever God’s mission of the reconciliation of all creation,
is being carried out, even in a beginning, embryonic form.
There are kingdom seeds scattered everywhere,
even in the middle of Iraq and Palestine.
There are kingdom seedlings, even mature fruit-bearing plants
all over the world,
and among us here in the church.
The church is not the same thing as the reign of God
but we are agents of that reign,
and it is present among us.

But let’s talk now about mission in the context of the church.
Let’s talk about what a missional church is.
It’s been over six years that Mennonites, as a denomination,
have been actively using this jargon “missional church.”
And some of us still have a gag reflex associated with it.
And I completely understand. I’ve been there.

I first heard the phrase when the denominational merger was underway
between MC and GC Mennonites.
That was a stressful time for us Mennos.
A lot of turf battles (non-violent, of course),
concerns about finances, and structures.
Boundary questions about who’s in and who’s out.
In the middle of all this stress, Mennonite denominational execs
rolled out this new lingo, “missional church,”
and said this would be the answer for our new denomination.
It would keep us vibrant and growing,
instead of getting trapped in an institutional swamp.
I doubted it.
It sounded like a made-up word, which church leaders love to do,
turning nouns into adjectives or verbs.
And to me, it sounded just a little gimmicky.
Like if we could focus on missions for a while,
something that everyone’s in favor of, like mom and apple pie,
it would take our minds off our other troubles.
So I was skeptical. As were some of you, no doubt.

But I have completely changed my mind.
I started to already 4 or 5 years ago.
But these past couple years I’ve done a lot of reading on the topic,
I’ve gone to a missional institute out in Idaho.
I served on a missional action team for our conference.
I took a class on it in my doctoral studies.
I have a much deeper appreciation for it.

Let me dispel a few myths right off the bat.
(1.) It is in the dictionary.
The Oxford English Dictionary,
says it first appeared in English literature in 1907.
(2.) It’s not a Mennonite word.
Mennonites just joined an active conversation
that had already been going on for years,
across many denominational lines.
(3.) It’s not primarily about doing missions and evangelism.
It’s about a way of being church.
It’s about a way of seeing ourselves more clearly.

And it does have the potential to renew us, at the core.
Darrell Guder, Academic Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary,
and a major voice in missional church theology,
wrote a book on the topic called,
The Continuing Conversion of the Church.
That’s what missional church is about.
Not reformation, but conversion of the church.
It’s not that certain “forms” of church need to be re-formed.
No, the church needs to see itself in a new light, the light of God,
and in a spirit of repentance,
to change its way of thinking,
and turn, and walk in that new light.

For the last few centuries, at least in the Christianized West—
sometimes called “Christendom”—
the church has been a dominant force in culture.
It’s had a place of privilege,
functioning as sort of a chaplain to society.
It’s reinforced and blessed the values of a largely Christian culture.
It’s been part of the establishment.
In some small ways, in some places, it still is.
But that status is rapidly disappearing.
For all practical purposes, it’s gone forever.

Some people lament that.
I don’t.
It wasn’t all bad, by any means.
The church made some tremendous contributions
to the larger culture, especially in the arts and music.
Thank God for the gifts of the church throughout history.
We still benefit from them.
But all those centuries of being the chaplain for Christendom,
profoundly shaped what people expect of church.
People expect it to be a provider of goods and services—
both religious and social.
They expect it to be located in a building,
in a prominent place in town,
well-staffed by professional clergy.
They expect it to be a place for people to come to,
to get their self-defined religious needs met.
They expect it to support them in all their individual life challenges,
but support on their own terms, of course.
They expect it to be there whenever they need it to be,
in the way they need it to be.

Missional church thinking turns that on its head.
A missional church begins with a revolutionary thought—
it’s not about us.
A missional church begins with the mission of God.
It asks what God is up to around here,
and tries to find a way to get with God’s program.
Don’t be too surprised when I say this,
but God did not send Jesus into the world
to establish the church,
but rather, to announce the reign of God.
God’s mission is to establish a reign of justice, of peace,
a kingdom of salvation,
where all creation—not just the church, but all creation—
is reconciled to himself.
God’s mission is the “healing of the nations,”
to use the words found in Revelation.
The church is simply God’s agent, for God’s mission.
The church has no mission on its own.
It’s really misleading to talk about “the mission of the church.”
We need to change our language,
and talk more about the mission of God.
The church exists only to be an agent of God’s mission.
Anything less than that,
is not what Jesus had in mind for his disciples.
The great commission Jesus gave his disciples
was to make more disciples,
to raise citizens of the kingdom of God.

I love the church. I’m committed to it, all the way.
But building up the church, per se, is secondary.
The first thing is to embody the reign of God in our life together.
To become a “mission community.”
To live in such a way that God’s reign of justice, peace,
healing, and salvation is made known to the world,
in real flesh, incarnated.
I mentioned Leslie Newbigin last Sunday;
he said the church is a sign, foretaste, and instrument
of the reign of God.
It is not equal to the reign of God, but points to it.
It acts as an agent of God’s reign.

But it’s so easy for the church to become church-centered in its thinking.
And then we put all our energy and resources
on our survival and growth as an institution.
We measure success by dollars and programs and buildings
and membership rolls.
We measure success by how many missionaries we sent out,
or how much money we raised for mission programs,
or how many outreach projects we implemented.
Wrong way to measure.
You know, being generous with mission dollars and people,
doesn’t necessarily make us a missional church.
Being one of the largest supporters of our mission boards,
doesn’t make us missional.
Sending tens of thousands of dollars to disaster relief
doesn’t make us missional.
Even planting a new church may not make us missional,
if our motivation is simply to reproduce our church.

A church becomes missional,
when it stops thinking about itself primarily as an entity
that sends out people and dollars to do mission,
and starts seeing itself as a sent people, a sent community.
I’m not just playing with words here.
When you think about it, there is a profound difference,
between a church that sends,
and a sent church.

If a church only sends, it’s kind of hard to ever get beyond itself.
It still sees itself as a benevolent institution.
Sending, doing good works, but still focusing, ultimately,
on itself and its own perceived mission.
But a sent church understands clearly
that it only exists as it responds to God’s bidding.
A sent church is a humble servant of God, and of the reign of God.
God’s mission of reconciliation sets the agenda,
rather than our agenda to survive and grow as an institution.
A sent church lets go of itself.
Listens. Looks. Responds to evidence that the reign of God
is trying to be born somewhere.

Case in point. There’s a new emerging Mennonite church
in our community, called “the Table.”
They have a wonderful, missional vision.
Several families from Park View are connecting there,
trying to be supportive of that new work.
We’re having preliminary conversations about how
we might become partners in that work.
We’ll have to see what develops.
A sent church does not feel threatened
when some of our own people (as if we own people)
engage in missional work that takes them
outside our structures.
A sent church rejoices,
and asks how we can participate in what God is doing.

To be a sent church is to take risks for the reign of God.
Wherever we find ourselves.
It is to make the church vulnerable.
To be a sent church is to cease making
self-preservation a driving force.
A sent church is a missional church.
But to be perfectly honest, it’s hard—really hard—
to be a church with a building, a budget, a staff, and programs,
and be radically missional.
Because we do, in fact, have an institution that needs our support,
or it will die,
and it won’t do anyone any good.

But still, it’s a shame how many churches are driven by
an overwhelming anxiety about their own survival.
A declining membership in mainline churches in the West
has sent everyone scurrying to find a new technique,
a new program to apply like a tourniquet,
so the bleeding will stop.
Rather than asking the hard questions about core identity,
who the church is called to be, anyway,
churches are investing millions to polish up their image,
to try the latest gimmick to attract the “unchurched.”
Even that word “unchurched” makes me squirm.
As if our main mission is to “church” our neighbors
rather than introduce them to the Sovereign God,
and invite them to become, along with us,
citizens of the reign of God.
All of us, to a degree, are unchurched, or at least under-churched.
We have not lived into the fullness of what God desires
of the church of Jesus Christ.
So we “church members” are part of the mission field.
The missional church recognizes the need for
the continuing conversion of the church and its people.

My challenge for us this morning
is to imagine together what it might mean for Park View Mennonite
to be a sent people.
That’s what the word mission means, to begin with.
It’s derived from the Latin missio, from the verb mittere,
to be sent out, or dismissed.
God is telling the church, “Go on! Get out there!”
What would it mean for Park View, if we heard God saying to us,
“Go on! Get out there! I’m sending you on a mission.”

I’ll bet it would look something like what happened in Luke 10,
our strange and wonderful Gospel story this morning.

Jesus sent out—dismissed—70 of his disciples, to go out in pairs
to the places he himself was preparing to go,
and said, “Go out there and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
This story is almost shocking,
because it looks so different from the way the church has usually
done mission.
But this isn’t a story about “doing mission.”
But this is a story about missional disciples.
This is about a sent people.
A people who took profound risks for the kingdom of God.

They were sent out like lambs to the wolves.
Without so much as a purse, a bag, or a pair of sandals.
And they were told to go a house that would receive them,
and stay there, eating their food, sleeping in their beds.

When the institutional church does the sending,
it looks a little different.
We send out missionaries with everything they could possibly need.
We send them out with a prepackaged Gospel to deliver.
We send them out to convince the people how much they need
what we have to give them.
We send them out carrying blueprints for the church to be built.
How strangely opposite this story is.
In this story, the sent people are the ones
who are put in a position to receive.
It makes the sent ones completely, and utterly, dependent
on the hospitality of those they were sent to.
There is a kingdom of God that needs to be proclaimed (v. 9)
There are people who need to be healed.
The fields are ready for harvest.
And we have a job to do in the field.

But we don’t go into those fields with an air of superiority.
We go there as humble servants of the master who sent us.
We go there as willing to receive as to give.
And we go there, not selling an institution,
but proclaiming the good news,
“The kingdom of God is near you.”
That text is full of other gems for a missional church,
but I won’t unpack them all right now.

For now, let it suffice to say God has sent us, this church,
on a mission, has said, “Go on! Get out there!”
There is a world out there that needs to be reconciled.
It won’t be easy for us to renew our vision as a sent people.
It’s never easy taking risks for the reign of God.
But there is no other way to find abundant life as a people,
to find our deepest joy,
than to rediscover our true identity and live into it.
There is no greater joy than to live the life
for which we were created.
Why would we want to do anything less?

Let’s keep imagining what that might look like for us.
In two weeks we’ll talk together
about missional and communal practices.
We’ll imagine what a communal and missional
Park View Mennonite Church looks like.
But now, let’s rejoice in what God is up to in the world,
God’s mission, in which we have the privilege to participate.

—Phil Kniss, February 4, 2007

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1 comment:

Larry Alderfer Fisher said...

Amen. About the time you preached this sermon I was desparately networking from Churchville to find emerging Mennos. that led me to Phil Bergey who put me directly in touch with Brian. That led to a day of fishing at Harper's Ferry along the canal path in A New Kind of Christian. Wish I would have known then that you were going to preach this sermon. I was getting up to the Table occasionally during that period.