I had a conversation with a few friends recently where this dichotomy came up yet again; Can we be both missional and attractional?
It seems like this is still a question that practitioners are wrestling with and I think that is a good thing. It’s not a simple question to answer but here is an initial thought to start discussion.
To think about this, maybe we need to ask two things; firstly, what do you think is the purpose of the church? Secondly, how would you then organise the church around this purpose?
To answer the first question, we need to think about who God is since he is the creator of the church and establishes the purpose. God is purposeful, intentional and missional. This is because God is love and the love of God always extends outwards rather than focuses in on itself. God created a world, people and gave them a mission; to take care of and steward the earth. God called one man, Abraham, to be a blessing to the families of the earth. We also see that God creates a nation, Israel to be a light to the nations. Ultimately God revealed his missionary heart when he came to us in the form of a human, for the sake of the world. And now, God has called a group of people who are in Christ, called out of darkness into his light in order to proclaim the marvellous and might deeds of God. This is the church. Mission seems then, to be not a compartment but an essential quality in God and we can even see this missionary nature like a thread woven in the story of God as portrayed in the bible.
Missional is not a fad word or a concept without theological weight. Biblical scholar Chris Wright in his magnum opus The Mission of God writes;
“The Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.The Bible is the drama of this God of purpose engaged in the mission of achieving that purpose universally, embracing past, present and future, Israel and the nations, “life, the universe and everything”, and with its centre, focus, climax and completion in Jesus Christ. Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some. Mission is, in that much- abused phrase, “what it’s all about”.
The church essentially then is the expression of a missionary God who defines his church. The church is the instrument that God uses to accomplish his mission. We are outward oriented rather than inward oriented.
That does not mean that we cannot be attractive.
There is nothing wrong with making sure that our church services are welcoming, our preaching is good and any programs that we run are helpful. There is nothing wrong with inviting people to come to our church gatherings and small groups. Christianity is supposed to be attractive. Jesus said that as we let our light shine through our good works people will glorify the Father (Matthew 5:16).
To answer the second question, how would we organise the church if we believe that its purpose is to be externally oriented? It means that we would make mission the “organising principle” of the church. It means that our goal is not our own edification but everything we are and do is for the sake of others because we reflect a missionary God.
So all of our attractive programs, events and activities must be organised around this purpose. Our gatherings have the purpose of encouraging and equipping God’s people to be on his mission. Our gatherings, while they bring us comfort must never simply rest there. George Hunsberger,another theological heavyweight, puts this well;
“The church is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign and the sovereignty of God…it is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God’s kingship”
So missional does not marginalise the church gathering, however, it does reorient the purpose of the gathering. We gather in order to be sent back out into the world. It is never solely for our benefit. So if we the church ask people to “come to us” it is for the purpose ultimately, of sending people out again into the world to live for the sake of others as Jesus did.
However, if our primary identity and function as the Church is for the sake of church members, we have a problem. If most people are primarily searching for a church to belong to which has good preaching, an attractive worship style and effective programs, rather than primarily a place where discipleship for the sake of others is practiced, we are in trouble. This sadly shows perhaps that the false narrative of consumerism threading our culture is still trumping the narrative of the reign of God which tells a story of cruciformity, radical discipleship and service for the sake of others.
Our responsibility as church leaders is not to pick paradigms, structures and models that are pragmatic, give “results” or make people comfortable, though these things are not always contrary to the reign of God. We are not owners but stewards of God’s church, so as a leader it’s worth wrestling with those two questions;
What do you think is essentially the purpose or nature of the church? Secondly, how would you then organise the church around this purpose?