(This Blog first appeared at MissioAlliance.org)
The other day someone told me about a discussion they had with a friend who said that they were leaving their church to join another church. Fair enough I thought, I hear this a lot. What caught my attention however is that the church that this person was leaving, I would describe as being missional and the church that they had decided to start attending as more of an ‘attractional’ model of church. Why the move from missional to attractional I wondered? When I spoke with my friend further, apparently the missional church was small, met in someone’s home and the regular gatherings were too confrontational for this person. Once again I probed deeper. Too confrontational? I found out that even though the church was small it had managed to become a community of people from various backgrounds and socio-economic status. When time came in their gathering for sharing about their lives, many of those who were living a life of poverty told of their difficulties. This person who was economically privileged comparatively speaking, found it disruptive and uncomfortable to hear some of the things that were being shared. This person felt out of place, guilty and awkward in that church. They then started attending another church which was larger and the person said it was a church where they could remain somewhat removed, which had challenging messages and good worship.
I’m sure that I am simplifying this ‘case study’ and that there were a lot of other factors that influenced my friend’s departure from that church. However, this encounter has puzzled me, unnerved me and again made me wonder with exasperation what the church is all about. What I do find myself asking sometimes is this; is church merely turning us into nice people? By that I’m asking if belonging to a church is forming us into people who attend church gatherings, serve on ministry teams, listen to messages which are just challenging enough, are soothed by contemporary worship then we leave perhaps with the intention to do good works and tell our friends about Jesus? On the one hand there might be nothing wrong with this but on the other, I wonder if this formation process, which is partly unintentional, is bypassing a deeper transformation that still has to happen in the lives of many Christians. Could some of the practices in church community even be stopping this transformation from happening?
Why do we see many mature Christians still displaying deep patterns of racism, sexism, disregard for the poor, consumerism, hedonism and individualism in their thinking and behavior? My question here is not coming from a place of cynicism, nor is it an attempt to berate anyone. I also struggle with the ‘isms’ mentioned. My question actually comes from a desire to see the church truly breathe and practice the radical nature of the values of the kingdom of God. In the example that I gave above, it seems like my friend in Christ found that as they were confronted with the reality of poverty, they could not tolerate the dissonance that this caused within them and as a result they went to join a church where they could experience a little more comfort. Could this be an idol of comfort that has taken hold of a heart which is stopping a deeper transformation from taking place? If that person had stayed in that missional community and worked through their guilt and discomfort could this have led to further alignment with the values of the kingdom? Values such as koinonia, humility, service, kenosis and in effect, godly love? Would my friend have experienced the joy of ‘communitas’ rather than perhaps superficial community? Could the Holy Spirit have been at work in such a disruptive context in order to form this Christian deeper into the image of Jesus?
What constitutes a church that is forming people into disciples who express the radical values of the kingdom of God?
I don’t think that anyone would argue with this point in terms of our formation into disciples of Jesus; as we continually receive and believe in the love of God through our Lord Jesus, we transform into his image which means we practice that radical love towards one another. The trajectory is then, the love of God is shown and given to us, we believe it and receive it, then we practice that love towards one another. John describes that process like this, ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16).
What would be some impediments to the practice of this godly, radical love which ought to produce deep transformation in the life of the Christ follower? I have found the book Godly Love: Impediments and Possibilities edited by Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong helpful here. It focuses on that question of why there are not more radical expressions of the love of God (which leads to the manifestation of kingdom values), particularly in the Christian community, if we have in fact been shown and have received the love of God. Several of the essays are fascinating and helped me to think through the question above: What constitutes a church that is forming people into disciples who express the radical values of the kingdom of God?
A church like this, through its gathered and scattered practices, firstly makes disciples of Jesus aware of the impediments to receiving and practicing godly love. In other words, that church makes people conscious of the ‘vices’ of our age such as consumerism, sexism, racism, individualism so that people are not blinded by these false worldviews that take us captive. Secondly, that church helps people to develop and be accountable to habitual life-giving practices that shape a kingdom people, which counter the practices that are forming people into narcissists, consumerists, racists, individualists etc. I don’t think a church is taking discipleship seriously if they do not develop such communally agreed upon practices for formation. Thirdly, this church does not recoil from creating or resting in spaces which may cause discomfort simply because internal paradigms are shifting.
The Holy Spirit is at work for our transformation in disruption, awkward moments and pain.
I think any church whether attractional or missional, which engages with these three things and more, will help disciples of Jesus become not just nice people but a people who truly move towards being Christians who live and breathe the upside down nature of the kingdom of God.