When we think of church-planting, starting new churches, or sending missionaries to unreached places, we generally think of sending individuals. I want to suggest this is all wrong. Churches, denominations and mission sending agencies should examine another strategy. We should send communities. We should think of mission in terms of migration. We should promote the sending/forming of migrant communities to new places. O, I know, this probably is not practical. But I think it’s worth a shot. Here’s why.
John Howard Yoder (RYFC), in his Theology of Mission, unravels how the basic logic of mission in the New Testament is the dispersion of communities not the sending of individuals. When we take into account the role the dispersion of Israel and the resulting communities played in the NT church mission, we can say that mission happened via the migration of communities who carry a way of life who then inhabit various contexts, not the sending of individuals into towns and villages to singularly proclaim the gospel.
And so, as Yoder points out, the apostle Paul writes 1,000’s of words to his churches on leading a life of holiness but rarely urges them to proclaim the gospel to outsiders. They were to give witness to the gospel and what God was doing by the way they led their lives together before the world. The proclaiming of gospel came post facto the community upon inquiry from outsiders as the Kingdom was put on display before them. In the same way, 1 Peter spends the majority of his text teaching on how to live lives before men and women under conditions of persecution. They are to live lives as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a distinct people of God so that they may proclaim the excellencies of God before the world (2:9). They are to give an account to those who come and ask for the reason for the hope that is within you (3:16). We are to do this out of gentleness (no coercion) with reverence for the Lordship of Christ that He is working in all of the places we live (3:15). We are to do this living in good conscience before men and women so that our lives of integrity and wholeness will not wilt before those who wish to speak evil of us (3:16). This is the logic again of witness. A social reality which is compelling reveals the reality of God’s Kingdom in Christ before the watching world from which our words and proclamation is given girth. There is no coercion, violence, defensiveness or judgment. The witness, in a sense, speaks for itself.
On page 113 John Howard Yoder (RYCF) says:
“If there were Jews in towns such as Tarsus and Ephesus, it was because Jews had migrated there. They had migrated not to be missionaries, although some of them, may have had a little of that vision. They migrated to make a living and because they were pushed out of where they had lived. But they took their faith with them. One way to think of what to do in a place where there are not any Jews, or to say it more broadly where there is not a religious people, is that there should be a migration of religious people there. Go as a congregation. Let that be the base, so there is never a time of proclamation or witness before the community is present. The old Greek word for scattering or dispersion is diaspora, and most often in church history we get a diaspora when we do not want it: through persecution of the loss of territory. But how about being in diaspora on purpose? How about being a missionary people?”
This I believe is the challenge to churches today if we would launch a truly missionary effort to N America. Churches must be challenged to plant whole communities of people as fresh expressions of the gospel where there is one lacking.
On The Individualism of the Missional Movement
Mike Breen and Dan White Jr have both written this week about the problem of individualism in missional churches this week. My own take on this is there is a missing ecclesiology at the core of the missional movement. The missional church movement often misses just how much the Kingdom of God is a social dynamic in Christian participate in. The resulting social reality is the church as its social visualization. As I said on twitter earlier this week: “The Kingdom of Jesus is always a social reality which individuals participate in. Privatizing it is both the evangelical and liberal mistake.” Evangelicals want to make the kingdom a private personal relationship with Jesus the King, protestant liberals want to make the Kingdom about God’s work in the world in which individuals are sent as good Christians to work for. But either way we miss how the Kingdom becomes visible and flourishes when two or more people (a community) submit to His reign in a space and time and thereby open space for His reign and authority to break in. This is to me the dynamic of mission. Too often the missional church movement has fallen into either the evangelical and/or the protestant liberal mistake. The Anabaptist corrective is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is that in Christ, the fulfilment of the promises to Israel has begun in a commuinity. God’s reign in Christ on earth has begun in the form of a community in and for the world. It is the harbinger of where God is taking the whole world and therefore invites the whole world to see and partake.
Today’s “missional churches” tend to default into producing individual missionaries and then sending them out to be missional at their work or in their neighborhood. They tell a message instead of being the message together (from which they can tell the message). They hold a Sunday gathering that pumps up and challenges Christians to join in God’s mission. Then they send them out to be little Jesus’ in their respective places in the world. The problem? This strategy exhausts everybody involved. And gives them a big guilt trip. The church burns out in three to five years. It’s the dirty little secret in the room. It’s important to note that even though many churches plant by sending large groups into a town to plant a church, their logic of mission is still individualistic carrying out this same logic.
But God in Christ beckons us to come together, submit to His reign together to a social reality typified by forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, healing and transformation in the Spirit. The world of this new Kingdom becomes visible in the reality of our lives together – whether that is the social reality of our family, economy, governance, art, meals, conflict. It is extended to whatever space we go and inhabit. Here is this space (which depends on individuals submitting to Christ over their own lives as well) God’s reign and authority in Christ breaks in by His Spirit. Devoid of this social reality, the church is left to become a volunteerist army sending out individuals who get exhausted somehow thinking the work of God is on them. We are left with a bunch of individualist burn out missionaries, another version of the protestant liberal vision of the church as recruitment center for doing the good work of the Kingdom out there.
Let Us Send Out Communities
I remember at Life on the Vine when we were contemplating sending out two groups of people to different places as church plants. One of the factors was “we’ve got too many leaders here.” We need to get rid of them. Send them somewhere to lead communities. Second they can’t afford to live here anyways. Let’s send them to where they can actually buy a house and settle in and live (in sympathy with the diaspora theme of Jer 29:4-7). To me, as I look back, we were sending these people as immigrants, people who couldn’t afford to live here, people who were forced to leave. At least that’s what Yoder is prompting me to think. And now I have moved and live in one of those communities.
Today a lot of younger people having grown up in mega churches can’t afford to live with their parents in the rich suburbs. They are discontent with the programmed church of their parents. Likewise I am hearing from mega churches that the “video venue” extension churches they have been doing are running out of gas. They are looking for the next thing because the suburbs have become saturated with video screens. Could it be that the mega churches of America will be the breeding ground for a whole new migration? The sending of communities of 20 or 30 people to poorer neighborhoods as missionary communities. Could it be the next great diaspora is going to happen from the mega churches? I pray this be so. Maybe, just maybe Mike Breen and 3DM can help (but in my not so humble opinion they will need some theological adjustments in the “shapes” and their implementation ) What do you all think?