The church in mission

I gave this message in 2016. Article 10 of the confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective.

Our confession of faith has a number of articles related to the church. Previously I talked about Article 9, titled “The Church of Jesus” in a sermon I titled “The church is not a building”. Article 9 defines the church as the body of Jesus which consists of people and not buildings, programs, ministries or services. Article 10 changes focus and defines the church in terms of the work we are called to do. The church is people doing the will of God by following Jesus as his disciples.

From Paragraph 1 & 2 of article 10 of our confession of faith: We believe that the church is called to proclaim and to be a sign of the kingdom of God. Christ has commissioned the church to be his witnesses, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all things he has commanded.

In his mission of preaching, teaching, and healing, Jesus announced, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” After his death and resurrection, Jesus commissioned his disciples, saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit.” Empowered by that Spirit, we continue Jesus’ ministry of gathering the new people of God, who acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior.

Missional and Attractional

This church sign says: “Looking for Pokemon or Jesus? Both found here”. For those who don’t know, Pokemon is a new game for smart phones. This picture illustrates how some churches work at attracting people to come inside.

The terms Missional and Attractional aren’t real dictionary words, so you shouldn’t use them for scrabble. The term Missional is a term that has been around for a couple of decades and it comes from the work of church leaders that were trying to figure out why churches in Western Europe and North America were, in general, declining while churches in the global south were, in general, growing.

The Churches in the global south were growing because the churches continued to live the Missionary lifestyle that originally planted the churches. Churches continued to function in this way because their culture is primarily non-Christian. The mandate to seek the lost still has meaning and discipleship is centered around the church’s mission. It’s this type of church life that is called Missional, where discipleship centers around mission out in the community.

The churches in Western Europe and North America come from a couple of generations where the majority of people in the culture identified as Christian and where many attended church on a regular basis. What use is there in looking for the lost when most people attend church anyway? The emphasis changed to making church worship more elaborate and attractive. While churches still do mission in the community, the majority of church resources are focused on Sunday morning worship where the primary method of discipleship is around Sunday worship. This makes a congregation Attractional, trying to draw people in.

Being attractional doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but with church attendance in decline in the US, it’s obviously not working. Still, being attractional is something that we are called to be, as our confession explains:

From Paragraph 3: The church is called to witness to the reign of Christ by embodying Jesus’ way in its own life and patterning itself after the reign of God. Thus it shows the world a sample of life under the lordship of Christ. By its life, the church is to be a city on a hill, a light to the nations, testifying to the power of the resurrection by a way of life different from the societies around it.

Jesus went out to find people. All sorts of people. Sick people, healthy people, rich and poor, the religious outcast and the religious elite. And when Jesus went out looking for these lost sheep, they in turn came looking for him because as Jesus did his work of healing and teaching, he became the city on a hill, the light to the lost sheep. The more Jesus went out, the more people came to him.

Missional isn’t the opposite of Attractional, the two are a pair, but the Mission part is always first and it is necessary. Attraction will always happen when mission is the focus. We do not need Pokeman’s help.

The witness and the martyr

The story of Dirk Willems is significant because just as his enemy was about to catch him, his enemy fell through the ice. It seemed like God’s justice was going to be done, but instead of letting his enemy die, Dirk Willems saved him and this cost Dirk Willems his life.

I’ll read from Paragraph 4: The church is also to give witness by proclaiming the reign of God in word and deed. The church is to seek the lost, call for repentance, announce salvation from sin, proclaim the gospel of peace, set free the oppressed, pray for righteousness and justice, serve as Jesus did, and without coercion urge all people to become part of the people of God. The church is called to be a channel of God’s healing, which may include anointing with oil. Even at the risk of suffering and death, the love of Christ compels faithful witnesses to testify for their Savior.

In the New Testament, the word that is used for witness is the same word used for martyr. Our confession states that when the church is out doing it’s mission it will face challenges. Some countries have laws that prevent evangelism and faith conversions and this makes the church’s mission very risky in those places.

Working for peace, freedom from oppression, justice and righteousness all seem like good works that shouldn’t face opposition, but Christians still face opposition for these activities even in the US. The church is called to do this work even in the face of death.

This last week (i think in fall of 2016), conference moderator Keith Weaver sent an email calling for leaders to pray and offer support for Al Taylor, pastor at Infinity Mennonite Church in New York City who is leading a group on a 1 month walk from New York to Chicago.

Al Taylor’s ministry in New York began in 2006 in response to a need to address the violence, mortality, and displacement of black males in Harlem and has since expanded to other neighborhoods. The goal of this one month journey is “to listen, reach out to, and pray with people in need of comfort and liberation letting them know they matter.”

Pastor Al Taylor is living out the calling to be a witness that comes from an understanding of God’s heart that has been formed while on mission to the lost in Harlem, New York. It is this desire for peace, freedom from oppression, righteousness and justice that inspires him to lead a 780 mile journey to be a witness for Jesus.

Theology through mission

Debating theology is like debating which farm tractor is better, the argument is best settled in practice. Our understanding of God is tested while on mission in two ways: (1) We witness how God enables us to do his work as he continues to supply our needs in mission and (2) we witness how God works in the lives of those we serve in mission and as we invite those we serve into fellowship.

From Paragraph 5: [Such] witness is a response to Jesus’ call to make disciples. As [they]{new believers} are welcomed and incorporated into the church, new Christians learn to participate in the church’s worship, in its fellowship, education, mutual aid, decision making, service, and continuing mission. New believers also help the church to learn new dimensions of its mission.

In it’s beginning, the early church didn’t believe that Gentiles belonged as part of the church, you needed to convert to Judaism first, but in Acts 10, Peter is called in a vivid dream to go out on mission to Cornelius, a Gentile. It’s at this meeting that the Holy Spirit demonstrates that even Gentiles are included in the church. In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council decided that according to how the Holy Spirit worked through Gentile believers and confirmed by scripture, that circumcision was not required for Gentiles to belong to the church.

The Jerusalem council relied heavily on the testimony from witnesses who had been out on mission to the Gentiles. We also need to rely on the testimony of those working on mission to testify how the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of new believers as we work to apply our theology to our modern culture.

The most notable struggle for the Mennonite church recently has centered around same sex marriages. Most people argue over scriptural interpretation, but if the church were to take the issue seriously it should take the same approach as the early church and go out on mission. It is only while out on mission that we can witness how the Holy Spirit is working and it is the best way to resolve divisive issues.

Church culture is different from every culture

After 1492, the Western European Christian world quickly entered in and dominated the tribal culture of the various Native American tribes in North America. Christian mission to North America worked primarily to eradicate the tribal culture and spirituality and replace it with a Christian European culture. It is always a mistake of Christians to believe that their society’s culture is a Christian culture.

I’ll read from Paragraph 6: God calls the church to direct its mission to people from all nations and ethnic backgrounds. Jesus commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The apostle Paul preached to the Gentile nations. The church today is also called to witness to people of every culture, ethnicity, or nationality. The mission of the church does not require the protection of any nation or empire. Christians are strangers and aliens within all cultures. Yet the church itself is God’s nation, encompassing people who have come from every tribe and nation. Indeed, its mission is to reconcile differing groups, creating one new humanity and providing a preview of that day when all the nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord and be at peace.

The church’s mission is to create a new culture, a new family and call every person from every nation into it. This is a calling that has been embraced by Lancaster Mennonite Conference for many decades and it is a calling that our congregation has responded to by sending out missionaries.

One of the challenges in going out on mission is working within the culture where we are sent. What if your mission work requires a permit, but you are told that the only way to get it is to pay a bribe. Do you pay it?

The challenge also applies to us as we live in the US. For many years, Lancaster Mennonite Conference would tell it’s members what technologies and activities we could and could not participate in, but over the years, we found that separation from culture was not entirely good either.

One of the tasks of the church is to examine the values of the culture around us, test it, and then speak truth into the culture. In the US, the values of individualism, materialism, militarism, nationalism, racism, sexism and a world view that increasingly denies Jesus as Lord are our primary struggles. When I see Christians giving thanks to God for our freedom in the US, I wonder if God is happy that so many of his lost children are being killed with their deaths being endorsed by the church, so that we can enjoy a peaceful Sunday morning together.

Not everything in our culture is bad. Not everything is good. As we look at our culture we need to ask, “Does this help or hinder the church’s mission to make disciples of all nations”? “Does a cultural value take away from a value of God’s Kingdom”? As the church goes out in mission, we can see how the Holy Spirit reveals to us the truth of our culture so that we can be a witness for Jesus.

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