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Church and Mission

2008 December 11
by Julie Clawson

Once again a commentary on the missional musings at the Out of Ur blog…
I have to say that I found Skye Jethani’s recent post on mission and recession to be an insightful look at the dangers economic hard times pose for the models of “church as we know it.” He points out that typical models of church involvement depend on people having leisure time to devote to the church. But as the economy tanks, that affluent leisure time evaporates. Skye writes, “people who could previously spend multiple hours each week in church programming are now holding down part-time jobs, job hunting, spending more time at home cooking rather than eating out, or taking classes to train for new careers.” He questions this mission based on leisure time not only for its current downfall, but because it “devalues members without expendable hours…mothers with the 24/7 job of caring for young children, single-parent households, laborers working multiple jobs to stay afloat, or those in the “sandwich generation” using their leisure hours to care for aging parents. Do we write these members off because they do not have leisure time to dedicate to the church’s programs and ministry teams? Do they get a pass on the Great Commission?”

Skye suggests that we need to shift how we think about mission and the institution of the church in light of these issues. While I like his ideas about helping people see that their everyday lives (jobs, commitments, errands) are actually mission and that the church is about people living out incarnation and not institutionalized programs, I am not fully on board with all of his suggestions. He proposes equipping the believer to be in communion with Christ in her everyday life and then come to church to celebrate not to do mission. He believes this would eliminate the focus on church programs, buildings, and staff and turn the focus to ordinary lives.

Unfortunately this alternative focus of church still requires much of the same programs and structures to survive as before, just with fewer people. To hold a celebration service that “feeds” the masses one still needs buildings, staff, and programming for the celebration. It’s church as we know it just without commitments. In addition, rubberstamping what people are already doing leaves out some rather important aspects of what it means to be the church and do mission. Letting one’s co-workers know that Jesus loves them is all good, but what about caring for the poor and being in community with other believers? I’m all for slashing programs – committees, choir, and multiple Beth Moore bible studies can, yes, just be a waste of time. And I’m all for affirming that being a 24/7 mom who can’t leave the house to do anything because she doesn’t have childcare is a way of serving Christ.

But to take a foundering institution and try to keep it afloat by redefining a few things doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. The mission of the church doesn’t just need to be switched from programs to everyday living (although that is a good step), it needs to become the driving force of church. Telling members to do mission in their day to day lives isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for a church. Abandoning programming but retaining the structure of a come and see celebration service moves us farther away from mission and truly being the church. If church was not about the event in a building, but really about who we are as followers of Christ then there wouldn’t have to be this huge distinction between real life and church. Church isn’t a place you volunteer at or go to to be fed, it is simple the life you lead and the community you indwell. The church does life together – eats together, raises kids together, serves together… We shouldn’t be individuals serving God that come together to be encouraged in that endeavour once a week, but a group of people on the same journey, sharing its joys and sorrows.

So while I like the intent of Skye’s article, I think a more radical redefining of church and mission than what he is proposing is needed. Not just to save the structure of the church in hard times, but to help us reorient ourselves in relation to each other. We are the church, we all do mission – as individuals and as a group. As a 24/7 mom I don’t just want to be told that I’m doing mission already even if I can’t make it to some church meeting. I want to be with the church while I am being a mom – relating to others, serving with others, and being one with them. This isn’t about me being fed and then living my life (even if its for God), its about being in committed messy communion with believers as the church.

at least that’s the way I’d like it to be…

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. December 11, 2008

    Julie,

    I hate to sound crass………there are mortgages to pay……..and that is the bottom line. Churches are in debt………and the debt is the tail that wags the dog.

    Many KNOW change is needed but they just can’t. Alienate too many people……….offerings decline……..and the Church goes bankrupt.

    And that many NOT be a bad idea.

    Bruce

  2. December 11, 2008

    i happen to think an economic downturn will bode well for the church in america. i work at a church where the people have been very mission focused though it is an “older” church with programs and a large building and multi-pastoral staff. i hope Christians will “test” God in this season and find that God is faithful. i hope Christians will be the ones living and showing our faith through our generosity, both with our time and money…

  3. December 11, 2008

    I agree with you that the “being fed and then living my life” model just doesn’t go deep enough. For one thing, living a life that is truly an alternative to the values and assumptions of the world around us takes the support of community, not just a sermon on Sunday. And as a Mom, being told you’re doing important ministry on the diaper patrol is nice, but it doesn’t break the inherent isolation of the job. Somehow church has to happen in our everyday lives, 24/7, or whatever you call the thing that happens on Sunday morning will remain pretty much the same. I wish I knew what that looked like…

  4. December 11, 2008

    Bruce – I fully understand the money struggle when it comes to church. I’ve been paid staff at a church and support the idea of paid clergy even though it brings up a bunch of other issues. I almost wrote about that in response to this article. What do you do when one group of people is saying to be missional you have to get rid of paid staff and let the people run the church as servants and then articles like these that say that churches should not expect people to contribute to their functioning. and then you add the reality of the beast that people “pay” for stuff they like – make them too uncomfortable or expect to much of them and they take their money elsewhere. the tension is real on that practical level.

  5. December 12, 2008

    Julie, I’m a new reader (and big fan now). Your thoughts in the comments section reflect my own. Thanks for posting this.

  6. December 13, 2008

    That’s definitely a difficulty for me with church. I don’t like the idea of the programs and I think often it ends up being defined that the church is “this building” instead of “these people”. I don’t have a good answer for it though. I see problems with the house church way of doing things too. I’m also a stay-at-home mom of a toddler and infant right now and I don’t know how “mission” would work in my current situation. I wish I could find a situation where I was a part of church (the people) and a part of the mission of the church in my everyday life without the isolation of just “being the church” on my own in my own situation.

  7. December 14, 2008

    This was implied in your post, I think, but why isn’t the gathering of the community in celebration, mission? If the church is missionary by its very nature (cf. Bosch, Vatican II, and a slew of others), then every aspect of the church’s life just is its mission. This can be for good or bad, but mission is not only something we do, it is also who we are, and those to ebb and flow together.

  8. December 15, 2008

    If we take a step back and process this from a multi-faceted layer it’s never a problem that will be solved. The very nature of people and our tendency to look for fulfillment decided this. I think back to the discussion of “types of churches.” There have always been people in their own recessions that have been involved in church or kept on the fringes because of it. I think you are totally right in that the steps the church needs to take has nothing to do with the recession but bringing the church, ie the mission and embodiment of Christ in the world, out into our lives and not just in the building. I can only hope and pray that enough people see this. If not, it will be a struggle for the remaining churches that can offer the programming everyone feels they “need.”

  9. December 19, 2008

    Perhaps the question to ask is “What is the church doing when it isn’t sitting in its pews?”

    Once you can answer that, then you can ask the next question — what SHOULD the church be doing when it isn’t sitting in its pews?

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