Futility and Fugacity or Future Hope?

November 17, 2008 at 9:50 pm

The Crazy Ones
As I continue my study of missional, I often wonder if there is any real hope for the church in the West – will we see God moving and people responding and choosing to follow him more than we are now? If we just change in the right ways, will God then show up and move in power? Or is God is already moving in the West and inviting us to join his mission, inspiring us to change and align ourselves with his purposes, his mission in the world by being missional in the local spaces and places we inhabit on a daily basis. I have been on mission in America for 25 years now with the last 15 years spent in the most un-churched, un-reached region of our nation – the Pacific Northwest. I have struggled for years as a mission-minded person, committed to discipleship, and devoted to following Christ as authentically as I know how. Yet, in my church culture I have felt alone.

In 1997 Apple started an ad campaign called, “Think Different.” The text from that campaign goes like this:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Many within the established church in America call new missional church leaders crazy, rebels, troublemakers. Many missional leaders have confessed they have felt like misfits in their historical church contexts. But unlike many other young people who have left the church or abandoned their faith, these missional church leaders have decided to “think different.” While Apple Computer makes tools for people who “think different,” missional church leaders are developing tools and writing books to help the church in the West think differently. While I hesitate to call them all genius, many are changing not only the church world, but the world at large. For years I have been thinking differently than most in my local churches, I have been called crazy, felt like a misfit, and labeled a troublemaker. As missional church leaders around the world raise their voices, I am discovering that I am not alone.

Change or Die
Alan Hirsch in “The Forgotten Ways” offers hope for the Western World where Christianity is in decline. He proposes that there are constitutive elements, or “Forgotten Ways” that we can re-learn and (re) activate “so that we might once again truly be a truly transformative Jesus movement in the West.” (Hirsch 2006, 22) But is this hope merely an exercise in futility? As the grass withers and the flower fades, is God’s powerful moving in the West fading into history as we see the dawn of a “Next Christendom” anchored in the Southern continents? (Jenkins 2007, 17) Hirsch assumes that the same potencies that energized the early Christian movement and are currently manifest in the underground Chinese church lie dormant in you, me and every local church that seeks to follow Jesus faithfully in any time and that these potencies, which he calls, “Apostolic Genius” will lead to a truly transformative movement of God in the West. (Hirsch 2006, 22) Others believe, and among them are three Chinese House Church Leaders who observe that “generally speaking, we can see that the flame of the gospel has burned in a westward direction” reaching around the globe and coming full circle as God moves powerfully through the Chinese to take the gospel “Back to Jerusalem.” (Hattaway 2005, 20) The Chinese House Church Leaders do not propose that God is not moving in the West, or that the flame of the gospel will not burn in the West any longer, but they are inspired to burn brightly with the gospel to reach the un-reached nations between China and Jerusalem.

The movement of God in the Chinese church is phenomenal and worthy of study and while I am not convinced that we will see a great movement of God in the West in our day, I am committed to the hope of the gospel for all times and in all places and pray, with others, for a reactivating of the missional church in the West (Hirsch 2006), for a recovery of churchly resources that are indispensable for the journey of faith (Walker & Bretherton 2007, 152) and for a redefining of Christianity from it’s cultural Western form to a more inclusive sense of “Global Christianity.” (Jenkins 2007, 37) And pray we must as we continue to see statistics and books abound detailing the decline of Christianity in the West. While the examples of great movements of God that Hirsch uses are from times of great persecution, the significant decline of the church in the West may be the just disorienting dilemma we need to shake us out of our complacency and force us to consider new realities for church in the West.

Hirsch and others are convinced that while God may want us to do something new, the essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ is not something new, but something that has been forgotten and as the proponents of Deep Church say it, we need to be “Remembering Our Future.” (Walker & Bretherton 2007) So, what exactly is it that we have forgotten? What do we need to remember? Is it the five-fold ministry outlined in Ephesians 4? Is it the common tradition of the one Church? Or is it something else? And when did we forget these things? What led to such a forgetfulness? What have we learned that needs to be forgotten in order for us to restore what needs to be remembered? It is certain that there are competing ways that have been developed over the centuries that we would do well to leave behind us as we seek to recover “The Forgotten Ways.” But for today I will focus on the new set of tools and new visions of reality that may lead us into a reactivation of the missional church in our day and age.

What we need today is “a new paradigm – a new vision of reality: a fundamental change in our thoughts, perceptions, and values, especially as they relate to our view of the church and mission.” (Hirsch 2006, 17) We need to change and adopt a missionary stance in relation to our cultural contexts or face increasing decline and possible extinction. (Hirsch 2006, 50) But is fundamental change possible? According to Alan Deutschman, author of “Change or Die”, odds are against such fundamental change within organizations. Thankfully, Jesus reminds us that often when things are impossible for us, they are not impossible for God. If anyone has the power to change things, it is the God of the universe who creates all things, holds all things together, is in all things, and makes things new. While on the surface things may look bleak in my world as the church continues to decline, I hear God calling – calling me to participate in his mission here and now. Music speaks to my soul, as the words of this song by Iona prophetically spoke to me when I first heard them:

It started with a dream, and I could see it all
I had a vision and I heard you call me
Now the dream is over, but the voice remains
I am part of something that is going
To change things for the better
To change things for the better

And I hear you call
And I see you dancing, dancing on the wall

The writing’s on the paper, the names upon the page
The past part of the present, and this coming of age
I see a revolution I never thought would dawn
I am part of something that’s going to go on
And on for the better
To go on and on for the better

And I hear you call
And I see you dancing, dancing on the wall

It started with a dream, and I still recall
I see a bridge where there once was a wall of stone
Now the dream is over, and the picture will fade
But I am part of something
That is going to sway things for the better
Going to sway things for the better

And I hear you call
And I see you dancing, dancing on the wall
And I hear you call
And I see you dancing, dancing on the wall

I believe I am part of something that is going to change things for the better. I am part of the great family of God in Christ that has changed things for centuries. I am part of the movement of God in this day and age that is continuing to change things. I am choosing to join my voice with others who are calling for change – for a new way of thinking about church and mission in America. Another voice spoke to me from Jeremiah15:19:

Therefore this is what the LORD says:
“If you repent, I will restore you
that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.”

I wrote my own song lyrics in response to this verse and hope it will speak to the commitment I have made to the restoration of God’s mission for the world in our churches in America.

Precious Lord, loving King
Gracious one, hope you bring
You are a mystery, God of the world unseen
You are calling to me

I will return to you, you will restore me.
I will stand before you, you will bring me back.
I will take out the precious from the vile,
I will utter worthy not worthless words.
I will be true to you.

Jesus Christ, savior, friend
You’re my hope ‘til the end
Church is a mystery, your body to a world in need
As you call, “come follow me.”

I will return to you, you will restore me.
I will stand before you, you will bring me back.
I will take out the precious from the vile,
I will utter worthy not worthless words.
I will be true to you.

Missional Hope
I truly hope and pray for a reactivation of the missional church, for a restoration of the people of God on mission with God, and believe that voices like those of Alan Hirsch and others will help us to reframe our concept of church, rethink our mission, and reorganize ourselves around the mission of God so that we can be restored to a life full of hope for a world in need. When I read Hirsch’s testimony in “The Forgotten Ways” as he set the scene for the heart of the book, I was amazed by how much of his experience matched some of my own. He describes churches organized around the contemporary church growth model which is exactly the context I have been involved with for most of the last 25 years. (Hirsch 2006, 34) In the early ‘90s when we joined the church, we averaged about 8,000 in attendance, growing from a small church of less than 100 in the early ‘70s. Over the years they had planted seven other regional churches. In 1997 we moved into a facility that seats nearly 5,000. But to this day, we have rarely filled it on a Sunday morning, save for an occasional Easter gathering. Today, our average attendance is closer to 2,500 – though I’ve heard it’s rising. But just last Wednesday an appeal was made and statistics were offered on how many of those who attend actually contribute financially to the organization in any significant amount. The dearth was staggering. Hirsch had a similar experience and notes, “It seemed to us leaders that we did not really ‘value’ God’s, and therefore our, distinctive mission as a central function of the church.” He also revealed, “for us, the central failure lay primarily in our inability to ‘make disciples.’ Our worship and mission were therefore enfeebeled.”

This failure at making disciples has been one of my chief concerns and I am certain that my local church has yet to crack the code on this problem. But perhaps Hirsch has. In the second part of “The Forgotten Ways”, which Hirsch says is the heart of the book, he offers material that he hopes “will have immediate relevance for ourselves and for the faith communities in which we serve as we try to find that strangely ‘new yet ancient’ way that has made God’s people the most powerful transformative force in history.” (Hirsch 2006, 75) Hirsch calls this “new yet ancient” way Apostolic Genius, that unique energy and force that imbues phenomenal Jesus movements and is made up of six components, five of which are elements of what he calls mDNA, while the sixth is the heart of it all: Jesus is Lord. (Hirsch 206, 274) mDNA is derived from the concept of DNA as genetic encoding for the transmission of inherited traits and is used as a metaphor to suggest that these traits are inherent in the people of God individually and corporately. But if these traits are inherited, how did they fail to get passed on? Do they truly lie dormant or have we lost them through unhealthy breeding habits? If these traits are transmitted through the indwelling spirit of God, then with each new birth into the family of God, these potencies are available and with each new formation of local communities of followers of Christ, these potencies will be present. The question remains, will we activate them? Hirsch asserts that “one of the blockages to unleashing Apostolic Genius is our adherence to an obsolete understanding of the church. We simply have to find a way to push past the pat historical answers that so easily suggest themselves to a people whose imagination of what it means to be God’s people has been taken hostage to a less than biblical imagination of Church.” (Hirsch 2006, 56)

As Hirsch introduces the heart of his book, he offers a working definition of missional church as “a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church. The church itself is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith that adheres to Jesus. To obstruct this is to block God’s purposes in and through his people.” (Hirsch 2006, 82) Some are concerned that with a missional focus for the church, somehow the church, the formed and gathered body of Christ, will collapse into mission. As Hirsch uses the term, I don’t see this happening but rather I see the church being strengthened and built up to be the people God intended them to be organized around and committed to his mission to the world. Hirsch affirms that there has been much misunderstanding of the term missional and that some have misused it or misunderstood it. But rather than give up on terminology that is appropriate for this situation, he has chosen to clarify and distinguish the term and uses it as the core of Apostolic Genius in mDNA – where m = missional.

So what is mDNA? It’s “the central complex of guiding ideas, phenomena, structures and experience” the make phenomenal Jesus movements effective tools of God’s redemptive mission to world. (Hirsch 2006, 67) The five constitutive elements of mDAN are: Disciple Making, Missional-Incarnational Impulse, Apostolic Environment, Organic Systems, and Communitas – not Community. Next week I will go into more detail on the Apostolic Genius and mDNA covered in “The Forgotten Ways” as I seek to understand what it will take to effect change when the odds are dead set against it.

Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2006.
Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. rev. and ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hattaway, Paul. Back to Jerusalem: Three Chinese House Church Leaders Share Their Vision to Complete the Great Commission. Authentic Media, 2003.
Remembering Our Future: Explorations in Deep Church. Edited by Andrew Walker and Luke Bretherton. London: Authentic Media, 2007.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews, church, faith, Missional.

Missional Evangelism The Mission Driven Life and Vehicles to Get You There


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