Cultivating a Missional Community

In Luke 10:1, Jesus “appointed 70 others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he intended to go”. In John 20:21, after Jesus’ resurrection, he says to his disciples “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul writes that “we are ambassadors for Christ … we entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God.” God has called us to be a part of a community of people who are on mission together. Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior and he is sending us into the world, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to live for him, to share his good news, and to participate in what God is already doing around us.

As a presbytery, I believe we are called to be a covenant community of sent church leaders. Our presbytery is characterized by spiritual, missional, and relational factors. I believe the value of the presbytery is to provide a gathering place to build our capacities, our abilities, and our skills as sent church leaders. What is the knowledge that we need? What are the habits and practices we need to develop? How can we act our way into new ways of thinking?

We appear to be living in a time where we are being called to adapt “how we do church” to what God’s Spirit is doing in the world. Many forms of church seem to be coming to the end of their life cycle. We know that Christ’s Church will not come to an end. We know that God’s Holy Spirit is alive and well in our world. But, perhaps we are being called to adapt and adjust how we do ministry together, to connect better with the twitter/iPod/iPad/smartphone world around us.

It would be easier if all we had to do was make a few small changes. If putting on a fresh coat of paint, if laying down some new carpet, and if putting up a new sign in front of the church was all we had to do to get people to come to us, things would be a lot easier. But, in most places in North America, that is not enough. We are looking at having to make deeper, harder, cultural changes.

One of our normal defaults is to think that all we need to do is make structural changes and polity changes and the cultural changes will follow. Usually, the opposite is true. We have to begin changing the culture first, and then the changes to the structure and the polity will follow. We learned this again at our General Assembly this summer. The Assembly voted “no” on a couple of proposals to change the structures of our presbyteries and synods. The culture of our Assembly and the people who came as voting commissioners had not changed enough to vote for a structural change. We know that changes in the church do not begin at the national level. We know that changes in the church always begin at the edges, with congregations and presbyteries, and over time, will begin to spread.

What this tells us is that we need to focus our time and energy on making the culture changes God is calling us to make in our congregations and in our presbytery. We can’t worry about what changes others are not ready to make yet. We have our own changes we still need to make. And of course, we never make changes just for the sake of change. All change is not good. When we make changes, it is so that we can more fully live as the sent people of God, on mission for Jesus Christ, that we are called to be.

Last month, Tim Keller, from the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City described this cultural change as moving from ‘building a great church to reach a great city’ to ‘building a great city’. The first one is really focused on the gathering of Christ’s people, and getting people to come to us, with the hope that that this will lead to the sending of Christ’s people. This doesn’t always happen. The second one focuses on the sending of Christ’s people, which usually results in the gathering of Christ’s people, to reflect together and share what we are learning about the mission we are on together. There is a natural ebb and flow. The tide goes out and then the tide comes in. Tim Keller also said that unless you are willing to devote 7-8 years to this project, you shouldn’t even start, because it will take at least that long to make it happen.

To use Ron Heifetz’ analogy, when we are on mission in the world, and when we are serving in our congregations, it is like being on the dance floor. We are moving and we are busy and we are in the flow of the music. But, we need occasional times when we leave the dance floor, move up to the balcony, and look down at the dancers below. We need to pull back, reflect together, and see the bigger picture, so we don’t miss the forest for the trees. This is what the presbytery can be. The presbytery can be the balcony where we see patterns and behaviors that are hard to see when we are on the dance floor. Armed with this new perspective, we can return to the dance floor, and experiment with new steps, new dance partners, and new relationships. The presbytery balcony can be a place to cultivate a new imagination, to ask different questions, and to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.

These are humble times to be in ministry. So much is changing. There are few, if any experts. We are all learning as we go. This is a time to extend much grace and forgiveness to one another. We learn by trial and error. We experiment. Some experiments will fail. We can’t let that hold us back. We can’t lose our nerve. We can’t stop trying. Satan wants us to give up. God wants us to keep trying. The devil wants us to turn on each other. God wants us to work out our differences. We want to remain in control. God encourages us to ‘let it go’.

Our desire is to cultivate a missional community. We want to build a network of sent people. We want to disciple a cadre of church leaders. We want to create a positive, encouraging, sending culture that is exploring a variety of ways to be on mission together. If we will work together, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do this.

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