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TREASURE IN CLAY JARSPatterns in Missional Faithfulness
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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Chapter OneSo We Do Not Lose Heart
When six of us in the Gospel and Our Culture Network wrote the theological book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998), many people urged us to give some real-life examples of congregations in the United States and Canada that were indeed missional. There were a few who read our book and doubted that any such congregations actually existed. Others just wanted to know more about what missional congregations were like. How would you know a missional church if you saw one?
But many others wanted encouragement in the process of becoming missional. They wondered, What in the life of the church indicates that a congregation is missional? How can our congregation find enough encouragement to continue to move toward becoming missional?
This book looks at congregations that are becoming missional. We do not lift them up as perfect models (neither would the people in these congregations suggest doing that). But in these fragile "clay jars" lies the treasure of the gospel. We want to tell the stories of these congregations "so we do not lose heart," in words of 2 Corinthians 4:1, 16.
The book Missional Church was a study of the missional character of the church, not just of its mission activities. A proper, biblical ecclesiology looks at everything the church is and does in relation to the mission of God in the world. The church does not exist for itself, but for participation in God's mission of reconciliation. "Mission" is not just an activity carried out by special people in faraway places. Mission is the character of the church in whatever context it exists.
This hasn't always been the way Christians have thought about the character of the church. In Christendom (where church and nation/ culture/society were hand-in-glove, and it was assumed that almost everybody was Christian somehow), the church's mission only related to cultures other than the dominant culture. This was especially the case in Europe and North America. But Christendom is dying. Our context in North America is more like the New Testament context of the church, where the church is on the margins, not at the center of society. The mission field is right around us, as well as around the world. We can no longer assume (if indeed, we ever should have assumed) that everyone around us is Christian.
Nor is a missional church simply a congregation with a mission statement. All kinds of organizations have mission statements, and not all of those mission statements are aligned with God's purposes in the world.
A missional church is a church that is shaped by participating in God's mission, which is to set things right in a broken, sinful world, to redeem it, and to restore it to what God has always intended for the world. Missional churches see themselves not so much sending, as being sent. A missional congregation lets God's mission permeate everything that the congregation does - from worship to witness to training members for discipleship. It bridges the gap between outreach and congregational life, since, in its life together, the church is to embody God's mission.
This new project of the Gospel and Our Culture Network began in 1998 with the formation of a research team to look at congregational models of the missional church. Twelve indicators of a missional church (see Appendix) were developed from the book Missional Church and from our own experience. Using these 12 indicators we asked a wide range of people across the church in North America for nominations. The eight congregations and one cluster of congregations in this book are among those who were nominated. We make no claims that these congregations are the most missional in North America. But we do claim that each of these congregations exhibits some missional characteristics and is seeking to move in a missional direction. We believe that the experiences of these congregations that we visited, interviewed, experienced, and discussed with each other will encourage other congregations in their journey toward becoming missional. Some of the congregations may be quite different from your own congregation, and we hope that these stories will open the door to learning from those differences.
As we studied these congregations using our original set of 12 indicators, we learned that these indicators were not adequate. We discovered that these congregations corporately spent much time in prayer. And perhaps because of this, these congregations were not afraid to take risks. Secondly, we realized that none of our indicators had to do with church leaders. Yet authority within the congregation was a key factor in the movement toward becoming missional. Moreover, we realized that what we had were not so much "indicators" as "patterns."
Accordingly, we combined some indicators, revised some, and added others, so that we now have eight patterns - patterns on clay jars - of church life that let the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" shine through.
The churches in our sample are not identical. You will find a diverse group of congregations - diverse in terms of geography, tradition, ethnicity, and size - who are seeking to be faithful to God's call to them. You will have "patterns." A diamond pattern on a piece of pueblo pottery may look different from one pueblo to another. Yet it is recognizable as a diamond, and it is recognizable as a particular style of pottery. Similarly, a pattern like "biblical formation and discipleship" may have a different structure from one congregation to another, but it is still recognizable.
So, this is not a "how-to-become-a-successful-church" book, with an easy three-step process for becoming missional. Implicit in most of the how-to books is a theology that assumes that God's purpose in the world is sufficiently described by the numerical growth of the congregation - or that doing these particular faithful activities will result in numerical growth. Some of the congregations in our study are large, and some are relatively small.
Nor is this simply a sociological study of congregations. Dependence on the Holy Spirit and listening for God's unique call to a particular congregation are not patterns that can always be perceived through the five senses or discerned through reason alone.
What we hope you will find are patterns that will encourage you in your own congregation's journey toward becoming missional. Perhaps you will see a design on another congregation's clay jar and be inspired to create a similar pattern on your own.
Patterns of the Missional Church
Here are the patterns of missional faithfulness around which we have organized this book, with corresponding verses from 2 Corinthians 4. As our team worked with these missional patterns and studied the Bible together, we were drawn to this particular passage from Scripture. At first we were drawn by verse 7, "But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us." These congregations we had studied were "clay jars"; none was a perfect example of a missional church. But each carried in its witness a remarkable treasure that pointed to God's power and to God's purposes in the world. As we continued to study 2 Corinthians 4, we discovered that all eight of our patterns had some reference in this chapter, and so we chose to build our writing around it.
Pattern I, Missional Vocation. The congregation is discovering together the missional vocation of the community. It is beginning to redefine "success" and "vitality" in terms of faithfulness to God's calling and sending. It is seeking to discern God's specific missional vocation ("charisms") for the entire community and for all of its members.
"We have this ministry through the mercy shown to us." (2 Cor. 4:1)
Pattern 2, Biblical Formation and Discipleship. The missional church is a community in which all members are involved in learning what it means to be disciples of Jesus. The Bible is normative in this church's life. Biblical formation and discipling are essential for members of the congregation.
"We have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture. ... Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day." (2 Cor. 4:13, 16)
Pattern 3, Taking Risks as a Contrast Community. The missional church is learning to take risks for the sake of the gospel. It understands itself as different from the world because of its participation in the life, death, and resurrection of its Lord. It is raising questions, often threatening ones, about the church's cultural captivity, and it is grappling with the ethical and structural implications of its missional vocation. It is learning to deal with internal and external resistance.
"And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are headed toward destruction. In their case, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.... We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not given to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed." (2 Cor. 4:3-4, 8-9)
Pattern 4, Practices That Demonstrate God's Intent for the World. The pattern of the church's life as community is a demonstration of what God intends for the life of the whole world. The practices of the church embody mutual care, reconciliation, loving accountability, and hospitality. A missional church is indicated by how Christians behave toward one another.
"We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." (2 Cor. 4:2)
Pattern 5, Worship as Public Witness. Worship is the central act by which the community celebrates with joy and thanksgiving both God's presence and God's promised future. Flowing out of its worship, the community has a vital public witness.
"For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.... For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Cor. 4:5-6)
Pattern 6: Dependence on the Holy Spirit. The missional community confesses its dependence upon the Holy Spirit, shown in particular in its practices of corporate prayer.
"So that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us." (2 Cor. 4:7b)
Pattern 7: Pointing Toward the Reign of God. The missional church understands its calling as witness to the gospel of the in-breaking reign of God, and strives to be an instrument, agent, and sign of that reign. As it makes its witness through its identity, activity, and communication, it is keenly aware of the provisional character of all that it is and does. It points toward the reign of God that God will certainly bring about, but knows that its own response is incomplete, and that its own conversion is a continuing necessity.
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)
Pattern 8: Missional Authority. The Holy Spirit gives the missional church a community of persons who, in a variety of ways and with a diversity of functional roles and titles, together practice the missional authority that cultivates within the community the discernment of missional vocation and is intentional about the practices that embed that vocation in the community's life.
"For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake." (2 Cor. 4:5)
Chapter TwoCongregational Sketches
These are the congregations - or in one case, a cluster of congregations - that our research team visited. In most cases, the visit was over a weekend, when we could participate in Sunday worship. We also interviewed individuals, met with small groups, and observed the life of the congregations. (See the Appendix for a more detailed account of our methodology.) The names listed with each of the sketches are the team members who participated in the on-site visit to the congregation. We recognize that many, perhaps all, of the congregations have changed since then. Leaders may have changed. Certain structures may have changed. Information is intended to be accurate at the time of the visits (mostly in 1999).
These sketches do not say everything we learned about these congregations. In fact, readers will find more information and more stories scattered throughout the chapters. Here we want to give a portrait, a snapshot, of each congregation as we saw it.
Boulder Mennonite Church of Boulder, Colorado
Lois Y. Barrett and Jeff Van Kooten
Boulder Mennonite Church is a congregation of about 75 people located near the campus of the University of Colorado. It was begun in 1985 at the initiative of the Western District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. It also has an association with the Church of the Brethren. As the only Mennonite congregation in Boulder, it attracts a variety of people who had been Mennonites before they moved to Boulder plus a number of people who first learned about Mennonites at the Boulder Mennonite Church. Some people drive more than 30 miles to attend worship services.
Although not a typical Mennonite congregation, it has taken the Mennonite tradition and shaped it for its own context in Boulder. The Mennonite emphases on peace and service have particularly energized the Boulder Mennonite Church. In cooperation with the denomination, the congregation has sponsored a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit, in which volunteers (mostly single young adults) are assigned to the Boulder Mennonite Church for a term of service of from one to three years.
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