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Following Jesus Into the Mission Field
By Bill Easum
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2001 Bill Easum
All rights reserved.
Christianity Is an Organic Movement
1 Corinthians 9:22
Most theories about congregational life are flawed from the start because they are based on an institutional and mechanical worldview These views lead to the assumptions that all congregations follow a similar pattern of birth, growth, decline, and death and that their health can be fixed only for a limited amount of time. After that, they are beyond repair. Such a view is not biblical. Instead, it is fatalistic and self-serving because the goal is to fix and preserve the institution for as long a life as possible. Such a worldview allows one to focus on mere organizational and institutional survival rather than on following Jesus onto the mission field for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission.
However, the Old and New Testaments are based on an organic worldview. They clearly show a bias for "salvation history" rather than institutional viability. Beginning with God's promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will be a blessing to all humankind, the concept of "blessed to be a blessing" has been at the heart of the Scriptures. Both Judaism and Christianity were meant to be a blessing to the rest of the world. As such, they are concerned with the movement of God throughout history, instead of the growth and health of organizations or institutions. We desperately need to recover this distinction.
Christianity is concerned with the unfolding of the Kingdom of God in this world, not the longevity of organizations. Much of the prophetic message was focused on the unfaithful leadership of those who put institutional law above bringing about change in the world. Many of the Jewish leaders of the first century were more interested in protecting the "health" or viability of their culture than pursuing the salvation history of their people. Jesus' primary criticism of these leaders was that they worshipped the institution of religion instead of the mandate to be a blessing to the world. What ultimately killed Jesus was his pursuit of this mission at therisk of self-destruction and his denial of the importance of looking after the "health" of the faith community. The same thing surfaces again in Acts 15 as the Jewish Christians are more worried about pursuing a spiritual diet plan for the community than about expanding the mission to the Gentiles.
The key to unfreezing the church to be with Jesus on the mission field is to view our congregations and denominations as the roots and shoots of an "organic movement" that go far beyond mere organizational survival. Movements are very different from institutions and behave much differently. For example, movement replaces religion, flow replaces program, midwives replace priests, mentors replace teachers, and worship is a microcosm of life's experience rather than a re-enactment of ancient history. When we understand that our congregations are part of the movement of God throughout all history, we begin to evaluate the faithfulness of our congregations based on their participation in that movement rather than factors like health or growth. We do not ask whether they are healthy or growing, but whether they are contributing to the greater movement of God in history. As such, Christianity, in whatever form it manifests itself, must never be evaluated based on institutional or mechanical standards.
To follow Jesus into the mission field means that to be effective on the mission field, Christianity must once again become a movement. As we have seen in the road stories shared by St. Luke, both his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles portray Christianity more as a movement than a religion. It's time we recognized that fact and begin to live like disciples committed to a radical movement rather than entitled members committed to protecting our institutions.
Envisioning Christianity as a missional movement rather than an institutional model calls for restoring biblical Christianity to its role as an engager and transformer of individuals and culture rather than a fortress to protect the elitist haves (religious hierarchy) from the barbaric have-nots (pagans, Gentiles, God-fearers). It is a call to quit reducing evangelism to gaining new members and mission to sending money to denominational projects. It is a call to join Jesus on the mission field!
Movements Follow a Leader
Movements are centered around a revered leader. Remove the leader, and the movement soon becomes an institution or religion. For the first three centuries the person and work of Jesus Christ dominated the conversation. Who was he? What did he do? Why does he matter? Jesus was all that mattered. Every aspect of theology hinged on an understanding of Christology. Christianity was founded on what God did in Jesus Christ. Institutional rules, dogma, and rituals are never a substitute for a living relationship with Jesus, the leader of the Christian movement.
Imagine yourself on a mission field. You are the only Christian you know. You have spent the last several months becoming immersed in a new culture and language. Suddenly a person appears in town who claims to be a Christian. You make a straight line for that person. What is the first thing you ask that person? Do you ask the person what she or he believes, or what group she or he is aligned with? Absolutely not. You're so delighted to see another Christian that all you can do is talk about is how wonderful it is to be on the mission field with Jesus. I wish that this last sentence felt more like fact than fantasy to more of us.
Movements Embody the Spirit of the Founder
One of the earliest names for Christianity was "The Way (Acts 9:2)." Long before Christianity became known as a "faith to be believed," Christianity was a way of life that resulted from redemption in Christ. To be a Christian meant to live as Jesus lived, to join him on the mission field.
In movements that thrive long-term, subsequent leaders embody the spirit of the movement's founder. Christianity thrived because people like Paul, Apollos, Lydia, Barnabas, Peter, Mark, Stephen and others caught and lived out the resurrected spirit of Jesus by following him into the mission field. Christianity thrives today where leaders embody the spirit of Jesus. Their leadership is not based on professionalism, personality, office, or even institutional ordination. Their leadership is based on how well they emulate Jesus among the Gentiles.
Christians give their loyalty not to a set of rules or policies or a religious group, but to a person who embodied the "Way" they are supposed to live and die. This "Way" was not considered to be "one way" among many, but instead was considered to be "The Way" of all ways. As such, it demands total obedience from all disciples who claim the name Christian.
One of the problems Christianity faces today is that too much of the focus has been on the needs of the institution rather than on the task of embodying the spirit of Jesus. One example of this is the shift from being called "People of the Way" in the first century to "People of the Book" since the Reformation. Knowing the Bible often becomes a substitute for holy living. Performing rituals often replaces ethical living. The result is that faith does not automatically stimulate ethics.
Movements Are Guided by Mission Rather Than Rules
As a movement, Christianity is guided by an overriding mission, which eclipses all rules. No longer is there only one right way to do something. We now must ask what is the right thing to do in this particular part of the mission field? So how does a congregation know when to break from the established rules? It breaks when the mission is in jeopardy. Movements are fueled by a cause; institutional religion is the cause. The cause for which Christianity lives and breathes is the redemption of creation. Christians will do whatever will assist in achieving that mission.
The clash between Paul and the Jerusalem church gives us some help here. When the Jerusalem church heard that Paul had been baptizing converts without first circumcising them, they rebuked him. But after hearing of the marvelous work that was occurring in the lives of people, the council changed its mind. The guiding principle: if it transforms lives, you do it even if it is illegal because the redemption of people is more important than keeping institutional traditions. The early Christians didn't let a little thing like legality get in the way of their radical devotion to Jesus. The early Christians were fanatical about their faith, even to the point of being willing to die for their faith. That is why many considered them to be a cult.
Movements Are Mobile Rather Than Static
Movements are mobile, able to change at the whim of their leader. To be on the Way with Jesus means to be ready, willing, and able to go wherever Jesus leads us. Thus, in this time of traumatic transition, we see institutional Christianity being left behind because it is tethered to its physical moorings and can't join Jesus on the way. In its place we see the rise of House Churches, Storefront Churches, Cell Churches, Cyber Churches, Cafe Churches, Bar Churches, City Reaching Movements, Multiple-site churches, and Biker Churches. What do these ministries have in common? They are able to pick up and move with Jesus the moment he moves. They are not tethered to place, property, and tradition. Unfortunately, the mission field does not afford us the luxuries of stability, location, status quo, and familiarity. Nor does it allow us to try to separate reality into sacred and secular, and thus focus on "sacred space."
Movements Depend on Contextual People
Large-scale movements depend on leaders who are contextual and cross-cultural. Contextual leaders are tuned in to the culture of their community. They know it like the back of their hand. They are out in the culture as much as they are in their office or spiritual community. Cross-cultural leaders are able see beyond the sacredness of any cultural form and grasp the larger mystery of what God did for all cultures. They can communicate this larger mystery in a new cultural environment. Paul's message on Mars Hill about the unknown god is an example of contextual, cross-cultural leadership. Because of his passion to share the news of Jesus, Paul was able to see beyond the cultural barrier and help the Athenians see the larger mystery. Christianity grew rapidly precisely because the message of Jesus transcended all cultural and social barriers. No one was considered untouchable. Much of present-day Christianity is too tied to one particular culture. It is time we once again opened wide the doors.
The End of Modernity's Organizational Theories
Because Christianity is a movement rather than a religion, I have a problem with the following concepts:
Church Growth and Church Health;
Models that describe the various sizes of congregations as family, pastoral, program, and corporate;
The "life cycle" approach to congregational life.
These theories may well offer an accurate assessment of how mechanical, institutional organizations function, but the health and growth of congregational life have little to do with faithfully carrying out the Great Commission. Our focus should not be on congregations or denominations. It should be on how well we carry out our Lord's last request. These theories offer little or no hope if we see Christianity as an organic movement meant to encompass all existence.
Too much of what I read about "church health" and "church growth" is concerned with the survival or well-being of institutions, rather than a congregation's faithfulness to the Great Commission, which often means the self-sacrifice of individuals and groups. For example: Most congregations view the planting of a new church in close proximity to them as a threat to their survival rather than another way to enhance the Great Commission. Likewise, people with institutional worldviews have a hard time understanding the value of house churches, since they do not add members to the institutional church.
As important as the health or growth of a congregation might be to its members, it holds little importance when compared to a faithful congregation that takes seriously the Great Commission. Perhaps that is why many of our prayers for the health or survival of our congregations go unheeded. I really doubt if God cares much whether our meager institutions survive, but I do know that God cares about Christians being light, leaven, and salt to the world.
This is not to say that health and growth are unimportant. They are important. Congregations and leaders need to be healthy, and it is good if congregations grow. However, neither is directly correlated to being faithful. Faithful congregations may or may not grow, but they all give themselves away, if necessary, to fulfill the Great Commission. Faithful congregations may not be healthy, but they are faithfully making disciples of Jesus Christ. In the final analysis, all that matters is whether or not we are willing to be on the mission field with Jesus. If we are found there, we are faithful; if not, we are unfaithful.
Excerpted from Unfreezing Moves by Bill Easum. Copyright © 2001 Bill Easum. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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