I have long hated the mantra ‘From maintenance to mission.’ I think the only reason that is has succeeded is because of its alliterative appeal (which does demonstrate the power of rhetoric). But a moment’s thought about this tired phrase will tell you: if we don’t maintain our church communities, what do we have to invite people to as part of our mission? It’s a bit like inviting the neighbours to your house for dinner and then having no food to offer them because you spent all your time on the act of invitation.
So I was delighted to read the latest Grove booklet on Mission and Evangelism (a change of title from Evangelism in partnership with CMS) The Forgotten Factor: Placing Community at the Heart of Mission in which Mark Berry and Philip Mounstephen of CMS explain why building church community is an essential aspect of mission.
For both of us, as people committed to mission, community—as a concept and a commitment—is not an optional extra or an adjunct. For us both it is essential, not least because we are both members of the Church Mission So- ciety community, a community whose members commit themselves to live a life of mission. If the mission of God is the calling of the church of God then community and mission cannot be separated. And yet so often they have been. The (mainly western) image of the evangelist as the lone hero has not helped. To neglect community is to weaken our mission.
After recounting their own experiences of the importance of community in ministry and mission, they look at some of the key theological and biblical foundations for putting community high on the mission agenda.
Genesis studiedly and deliberately relates the creation of man as male and female to the nature of God himself, with the distinct suggestion that the complementarity of the sexes is necessary in order fully to reflect the imago dei (Gen 1.27). Being in community is essential if the divine likeness is to be fully expressed. God only pronounces one thing not good before the fall. It is not good for the man to be alone: he needs community. And that community expands in response to the divine injunction to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ (Gen 1.28). The story of Israel in the OT is a community story. It is a family history flowing from the marriage of Adam and Eve, through the story of the patriarchs, into the exodus, through the time of the judges, the kings, the exile and the return. All that is a family, a community, story.
It is now widely accepted that the old idea that the New Testament is much more individualistically focused than the Old—a conviction probably fuelled by Reformation concerns about individual justification by faith—has been largely discredited. Indeed the NT is firmly communal in its outlook. From the start Jesus is in the business of building community as he gathers a ragtag group of people, often intentionally remodelling the community of Israel around him, as in the choosing of 12 disciples. Community is central to Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom: ‘Jesus presents us with a dream (embodied in the group image ‘kingdom of God’) that is irreducibly communal, familial and social…It is a dream of a community vibrant with life, pulsating with forgiveness, loud with celebration, fruitful in mission…a substantial city whose streets bustle with life, whose buildings echo with praise, a city aglow with the glory of community.’
Jesus’ instinct is always to include and he castigates the Pharisees for exclud- ing people from the community. And that challenging instinct to include is what ultimately leads him to the cross. But of course it is, ironically, through the cross that the community of grace becomes truly inclusive, including ultimately not only Jews, but gentiles too.
And key to their (Mark’s and Philip’s) conviction is not simply that God is concerned with building community—but that this building of community is part and parcel of the focus on mission, on looking outward and drawing others in to this new sense of community. Indeed, it is the community itself which is distinctive and part of the appeal of mission.
We can see this critical connection between community and mission in particularly sharp focus in Acts 2.42–47. There is a direct connection between this snapshot of the edgling Christian community we see at the end of Acts 2 and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we hear described in the opening verses of that chapter. Indeed, in the light of the gift of the Spirit this description of the edgling church is much more than a snapshot: it is a blueprint; this is what Christian community formed and shaped by the Holy Spirit is supposed to look like.
In the last half century or so much discussion about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, at least in the western church, has focused on the gifts the Spirit gives us individually. And there have been good reasons why there has been that focus. But the first manifestation of the ministry of the Spirit coming out of the events of Pentecost is that a community is formed. The Holy Spirit creates a community in which, unsurprisingly, the fruit of the Spirit are very much in evidence. This is a place of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5.22, 23). The Holy Spirit creates a community of devotion both to God and to each other; a place in which belonging mattered much more than having: a true community of the Spirit.
The middle chapter of the booklet offers a fascinating exploration of the role of community in the two main mission structures that correspond to the local church in the NT and the missionary bands that continued to exercise apostolic ministry (you will have to buy the booklet to read that!), after which the authors turn to the heart of the problem: the forgotten factor in many local churches.
Back in 1995 Robert Warren, in Building Missionary Congregations, talked about three vital dimensions of church life: worship, community, and mission, which he expressed in a Venn diagram as three overlapping circles: circles which equate to the upwards, inwards and outwards dynamics of the life of the church. It was very helpful to find community given equal weight with the other two elements. Robert’s main (and very valuable) focus, however, was to encourage us to focus on the crucial intersection between them, where he located a congregation’s spirituality.
However, this begs the question as to whether this is in fact an accurate reflection of reality in many churches. In many churches (though clearly not all) worship, community and mission are seriously out of balance. In an increasingly consumer-orientated culture, churches are often obsessed with what happens on Sunday. And many members are obsessed with whether or not what happens on Sunday meets their expectations. This obsession is not limited to any one tradition: it is true of charismatic churches for whom the quality of the (sung) worship will be critical; it is true of Anglo-catholic churches where Mass must be done ‘correctly’ and it is true of conservative evangelical churches where so much depends not just on the quality, but also on the style, of the preaching.
For any who doubt this perhaps rather harsh summary, reflect on these two facts. Churches never split over their mission policy, but they frequently have over the nature and style of Sunday worship. Secondly, an analysis of how clergy spend their time will almost certainly reveal that many spend significantly more of their time preparing for the Sunday event than they do investing in the other two circles.
The problem with the model above is not only the neglect of community; it is also the isolation of mission. Mission, in this model, is simply one activity of the life of the church, and not really integral to that life. It is something members of the church community are expected to do, and those members often feel guilty for not engaging in it as they should. The task we face is to bring these three circles back into balance. Our conviction is that we need to focus far more on our identity as community, and invest in that, taking Acts 2.42–47 as our blueprint (including making sure we spend plenty of time eating together). To do so is not to leave mission in outer orbit. If we invest in community and enlarge that circle then the greater gravitational pull of the community will draw mission back from the margins into the centre.
The final chapter looks at the essential elements of developing a community of grace that has strong relationships but retains an outward-looking focus. It is a fascinating read, and essential for anyone thinking about leadership and mission in the local church.
You can buy the booklet post-free (in the UK) from the Grove website.
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