This is the first of a three-part series by Dan Steigerwald. You can find part two here and part three here.
The number of Christians who have had it with existing forms of church (the Dones) or who claim no religious affiliation at all (the Nones) is on the rise, perhaps eclipsing the 100 million mark in the US alone (Josh Packard, Church Refugees, Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, CO:2015). These growing populations of dechurched and unchurched people present the body of Christ with fresh opportunities to follow Jesus into inventive expressions of church. Though certainly not exhaustive, this list represents what planters and planter coaches commonly identify as key challenges to starting sustainable missional churches.
Challenge 1: Superficial understanding of missional theology and how to practically embody it.
“Missional” has become a trendy adjective used by leaders or churches to describe any outward-focused perspective, posture, or practice in culture. We’re missional simply because we prioritize outreach, do evangelism, engage in good works in the city, invite non-Christians to specialized programs and events, etc. Many leading in the body of Christ have too quickly focused on how to be missional without giving adequate attention to why we ought to be missional in the first place. Or they demonstrate little ability to read their context or to do the patient work required to get an insider’s view of their context. And too often even missional leaders have few real friendships with unbelievers. They do missional things without taking advantage of the reciprocal instruction their neighbors and context offer.
Being missional actually means incorporating perspectives and behaviors that enable us to join Christ, by the Spirit’s leading, in God’s mission for the sake of the world. This requires a long immersion in our host culture that nurtures ongoing curiosity, along with a parallel immersion in the biblical narrative and its missiological threads. Leadership teams must steep themselves in both “sacred texts” (context and Word) to allow God’s heart for the world to be infused into their souls. As part of this identity formation, leaders also need to fathom the depths of the gospel in its relevance to both this life and the one after. The gospel relates to a resurrected, living Christ, first fruits of the new creation who not only redeems but demonstrates a new way to be human.
Each local expression of the body of Christ is meant to be a living extension of Jesus, animated by the Spirit and moving in the world, a world that is bent but nonetheless still sacred and full of God’s activity and glory. Missional is about being gospel-centered in this way, and it requires teams to learn the art of discernment so that missioning and proclamation wisely dovetail with where God is already at work and where God is yet desiring to work. To the extent that teams can both demonstrate and empower people in missional perspectives and behaviors, they will enhance their core group’s capacity to express God’s shalom and to proclaim God’s good news.
Reflection/Coaching Questions: What measures are you taking to infuse a healthy missional theology and lifestyle into your core team and forming community? How will you and your team cultivate a missionary (sending) culture rather than a member (consuming) culture? How will you measure progress?
Challenge 2: Missional activity at the expense of both proclamation and a holistic discipleship stance.
A good number of planting teams adopt social justice and compassion ministries as the measures of success. Or they give undue emphasis to acts of service in the neediest sectors of their city. Making new disciples through the sphere of our natural relationships often plays second fiddle to the ideal of making a visible difference in righting societal wrongs and spheres of neglect/oppression along a certain narrow band. Missional communities must learn practices for holistic apprenticeship under Jesus, which includes much more than operating as rescuers or problem-solvers. And they must not shy away from speaking of Jesus. As Lesslie Newbigin once said, we have to be careful not to mute the gospel’s unique note and become simply another agent of philanthropy joining other social groups in service to society.
Being on mission for Christ means we both proclaim Jesus—giving account for the hope within us, while also cooperatively serving alongside those gifted in evangelism—and also demonstrate as best we can what humanity is intended by God to look like. That word and deed stance takes our ongoing immersion in the gospel story as well as a keen sense of our own story. And it takes discerning hearts to see opportunities to share Christ with those who have yet to hear and with those who have been misinformed or hurt by poor portrayals of the gospel. But we also must live into sane rhythms of life together that develop and feed us as a communal people. For planters, this means respecting life as a journey of ebb and flow, of engagement and disengagement. Missional activism must be counterbalanced by both missional proclamation and lived-out spiritual practices that bring shalom to the souls of the core team. If church planters fail to seek that balance, they risk not only the prospect of few conversions, but the projection of church as a performance treadmill that burns people out. Teams must cultivate shalom from the inside out and from the outside in as they sow shalom in their city.
Core Coaching Questions: What does proclamation or “good-newsing” look like for you and your team (individually, communally)? How does your missioning tie into a healthy, sustainable pattern of discipleship practices that are transformative for your team? How is your activism life-giving for you?
Dan Steigerwald ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a church planter, coach, and author, helping leaders and churches find creative perspectives, processes, and connections that enable them to mature and multiply shalom communities. As a coach, Dan helps planters discern ways of thinking and acting that allow them to naturally embody and express the gospel as local missionaries. Dan has written Grow Where You’re Planted, Growing Local Missionaries, and Dynamic Adventure: A Guide to Starting and Shaping Missional Churches. He and his wife Ann live in Portland, Oregon, where they enjoy spending time with their two daughters and green-minded friends.