Wednesday, January 27, 2016

10 Things Your Church Is Doing Wrong In Mission. But You Won't Believe What Happens Next!

I've always wanted to write one of those outrageous "clickbait" style articles. This resolution from earlier this year has now been achieved. :)

I find the clickbait articles usually have some truth in them. Often I'm appalled at the simplicity of the title; I must click to see what they are talking about. Usually there will be one or two items that are strong and cause me to nod in agreement. Sometimes it seems like they just set off a bomb!

Hopefully my attempt at clickbait will offer some points to consider as you and your church assess how you do mission, who you involve, and put on the table some of the unspoken issues that seem to be lurking in many congregations. I DON'T want you to agree, or to discount, but hope you and your team will get into conversation and prayer, and reflect more deeply on who you are as a church in God's mission. I'm involved with hundreds of Methodist congregations, so this isn't from any one church, but reflects common themes from discussions I am having every day.

Here are 10 things your church is doing wrong in mission!

1. "I don't have the skills to be in mission."
Over the years I can't tell you how many times someone has asked, "I don't have construction or medical skills, so what would you do with me?" You can see it in many people's eyes as they glaze over, or retreat to some "happy place," when they fear I'm going to ask them to do something. Somehow the church has made being partners with God in the mission about our "doing" rather than about our "being." We've made it specialized and can easily give the impression that not everyone has the necessary skills. Of course, the wonderful truth is that we are called to follow Jesus, to share who we are, and to express an incarnational ministry like that of Christ. So, everyone has the skills to love God and love neighbor. Everyone, no matter the age or stage, is skilled enough to be part of God's team and partner in community. This can be both a church focus and a personal lifestyle.

2. "I'm not good enough to be on a mission team."
Now, I've only heard this from church friends who really trust me. I suspect it may be a sentiment that is more pervasive than we'll ever know. A friend in college referred to this as SSHC: Super Special Heavy Christian. Being in the mission of God isn't about being good enough to serve. Rather, it's making ourselves available; we become vulnerable and risk getting out of our comfort zone. I have had a few adults tell me this is really the issue. Adults like to have our organized, controlled, routinized world (whatever that may look like in our experience). The advantage for a church can be embracing what it means to be church for one another and for others beyond an hour or two on Sunday. It can also be a way of validating the "gifts and graces" of everyone within earshot of the congregation as we need everyone involved to begin to express God's love for the world. So, be honest, authentic, practical, and show that in real ways. This isn't polished Christianity, but everyday life in community with Jesus and people.

3. "Missions is about projects."
Don't most people talk about "missions," and then the conversation becomes about making sandwiches, or swinging a hammer, or going to some "poor" place and offering a medical clinic. Many churches are captivated by a WASPish (remember the White Anglo Saxon Protestant church ethic and value system) rather than a missional practice based in scripture and faith. This old approach is too loaded with colonial, institutional stereotype. So, the typical 10-20% of "do-gooders" in a church might make "missions" happen (refer to the earlier two entries to see where these problems feed each other). The rest of us aren't interested, or don't have the time or skills, or it's not a priority, or it doesn't stand out from the good we do through other organizations. Fact is, many clergy steer well clear of mission defined in these ways, and let laity do what they wish as long as it doesn't create any problems for the congregation (almost anything goes!). But, the fact is that this approach is a dead end road and a frail program in contrast to what could be an engaging church culture and Methodist Christian lifestyle. Mission of God is about people and not projects. Learning to be servants following the example of Christ is still an experiment worthy of Methodist individuals and churches.

4. "Missions isn't my calling." 
This is so biblically and theologically bankrupt I'm not even sure where to start! But I understand it if your experience looks more like the previous statements. It's really our fault as we've created a consumer-oriented style church in the last 20 years which defines "missions" as doing. So, we create a variety of "programs,' i.e. ministry areas that people dearly love and protect. The problem becomes that we can easily create "silos" as areas of the church become compartmentalized, and as our individual practices may focus on one area and not another. This leads to some folk staying in Bible study or prayer, and perhaps never getting involved in mission and outreach. Or we suppose you've got to have a certain size church with a missions department to do it right. Do you see the problem in all of this? To follow Christ is to be in the mission of God; to be the Church, as the Body of Christ, is to be a sent church, a going out church, a missional church. Read the baptismal and eucharist liturgy, read Scripture, read your Methodist history, and know that to be in the mission of God is our calling as individuals and as a congregation.

5. "Mission is about the past and not the future."
The missio Dei, this mission of God that the church/Church is called to be, has potential to be the leading edge of church life. It has the opportunity to be the Church active in the world, living in the way Christ taught and modeled, instead of merely continuing the "last chapter" of the various church ministries and projects. While long term partnerships aren't bad, we can get "stuck" in relationships, priorities, energy, funding, etc. to the point that we forget the big calling, the ultimate goal. We get trapped in the past, and can't continue the adventure in loving God and loving neighbor today. Mission ought to be the area of church that blazes the trail into the future! If you look over your mission partnership list can you track the years/decades? How many slots are new or are free to focus on what the church is becoming? It is scary, and risky, and a great adventure to follow Christ today and tomorrow. Many churches may be better off if we called a Jubilee year, discontinued the mission committee and all of our "doing," and established a few missional priorities tied into the core of the current church priorities which lean strongly into who the church is called to be tomorrow.

6. "Mission is about our relationships."
This element has some potential. Yet it only works if we focus on loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Instead, too many churches make mission about a committee, or a person or organization that is supported, or replicating some project or "our" relationships. Our projects can quickly become a goal unto themselves. "If we don't support this it will die." "We need to continue this to honor brother/sister SoAndSo's memory." "If we don't continue this project brother/sister SoAndSo will leave the church." The mission of God has the potential to create multiple lanes of connection between the church and community. Mission can be a wonderful way to get church folk out of the building and into life! It can be a way of creating new relationships which help church people know individuals in their community, and for community people to find their place in the life of a church. This missional approach flings open the doors of a "closed system" church as the congregation expresses what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world, and as we become active in our community in redemptive ways. Mission will help your church get "unstuck" as you grow your world and your relationships. And, do note, this isn't a "one way street" of service as it creates healthy movement of a vibrant church within the community context.

7. "If only we could get more people involved."
Often the mission champions who favor a certain project or group, and dearly love their particular project/group are the "mission team." It is likely they even have a "uniform" and play certain positions on the team (mission t-shirt anyone?). Ever been to a mission committee meeting where it seems like everyone has a primary function to advocate for their favorite group? You may sense an awkward tension, or a sense of alliances and truce between various players. Even worse you may soon hit an impasse as folk advocate for their group and fail to embrace the larger missio Dei at work in church in community. Then we wonder why we can't get anyone else "involved," i.e. doing the things we love, want to continue, and want done like we want done. Let's discontinue the typical approach to a missions committee, the old expectations, and the old practices. Perhaps we'll find benefit in ceasing all the current partnerships, and listen more closely today to God and our neighbors in the community. Is there a movement at work, or does there need to be, in our community? As we read Scripture about the present salvation, and delve more deeply into our community, what are the priorities the Spirit is expressing for our congregation for us to love God and love neighbor? Now, how do we encourage that movement as church and community welcome such Good News and the messengers who make this a reality?

8. "I don't want to give to another special offering or make another sandwich!"
OK, I'm just sharing what I often hear and not trying to be hurtful! While there is definitely a place for our church to also be part of the Church (think response to natural disaster or deploying global missionaries) there is a danger that we make mission too small and meaningless a thing. If we make it too easy, too common, it can lose its priority (how many mission offerings does your church take up in a year? How many groups want your members as volunteers?). Where is the balance between a missional lifestyle of an individual and a congregation's focus upon the most necessary of priorities? I've heard this from church leaders- both laity and clergy- expressed in a variety of churches and said in a few different exasperated ways. Too many churches and denominations have gone through a time of mission either becoming a thing the experts do or something that only asks for a minimal exertion or funding. We should avoid the congregation becoming a funding and volunteer mechanism for all the outside groups. Our priority is for the church, and all the members and constituents, to be deeply engaged in following Christ in mission. Once upon a time church members were willing to write a check and have an agency handle business. Many congregations are finding a joy and usefulness calling every member to follow Christ in the mission of God; this likely means filtering out the scores of options and giving sharp focus to a personally engaged mission. This approach revitalizes worship, discipleship, prayer, and the focus of the entire congregation. As we reclaim the mission of God for the church in our community we will find opportunities to grow in love of God and love of neighbors in dynamic, transformational ways.

9. "Missions at our church is a mile wide and an inch deep."
Many churches seem to have far too many funding and volunteer opportunities which aren't directly related to the current priorities of the church. How many churches have 20, 30, or 40 mission partners? Perhaps a little funding here, and a little there, and occasional activities are the way we  once kept more people involved. In fact, it's as if every "do-gooder" deed and organization are on equal footing. As if we need more stuff to keep us busy! So, the local food drive, Habitat for Humanity, any and every sort of collection imaginable, and any other group needing funding or volunteers- or who have an advocate in a congregation- might all be viewed on the same level. Even the great variety of denominations and para-church groups might be viewed as equal. What?! It;s just too much noise that confuses and not enough depth. I'm shocked that some of the organizations supported are at times adversarial to Methodist and United Methodist groups! Not everything can be a priority nor essential to the core of a particular congregation. In many respects the church has been through a time when the role was to do good, and to do as many things as members brought forward to do. While I wouldn't advocate a "green light" to everything approach I wouldn't say "red light" everything either. But we are living in a different time, and the strength of the church demands a certain focus and teamwork today. We typically have older congregations, with fewer resources of funding and people, and need a "laser focus" on mission. We must claim a more strategic approach to being a church in mission.

10. "Our church is dying- or full of old people, or fill in the excuse- and we can't be in mission!"
This is one of the greatest paradoxes. As a church dies to itself it might be resurrected. As a congregation gives up selfish ways, and becomes servant of the neighborhood and world, there may be new life. As we yield what we have done to what we may become in Christ, we accept a new "script" for mission with new approaches. When a church deepens a life of outward living, rather than inward living, new relationships may be forged. Of course, human nature recommends we close ranks, preserve our resources, do what we know to do, and avoid risk. The mission of God calls us to follow the way of Christ, depend upon one another and Holy Spirit, and live as a new creation of God. This is easy to say and tough to live! Too many churches don't have much of a connection to their neighborhood or community. A church, or Sunday School class, or mission team, can easily become like a small club stuck in time. We become more isolated. Our numbers dwindle. We don't know our neighbors and don't know how to create new relationships. We have lost momentum and look back to some supposed "glory years." We don't know how to be church in the world today with the neighbors that are here. But if the missio Dei is to love God and love neighbor, we'll take on the adventure again and follow Christ in our community. Maybe we can learn from our neighbors. Could it be possible that through them God might bring new life to our congregation? Our great legacy may occur as we become a bridge in creating a new congregation through the relationships we grow in our community through mission.

As the church becomes more aware of the 10 things we are doing wrong in mission we may find greater opportunities to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. And you, and your community, will be amazed at what happens next! 

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