As I get to talk to people about the Unbounded Church concept I increasingly become aware that the first thing that needs to take place for them to really understand it is an ‘Unbinding of the Mind’. For centuries, Christendom thinking and practice (and local mission practice when we finally realized we had to do it!) has resulted in frozen imaginations in terms of how church and mission should be done. This issue of thinking is so important in the context of the chronic missional malaise affecting the church today for, to use again one of my favourite (because it is so appropriate) Einstein quotes-
“The significant problems we face CANNOT be solved
at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” (my emphasis)
For improved missional fruitfulness there is an urgent need to reimagine the church. i.e. to think differently. The fact of the matter is that the different and creative missional strategies and practices required will ONLY result from new thinking, in fact a new mindset. My experience is that this mind transformation is what so many church leaders find it so hard to grasp, and for this reason they constantly come up with allegedly ‘new’ missional strategies that are really a re-treading of those used in the 20th century.
Because of the difficulty many have in grasping this mind transformation, a problem that is so damaging to contemporary mission, the following is an attempt to explain some of the key characteristics of the ‘Unbounded Church’ mindset.
A Concept Not a Model
It is often difficult to get people to understand that ‘Unbounded Church’ is a ‘Concept’ NOT a ‘Model’. ‘Unbounded Church’ is not a way of prescribing off the shelf models for people to simply adopt for their context but an umbrella concept that can give birth to an unlimited number of expressions of New Testament ecclesiology (Church). For centuries the western church has operated with a very narrow (Christendom form) ecclesiology which while it is biblically permitted is not biblically required. This worked for centuries in a Christianized society where the primary aim was to maintain the ‘saints’ in Christian congregations. We have not however been for half a century and more in such a society. In fact we are in a ‘pagan land’, a society comprised of a kaleidoscope of tribes for which we need the multitude of ‘models’ that the ‘Unbounded Church’ concept can create and release.
When I am asked about ‘Unbounded Church’ I have lost count of the number of times I am asked for a ‘Model’ i.e. an example to illustrate. However, while I understand that people often need the concrete example (model) to understand the abstract (concept), what preacher wouldn’t, I don’t think starting with the model is necessarily the best way here. This is because ‘Unbounded Church’ is essentially about a ‘new mindset’ a new way of thinking which properly understood can be taken and used to develop models that are actually indigenous to their cultural context. I find that when people are given one ‘Unbounded Church’ created ‘model’ they are tempted to take it like a ready-made suit off the rack and simply, and simplistically, apply it in their context. Whereas what is actually needed is for them to ‘Think’. By which I mean go back to, and think through, first (New Testament) principles and allow God bring about a ‘model’ indigenous to their context, often through a ‘Messy’ Spirit-driven process of what can be called ‘Organic Emergence’.
Where the Wind Will Blow We Do Not Know
As kids growing up one of the games we used to play was blowing Dandelion seeds from the dandelion stalk and seeing how the wind took them. Great fun we thought but not Dad who had just dug half a dozen Dandelion weed plants out of his treasured lawn. However, that blowing in the wind game, where we do not know where the wind will take the seed or which will take root and bear fruit, can I think act as a metaphor for how God transmits the gospel. As Jesus taught us “The wind blows where it will . . . . but you do not know where it comes or where it goes but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”. (John 3:8)
Here we see the differences between what is known as ‘Causation’ (Planned) and ‘Effectuation’ (‘let go and let God’ or ‘suck it and see’) approaches to mission. Most missional strategies are still ‘Causational’, i.e. there is a significant amount of planning that goes into what is done. e.g a church plant involves a period of planning to send a group of Christians, or sometimes an individual, into a particular area in the community, perhaps a school hall, and start a new fellowship there. There may be a lengthy time of preparation, the group may meet in someone’s lounge room for a time perhaps, there will be efforts to achieve a fund-raising target, but then comes the day to publically launch the new fellowship in the selected venue. From the beginning everybody involved has a reasonable clear idea of what they were expecting to happen, indeed they were working to ‘Cause’ a certain thing to happen, this was the ‘Plan’.
Contrast this with a process of ‘Effectuation’, or ‘Let go and let God’. These are new fellowships that come about by a process of ‘organic emergence’ where there was either no original intention to create one, or what developed was not planned but God brought it about. There is also no clear idea as to what the end product will be, only an intention to be loving Christian ‘let go and let God’ Community among the non-Christians around, a winsome community that will ultimately draw people to Christ both by deed and word.
A living example of this is the Harrow Language Café – London – (Anglican). With no intention to start a church, a Christian noticed the growing alienation between her congregation and the surrounding community. She also noticed that a number of women with mostly Muslim backgrounds had poor English skills. So she gathered a team to enter the culture of the ethnic women initially by starting a weekly afternoon tea to which the women were invited to discuss a topic in English. As time went on they put up a prayer board and invited requests which brought in the Christian dimension, and then they developed a Bible study.
There has been much fruit including people coming to faith from this initiative which developed into an Unbounded type ‘church’. It began not as a deliberate church planting initiative but by listening to the needs of the community, then ministering to (serving) them. What then ensued was a God-driven (Let go and let God) process which is easily multiplied, as it has been.
Lest this be seen as some novel light-bulb initiative we should look more closely at how the New Testament church grew. The apostle Paul was clearly a strategic thinker who planned his missional activities which frequently resulted in churches being planted. However, even the great apostle had to accept at times, not always that speedily, that God had other ideas and that he needed to change his plans, including his target audience and location, (e.g. Acts 16:6-10, 18:1-11) and his style (Acts 17:16-33).
But the spread of gospel was not just because of Paul’s church planting strategies but to large extent also due to Christians who were converted in his main mission bases, the major trading and communications centres of Ephesus and Corinth. From there these new gospel -hearted Christians as they continued on their business journeys or returned to their home provinces took the gospel to the far flung reaches of the Roman empire. Paul, like us with the dandelion seeds, had no idea, or control over where they would go or where the gospel seed would settle, root and bear fruit. It was a case of where the Spirit blows and in what context the Spirit would cause the gospel seed to sprout and bear fruit.
So also with expressions of ‘Unbounded Church’ the gospel wilI spread “Where the wind of the Spirit blows”. So missional community gospel ‘seeds’ must be willing to be moved and be changed, even mutate (an article for another day) to places and in ways not expected. This is an ‘Effectuation’ strategy, a case of “let go and let God”.
A problem with most current mission strategies is that they are usually ‘causational’ i.e. are so planned as to what we intend to ‘cause’ to happen that there is little opportunity for the gospel dandelion seed to be blown by the wind of the Spirit. In this way we lock God into a box and do not allow the Spirit to ‘Blow where he will”.
A New Mindset
For a spiritual ‘Dandelion strategy’ to be missionally fruitful requires an ‘Unbinding of the Mind’, a setting free from the mission thinking of yesteryear, still the majority thinking today. Fundamentally, an ‘Unbound Mind’ Lets Go and Lets God!’; it allows the Spirit to dictate where, how, with whom and to whom we do mission as we go. Certainly it will have causational elements as did Paul, but it will allow far more effectuational, organic emergence processes to take place than is currently the case.