In the process of promoting Unbounded Church type Missional Communities, I get to talk with many church leaders. It is a privilege to share in their struggles in missional endeavour and perhaps to give some encouragement, but often also a great frustration. This is because, despite a common passion to see the lost won for Christ, the methods used mostly amount to a continuing perseverance under the “More and Better” delusion that I have written about elsewhere on this site. This is the continuation of more of the same failing missional strategies (mostly 20th century) we have been using for a long time, but trying to do them better.
One of the reasons for the general missional malaise of the western church can I think be illustrated by the experience of going shopping. In times gone by a serious shopping expedition would have meant going to the nearest town centre where there was a whole array of specialist shops all selling different things. In order to fill our shopping list, we would have to go into many shops, no one shop would provide all our needs. Worse than that sometimes the shops or service providers were at different locations which would also extend the time and effort required to get all we needed.
Compare this with shopping today where we can go to the ‘One Stop Shop’ large Shopping Centre in which we can get all our requirements under one roof, from outlets that are close together and do it all in a short time period.
The relevance of the shopping analogy to our missional task can be illustrated using the Missional Process required for the church to regain its missional fruitfulness-i.e.
• Connection – With non-Christians and building relationships
• Gathering – Them into a Community so they Belong
• Discipling them – Teaching them “everything Jesus taught” i.e. the
Bible, so they “Believe”, AND where the life of a disciple can be modelled by the group.
• Multiplying – The community- without which it will be
impossible to reverse the now chronic trend of church decline.
The missional strategies still being used by most churches aim at the same process but can be likened to the trip to the Town Centre shops i.e. a series of semi-disconnected events (Shops, sometimes quite a way apart). There is firstly ‘Connecting’ with the non-Christian community which is achieved by varieties of invitational events, these may either be on the church property or at some community location. At such events there will be some form of gospel presentation or at least the handing out of Christian literature with information on, and an invitation to take, the next step if people want to know more.
This next step will more often than not be to attend a course on basic Christianity. This might be called the ‘Gathering’ stage. However, this will be at another ‘Shop’ if you like, at another location and time, and probably with people they don’t know. There is immediately a built in disconnect in the process and the temptation to opt out is an easy one to take.
If however, a person does decide to attend the Christian basics ‘Shop’ and wishes to continue afterwards, they may then be invited to visit a Bible study or home fellowship group (another ‘Shop’) where they can be ‘Discipled’. However, this will again be at another time and place and probably with a different set of people to the Christian basics group. So this step presents yet another set of obstacles the interested person is required to negotiate, with another opportunity to ‘exit’ the process.
The invitation to join the home fellowship group may be accompanied by, or followed by, an invitation to go along to a Sunday ‘Shop’ i.e. a ‘Church’ service. This will be at yet another time and place and once more with mostly different people, and puts another obstacle in place, with the ‘exit’ option easy to take.
I write this from the perspective of many frustrating years of personal experience which has repeatedly illustrated the difficulty of getting people from ‘shop to shop’ in the process.
It is certainly true that if enough people actually do complete that journey then multiplication of the church can happen. However, the statistics on church attendance over the last 20 years or so show this to be a quite limited event and certainly not even remotely frequent enough to reverse the trends of decline. I would suggest a major reason for this is the built in ‘disconnects’ between the stages in the process and the ‘easy to take’ exit opportunities such a process involves.
In contrast to that is the ’Missional Community’ (MC) strategy, which is more like the large ‘Shopping Centre’ or ‘One Stop Shop’ experience where everything is done at the same time and location. Such communities meet in the public domain (or at least where the non-Christians are e.g. a Playgroup where the ‘Connect’ and ‘Gather’ stages are already achieved). By meeting in the public domain on a regular (preferably weekly) basis connections are more naturally made with those who are the ‘regulars’ in that space. Over the course of time they can be invited to join the Community, or will join naturally, as does happen, without the need to actually be asked. As newcomers are welcomed into the Missional Community they can be Discipled.
All of this does not involve the disconnects or the exit opportunities that the traditional type process does. Further the person joining the MC stays in the same group with the same people, at least until the multiplication stage is reached, thus the repeated ‘meeting a new set of strangers’ obstruction is removed. This, while there is most certainly no guarantee, does help the missional process to be smooth, in part because of the built in continuity of relationships, with a higher probability that the person involved will ‘stay the course’.
The traditional evangelism process worked much more effectively in the past in a society which still had a basically Christian world view (even though church attendance was declining) where the whole ‘church thing’ was not so alien to general members of society. This meant that they were much more able to navigate the built in ‘disconnects’ in the ‘Town Centre shops’ experience of several usually geographically and chronologically separate activities and events, and less likely to take one of the ‘exits’ that provides.
Now however, in a time when non-Christians live in socio-spiritual parallel universes alien to the ‘church’ universe such a non-relational process provides significant obstructions to the completion of the journey into discipleship.
In contrast, a Missional Community of whatever form is a spiritual ‘one stop shop’ shopping centre experience. In this any of the multitude of types that the Unbounded Church concept can spawn, all of the components of the missional process, from Connection to Multiplication, are carried out in the same place, at the same time and largely with the same people. Thus, most of the disconnects are removed and exit opportunities, because of the ‘glue’ of relationships built in the community, are minimized. Thus the ‘contact’ person is more likely to ‘stay the course’, and become a true disciple of Jesus-at which the ‘Angels in Heaven’ rejoice!
This argument that, while both the ‘Town Centre shops’ and the ‘Large Shopping Centre’ aim to lead a nonbeliever through the same process, the former which worked well in the last century, contains too many inbuilt obstacles for most to complete the journey. Whereas, the highly flexible Missional Community strategy removes most of those obstacles, and is more likely, in this time of serious church decline, to bear the desperately needed Kingdom fruit.