Where should we go to church?
How many of your neighbors do you think have asked that question since they have lived in your neighborhood? There was a time not too long ago when it would have been reasonable for most of your neighbors to think about church going as an ordinary part of their week. Many of your neighbors would be active in a local church and even those who weren’t attending anywhere would have some sense that they probably should go to church. There would also be a fair amount of cultural support for participation in church. Youth sports and other activities wouldn’t be scheduled on Sunday mornings, for instance.
But all of that has changed in the past few decades. Now, it would be fairly unusual for more than a few of your neighbors to regularly attend church. Many of your neighbors have probably never given serious thought to going inside a church building other than to attend a wedding or a funeral. For some of them, church is just not on their radar, and for others they may have strong negative associations with church and with church-going people.
I don’t think the fact that so many of our neighbors aren’t interested in church means that God isn’t interested in reaching them with the gospel. And if God is still interested in reaching our neighbors with the gospel, how is He going to accomplish this, if they won’t come to church? Is it possible God wants to use us as a vital part of His strategy?
Most of the strategies to reach people with the gospel I’ve heard over the years have involved creative ways to communicate the message of the gospel. We might try to share our testimony with a neighbor or co-worker. For the more introverted or analytical, we might try giving them a book, or if the opportunity presents itself, we may even get someone to an evangelistic meeting.
I've become convinced that while hearing the message of the gospel is still an indispensible part of every person’s journey to Christ, for an increasing number of people the verbal message alone isn’t enough. In many cases, what's needed is a meaningful encounter with the Christian community in order to help remove barriers and to generate interest in the message of the gospel.
So how do we help our neighbors, who won’t come to church, have a meaningful encounter with the Christian community? That has become, for our church, the most important question of this season of reflection and of refocusing of our mission towards the future.
We haven’t reached any definitive answers yet, and we plan to keep prayerfully asking this question for as long as it takes. But we are becoming convinced that one part of the solution for us is to learn about and experiment with something called missional communities.
Many of the growing churches in our region are employing missional communities as a key aspect of both their discipleship and outreach efforts. Not many of the churches doing so (that we are aware of) are of the Presbyterian persuasion, but one of the things we’ve learned as an ECO church is the best ideas don’t necessarily have to come through the Presbyterian family.
Because there are so many different churches using the missional community concept there are a lot of different understandings of what this concept even means. The way we are using this term goes something like this:
A missional community is a medium-size group of Christians who have together made a commitment to exhibit the Kingdom of God as well as be good news to a particular group of people.
This is our first attempt at a working definition, but we’re still trying to figure out what a missional community really is. We’re pretty sure a missional community is not just a small group that takes on a service component. And we are extremely wary of simply re-creating the social gospel for a new generation.
Our knowledge about this concept is incomplete, but we’re hopeful there's something here that can help us to do a better job at reaching our neighbors with the good news of the gospel. And here’s perhaps the hardest part to swallow: we don’t think that our knowledge about missional communities will become more complete in by reading more books or listening to more testimonies.
We believe the only way we’re going to learn what this looks like for the Church in this context is to give it a shot. Our plan is to see if we can’t convince a few of our members to take the plunge and attempt a 12-week experiment in being a missional community. We’re not absolutely sure we'll succeed and we’re not even sure what success would look like. But we’re excited to find out.
Our hope is that this experiment will help us better understand what a missional community is at an experiential level. But we also hope, through this model, we will help at least a few of our neighbors experience Christian community – even if we can’t convince them to come to church.