The Empty-Hands Approach to Being a Missional Church

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Emil Brunner famously said this in the 1930s: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” In other words the very essence of the church is to be mission. Just as a fire that is no longer burning is no longer a fire, so too a church that is no longer living out the mission of God is no longer a church.

Unless you’ve been asleep for years and just now woken up, then you should know that Churches of Christ in many places are in grave danger of going extinct. Our churches are already fractured. Some have died or are dying. Others are in denial or shock about what is happening. It’s quite likely that within the next 30 years, we won’t be talking about how to reignite mission in Churches of Christ because there will be nothing left outside a few places in the Bible Belt.

We have some major obstacles that prevent us from seeing the mission of God, much less living it out today in our own contexts. One of our biggest problems is the good old days. The great generation that built our churches and Christian institutions in the 1950s, 60s & 70s are still in control of many churches today. While we owe them all a debt of gratitude just for the fact that we exist, that generation’s instinctual way of “doing church” runs counter to the changes necessary for reimagining and reigniting our mission for the world. Their style of “mission” worked back in the 50s and 60s. They’re not to be blamed for wanting what they know to have been good. But the world has changed. Their ways no longer work as they once did.

To be candid, I think that generation knows something isn’t right. Most of them admit that change is needed. For the most part they are tired and want someone else to take the baton. I feel confident that they are mostly willing to bless our efforts if we can offer a compelling enough vision of the future to win their trust. I’ve been blessed to discover that kind of trust at the College Church in Fresno, but even there I have to play a careful balancing act at times.

But what exactly is the vision that we need? And what is it that holds us back? Metaphorically speaking, we have become prisoners of the institutions that once sustained us. I’m primarily speaking of the expensive and maintenance-hungry church properties and infrastructure that once supported us, and in some cases still do. They create for us an inward-focused anxiety that beckons to the pride of those who built them and cause perplexed bewilderment among those who are young or new. We end up with hand-wringing and nervous members, wondering how to support our growing need for professional worship services and youth ministries. We fret over roof repairs and technology upgrades. We furrow our brows because our marquee is outdated and our website is cumbersome. Preachers spend countless hours on blogs, podcasts and staff pow-wows to maintain and grow what we have. We have coffee bars, slick bulletins and greeters, all to welcome people into our churches—even though they arrive only in trickles, if at all.

But this exhausting effort lacks one major thing. It lacks a sense of the missional call of God to GO and to DEPEND on unknown sources to complete the mission to which we have been called. We are trying to do it all on our own with resources we can quantify. The fire is ceasing to burn, and we wonder why.

Luke 10:1-12 is a foundational text for many who are trying to reimagine and reignite the church’s mission in North America. There are so many things to notice about this text. You could read it a dozen times and focus on different aspects each time. Many communities that utilize a practice called dwelling in the word, a form of Lectio Divina, often use this passage over and over again.

Notice with me several key elements of Luke 10. And let’s compare them to our approach today. First, Jesus sent his disciples out empty-handed. They had no supplies. You might say they will ill-equipped or even unprepared for their mission. It sounds entirely irresponsible to my mind. But it’s how Jesus sent out his disciples: empty-handed. How do we typically approach our communities and our neighbors? Do we display a spirit of humility and collaboration? Or do we act as paternalistic benefactors who believe that we have the answers to their questions? Jesus didn’t send out his followers with tracts, with food for the homeless, or even with plans of salvation. He sent them empty-handed.

Second, you’ll notice that Jesus told them to find a place of peace and dwell there. They weren’t to flit from one place to the next. Rather they were to trust that the first place they were well received was a place to dwell. Our view of evangelism causes us to totally miss Jesus’ instructions. We think it’s our job to create a place of peace that people want to come to. This is the institutional version of church that we’ve inherited: we make a peaceful place and folks will want to come. While it’s true that every now and again someone wanders in and finds that to be true, overall our growth isn’t keeping up with the death rate in our churches. You could argue that our places just aren’t peaceful enough. But I think the better explanation is that we aren’t following the instructions of Jesus. He told his followers to “go on your way” and find places of peace as you go. He was sending them among people who weren’t yet his followers. To make it clear, there are people of peace in our world today who do not yet follow Jesus Christ. We are to go, find them, accept their hospitality and camp out in their lives. Some people think this means you go and hang out among the homeless and underprivileged. If you have a heart for that and the courage to go do it, I applaud you. But it could simply mean that you find a family of foreigners, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or the gay couple on the corner. We are to find people of peace and intertwine ourselves in their lives. How might this transform our institutional concerns? If we obey Jesus in this, I don’t think we’ll sell or desert our church buildings. But it will totally change the function for which we deem them necessary.

Third, Jesus instructed them to bring the Kingdom of God near. They weren’t to disguise the fact that they were emissaries of God’s Kingdom. As a matter of fact, they were to do things that demonstrated God’s love: specifically, “cure the sick,” Jesus said. Do ministry, but do it out in the lives of people in the world. Our church engines are geared for ministry, but primarily on our terms and in our property. The good news of this text is that, even among those who eventually reject the compassionate ministry of God’s Kingdom, our work among them—when actually done among them—brings them closer to the Kingdom. And isn’t that what our mission is all about? To bring the Kingdom nearer to the people around us?

How can mission be reignited once again in our churches? If we start with the simple and empty-handed approach of Luke 10, we just might learn some important lessons. We might learn about our over-reliance on the “stuff” of our church life. We might also learn about the world in which we live. And finally and perhaps most importantly, we might learn about the Lord who sends us out and who provides for us in amazingly abundant ways.

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