Jesus. Love. God. All great one-word messages for the church. Hard to argue against those.
If I had one word for the church, though, it would be something else. Yes, we need Jesus. Yes, we ought to be defined by love. Yes, our allegiance has to be to God above all other powers. I don’t disagree.
As for me, I’d sum up our most basic need with one word. Mission. Most churches have no actual mission. They don’t know what they stand for, if anything. Too many churches have nebulous or outdated reasons for existing, and folks rightly don’t know what to do. What’s missing is a sense of mission.
Does your church know what its mission is? Are you living for the sake of God’s mission? Are you partnering in a meaningful way with God’s work in this world?
My all-time favorite movie is The Princess Bride. The movie’s hero is Westley, a farm-boy turned pirate turned rescuer for the beautiful Princess Buttercup. At one point Westley is murdered by the villain, Prince Humperdinck. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes takes place when Westley’s lifeless body is carried to the home of Miracle Max. In order to foil Humperdinck’s evil schemes, they need Miracle Max to work a miracle and bring Westley back to life.
Lacking the money to properly pay for the miracle, they appeal to Miracle Max’s sense of justice. “It’s a very noble cause,” they tell him. Max is rightly skeptical. He blows air into the lungs of Westley’s “mostly-dead” body and asks him, “Hello in there! Hey, what’s so important? What you got here that’s worth living for?” Westley’s answer, “True love,” sets off a firestorm of events that lead to the movie’s climax. True love is the defining reason for Westley’s eventual triumph. The unadulterated power of true love is the force that drives them.
What about you and your church? Is there one clear purpose that is driving you? What’s so important? What you got here that’s worth living for?
Churches of Christ used to have a clear sense of purpose: save pseudo-Christians from their incorrect doctrine. We were good at it. We knew without a doubt that everyone who didn’t do things the right way (as in, our way) was going to hell. And this desire to save our friends, family members and neighbors funded our clear mission to get people baptized and into our church.
I thank God that most of us have moved on from that sectarian, narrow-minded way of viewing the church. I’m glad so many of us have deconstructed the legalism of our past. We’re a healthier people now with a more robust view of God and a humbler stance toward other Christian traditions. But in throwing out our old mission, many of us have failed to grab onto a new, life-giving purpose for why we’re here. Is it therefore any wonder that so many of our churches are struggling?
I used to work for a great church with a longstanding, clear sense of mission. Since its inception, that church focused on reaching out to the nearby state university. Nearly everything the church did centered on college students, on the university itself or on some variation therein. The church had other ministries and plenty of members who had nothing to do with the university, but this one mission funded the church’s identity.
When I started working there, the mission had been drifting for some time. Some families wanted more emphasis on youth ministry. Other, long-time members were embarrassed that the church building was too small and old. A few wished for better outreach in the community as a whole. And perhaps most importantly, the campus ministry itself had changed. The university was far more secular, and kids who came from sister churches throughout the state were warned about this campus-ministry church because it was somewhat “progressive.” All these combined to produce a church that no longer understood its mission or was at odds internally over what that mission was. It’s little wonder that the church began to struggle.
When a church’s mission dies, a church doesn’t have to die with it, but it’s a clear warning sign. How does a church reignite its sense of mission? How does a singular purpose arise from the ashes of an old, dying mission? The reemergence of a life-giving mission will take years.
Here’s how it won’t happen. It can’t “be decided upon” at a leadership retreat. A committee of get-‘er-done church members can’t just hash this thing out. Writing out a mission statement isn’t what is required here. Saying that your church loves God, loves people and loves the world is awfully sweet, but that says nothing.
There’s no magic wand to discovering your church’s mission. Instead, you have to develop the skills of listening to God, to each other and to the world around you. As you listen, pray that the Lord of the harvest will bring forth workers into his harvest. Remember, it is God’s harvest. The church is God’s. The mission is God’s. Your job isn’t to create the mission, the church or the harvest. Your job is to discern what God is up to and to join God in that work.
This will take time, years in fact. I recognize that some churches don’t have years. I also realize how much pain you will experience as you go through the wilderness toward a clear understanding of God’s work in and through your church.
But you must start the work today by realizing the one thing you need above all else. You need to understand God’s mission and start the movement toward partnering with it. You can love God, love each other and love the world till you’re blue in the face, but it will be meaningless until you can imagine exactly what that looks like. Do you exist for your neighborhood? Is an orphanage in Haiti your main focus? Or is it your job to rescue Christians broken by other churches? Why are you where you are, doing what you’re doing with the resources God has given you?
Does your church know what its mission is? Are you living for the sake of God’s mission? Are you partnering in a meaningful way with God’s work in this world? I pray that when the Lord works his miracle of new life in your church and asks what you’ve got that’s worth living for, I pray that you’ll have an answer.