by Larry Chouinard
July – August, 2006

After fifteen years of teaching in a Christian university, training men and women for ministry, it was time to leave the insulated world of academia for a more hands-on approach to ministry and Christian education. After all, the church is the cutting-edge institution for engaging culture and modeling an alternative way of life. But all too often the church has uncritically accommodated the dominant culture rather than embodied a mission and identity patterned after the ministry of Jesus.
My family moved to the Northwest to assist in planting churches that intend to replicate Jesus’ incarnational model of missional purpose: a model that plants kingdom outposts in territory currently under siege by the Evil One . . . a model where institutional forms are driven by mission, not ecclesiastical tradition . . . a model that is culturally engaged without being absorbed . . . a model patterned after God’s rescue mission in the world … a model that highlights character, virtue and compassionate deeds as the most effective witness to the kingdom . . . a model where church is not primarily identified by the real estate it owns; rather identity is found in the ethos of a movement.
It was time for me to move from the theory of the classroom to real world engagement. But church as usual would have to be rethought in terms of mission not tradition.
Few would dispute the notion that the broader cultural landscape has grown increasingly unfamiliar and even suspicious of the traditional expression of church in North America. It is not that spirituality is on the decline; it is that a growing segment of our culture no longer associates spirituality with what transpires in most of our church buildings. It may be, as observed by Reggie McNeal, “The North American church is not spiritual enough to reach our culture” (The Present Future, p.27).
Frankly, the modern church has become, in some respects, even more secular than the broader culture. While many may come to church expecting to find God, they instead encounter a religious club tainted with nationalistic symbols and a deep-seated nostalgia for a return to the “good ol’ days.”
As the church is slowly pushed from the center of cultural life to the margins, the modern church has responded by reinventing itself in the image of corporate America. The church has become a sophisticated and highly competent vendor of religious goods and services. By modeling corporate strategies for marketing itself and targeting consumers, churches have become wonderfully adept at attracting large crowds and assimilating them into the life of the church and its programs.
Need more signs as proof of this? Look at our churches that undergo cosmetic and stylistic makeovers such as hymns to praise songs, pews to chairs, ties to sweaters, and foyers to coffee lounges, in hopes of attracting the picky consumer to regularly attend our gatherings and accept our membership package.
Once the consumer opts for club membership, some churches assume that spiritual life happens as members are exposed to polished prime time Sunday events, professionally staffed programs, and facilities that are under constant renovation and expansion to meet the needs of the members. Cultural relevance becomes a code word for an attractional agenda designed to boost our attendance records by getting more people to flock to our services.
Attractional-oriented churches see gathering times as prime time events where their products and services are put on full display in hopes the “unchurched” (I hate this word because the implication is that we should “church” people – can we imagine Christ calling the lost sheep “unchurched”?) will have their consumer demands and needs met. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, in The Shaping of Things to Come, make a valid point:

How much of the traditional church’s energy goes into adjusting their programs and their public meetings to cater to an unseen constituency? If we get our seating, our parking, our children’s program, our preaching, and our music right, they will come. This assumes that we have a place in our society and that people don’t join our churches because, though they want to be Christians, they’re unhappy with the product. (The Shaping of Things to Come, 17)

The church has become all about the big weekend performance. But when the music fades, everyone goes their separate ways, feeling good about their personal experience, but having little awareness of belonging to a faith movement charged with a global mission to retake territories under siege by the evil one.
No doubt many within mainstream suburban America have experienced life changing transformation within these traditional church settings. And, no one disputes that millions throughout the world have been touched by the benevolent care of established affluent churches. But as Western culture becomes more tribal and fragmented by diverse subcultures, mission demands a smaller organic movement that engages the host community (the place in which the church is located) on its own turf and in its own terms.
Within these environments the prepackaged formulas for success often marketed by the large suburban churches seem alien and artificial. As any missionary knows cultural relevance emerges from authentic indigenous practices that naturally reflect the rhythms and organic nature of a community. Programs cannot be imported or artificially imposed on diverse subcultures simply because they worked in suburban America. That’s not to say that large community churches have no important place, given our diverse cultural environment. But, it is to say that their slick and polished attractional model is not the only way of being the body of Christ. Frost and Hirsch, (The Shaping of Things to Come, 211) point out:

Furthermore, the notion that church planting should only reproduce the large church model seriously misreads our culture. The trend is toward “smaller, more diverse, less organized, life-oriented, missional, relational, faith communities, not requiring their own specialized churchy buildings”

Rather than mere cosmetic changes to appear more relevant to a turned off generation, it is time to radically rethink church in terms of our sense of purpose and mission. It is essential that the church realize that it connects to Jesus through emulating his mission, and not through tweaking our services and programs to attract a larger crowd.
Ecclesiastical forms flow naturally out of a sense of mission and not out of the delusions of a pristine age, or a faded memory of the way it used to be. We simply can no longer afford a sentimental addiction to our traditional forms, as if they hold timeless value and importance in the broader scheme of things. We must stop our competitive turf protecting and petty squabbles and align ourselves with God’s redemptive mission in the world.
In short, we need to stop thinking like CEO preachers and church members, and start thinking like missionaries.
Like missionaries we need to understand our cultural environment and not necessarily debate it or orchestrate change as imperialistic foreigners. We seek to engage our cultural context by encouraging the expression of indigenous faith communities, or Kingdom outposts, that witness to an alternative community and way of life. Cultural transformation happens by Christian subversives infiltrating a sub-culture and seeping into the cracks and crevices of a social environment by creative connections and compassionate engagement.
This is a mission rooted not in the pragmatism of marketplace strategy, but in the missional heart of God and our willingness to participate in the redemptive mission of God (missio Dei). God is the first missionary who in Jesus incarnated into a cultural context with all its peculiarities and conventional thought patterns. He entered into our world and embodied a way of life, dress, language, and customs in order to effectively witness to an alternative reality and contextualize God’s love and saving power. It would seem that the missional mode in which God engaged the world would provide the church with the foundational model for sharing and embodying the Good News of God in our modern context.
How can the church begin to understand that mission is not just one of many programs of the church, it is in fact foundational to our relationship with God and his cause in the world? As Darrell Guder points out, the church is to be a “sent people,” hence, “our challenge today is to move from church with mission to missional church” (Missional Church: A Vision for Sending of the Church in North America, 4).
Will God will raise up leadership in traditional churches that exude a theological and cultural sensitivity that would sponsor and support planting churches that may not look like a traditional Western church? More pointedly, can these churches plant churches that don’t look directly like themselves, their own church?
While missionaries know the importance of encouraging the emergence of indigenous faith communities, we may need some cross-cultural mission training for traditional church leaders to sharpen their vision for church planting.
One fallacy deeply rooted in the psychic of most modern church members is the tendency to centralize the sacred into specific times and places. On the one hand, secular forces would privatize faith and confine it to pietistic rituals performed in the confines of designated sacred places (church buildings). Many churches have largely acquiesced by retreating into our church buildings and reinforce the sanctity of brick and mortar with a kind of Temple rhetoric.
What happens to our view of the “church gathered” when sacred space is centered and defined by a person and not by institutional geography? When the operative terms become “incarnational” and “missional” rather than “attendance” and “membership”?
Suppose our strategy for engaging and changing within our cultural context involved the fluidity of a movement whose primary presence was not the real estate we own but the permeating effects of the kingdom, as its message and way of life seeps into the cracks and crevices of society? Churches seem eager to promote an individual spirituality and piety that speaks to personal “felt need” but are strangely silent about how spirituality translates into all aspects of society and with all kinds of people.
We are currently working with a church plant in Spokane, Washington that has deliberately planted in one of the poorer sections of the city. While we intend to be “salt and light” in the community, our involvement with lives on the margins has enabled us to experience true spirituality.
Serving in this missional church plant alongside homeless people, addicts, “social nobodies” certainly has opened our eyes to the varied forms of social injustice (e.g., institutional greed, racism, poverty, and the plight of various groups marginalized by social pressure and oppression). When you are in the trenches with those oppressed by violence and the tyranny of evil you take seriously the importance of hospitality, generosity, and peacemaking. Also, you realize that our battle is against what Paul calls the “principalities and powers” and not against “flesh and blood.” When your mission involves those recovering from addiction, incarceration, and sexual promiscuity you learn the lessons of patience and forgiveness. Jesus embodied a holiness that touched the lepers and cared for the unclean. How can his people aim for any less?
So while the suburban churches are doing a lot of good, they are only reaching a small selected minority in our culture with the life changing message of Jesus. Planting missional churches infused with a DNA for the reproduction of likeminded churches is fundamental to the organic nature of the church. The intentional engagement of the varied subcultures emerging in our fragmented society is fundamental to the vision of a missional church.
Once we realize that the church connects to Jesus through mission and not the precision of our doctrinal understanding or how full our church calendar is, we then become an externally driven church and not an internally preoccupied church. Rather than just shuffle believers around between churches we need radically committed believers who are willing to leave their comfort zone and engage diverse subcultures with a message of hope and grace.
It’s time we come out from our stain glass barricades and engage the world like Jesus did.New Wineskins
More on Missional Church
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003).
Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for Sending of the Church in North America, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998).
Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

Larry ChouinardLarry Chouinard is the preaching/teaching minister in a new church plant in Spokane, WA (River Christian). He taught New Testament and Greek for fifteen years at Kentucky Christian University. He authored the College Press NIV Commentary on Matthew, and was one of the editors and contributors for a collection of essays on Christian ethics, Christian Ethics: The Issues of Life and Death (College Press, 2003). Larry is married (Janet) and has two children and currently lives in Post Falls, Idaho. Reach him at [].

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