Saturday, August 02, 2008

Becoming a Missional People

Matthew 28:16-20

I know that not everyone here is a Simpson’s fan, but I am! I’ve come to love this TV family, especially the father – Homer Simpson. Homer is the proverbial couch potato, who’s content with his lot in life, and while he goes to church, he doesn’t take it too seriously. In fact, he’s more at home in front of the TV than anywhere else. You could say that he’s more of an observer of life than an active participant. And if you think about it, there’s something attractive about that lifestyle – just kicking back and letting life come to you. But, while Homer’s lifestyle seems attractive, is it a truly Christian one?

This congregation has been asking the question – for some time: What does it mean to be a missional congregation? You were exploring this idea even before I got here, but now it’s time to really get serious about not only the discussion but taking active steps to become such a congregation, that is, if this is what God would have us do.

Although I don’t think that Homer Simpson would feel all that comfortable in a truly missional congregation, especially if what it means to be mission is defined at all by those active verbs in Matthew 28, perhaps even he might feel the nudge of the Spirit and embrace Jesus’ call to do these five things: Go, Make, Baptize, Teach, and Remember.

As we explore these five words, there is another text that we need to keep in mind. In Luke 10 we see Jesus sending out the 70 in pairs. Their job is to prepare the way for his own later visits to those communities. What’s important to note here is that he tells them not to take any baggage and that they should go into neighborhoods and live among and listen to the stories of the inhabitants. They go as strangers, but they stay as family. What this Lukan passage, which Alan Roxburgh thinks is central to understanding what it means to be missional, does is remind us that the place for doing missional ministry is our neighborhood. Yes, there are those who are called to go to the ends of the earth as missionaries, but in Luke we discover that we’re called to be missionaries in the very community in which we live and work.

1. Go

But, getting back to Matthew, the first word we hear the risen Christ say to his disciples is “go.” He tells them to leave behind the safety of their church walls and enter the world as his agents of reconciliation. In another place Jesus tells us not to hide our light under a bushel, but instead, we’re to bring it out where the world can see it (Mt:14-16).

This idea of going into the world isn’t that new, but the idea of being a missional church is rooted in the life and work of Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin spent most of his life ministering in South India, but when he returned to his home in England, he discovered that the country that sent him on his missionary journey had become secular and that the church was not only ineffective in this new environment, but it was hiding behind its walls. In other words, it had lost it’s sense of its purpose and mission. Our nation is pretty well churched, but I think it’s safe to say that the church is making little impact on our culture. And so we hear in Newbigin’s work, a call to engage the world with the gospel. And this engagement starts in our own back yard. So, when we hear this word “go,” we hear Jesus saying to us: Go into the neighborhood and live among the people in such a way that you can hear their voices and they can hear the message of hope, of healing, and of justice. (See Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, Revised Edition, Eerdmans, 1995.)


2. Make/Create (Disciples)

As we inhabit our neighborhoods many of us will have the opportunity to live out the second verb – that is the call to make disciples. This step may take some time to bear fruit, but as we live out our faith with our neighbors and share our lives with them, there will be opportunities to invite them to become disciples of Jesus – which is different from inviting them to become church members. And as we share our faith with our neighbors there will be those who would want to experience the life changing presence of God that is found in Jesus. Of course, this missional work must be authentic, non-coercive, gracious, and loving.

3. Baptize.

The verb that follows making disciples involves some water. Because Baptism marks us as God’s children, when we make disciples, we’re called to baptize them into Christ and Christ’s body – the community of faith. I’ve been asked many times whether one must join a church to be a Christian. I always try to answer that question by reminding my questioner that the Christian faith is always lived best in the company of others. Therefore, baptism marks the point at which we enter the community of faith and become part of the body of Christ. It’s also important to remember that baptism marks us with the Holy Spirit, which gifts us and empowers us to share in God’s mission of redemption and transformation.

4. Teach

As we live missionally in our neighborhoods, listening to their voices, inviting them to share in the life of faith through baptism, we’re also called upon to teach them the things of faith, to pass on to them the teachings of Jesus and his disciples – teachings about reconciliation, healing, and transformation. We do this because it’s in the life and in the words of Jesus that we will find our way toward a life of justice, of peace, of grace, and of love.

This command reminds us that being missional involves both deeds and words. Both are essential, because what we do incarnates or gives flesh to what we believe and teach. The point of teaching is to help others understand the faith so that they too might live its precepts. Although the Disciples tradition doesn’t have a creed, we do have the scriptures, and in them we find words that define how we might live before God and with each other.

5. Remember

There is actually one more verb and one more task left for us to complete. Jesus tells us to remember something. He wants us to know that we don’t go out on this adventure alone. In telling them that he’ll be with them even to the ends of the earth, he lets us know that he’ll be with us, no matter where we go, whether that’s to Outer Mongolia or the east side of Troy, Michigan.

In a moment we’ll have an opportunity to remember this presence when we gather at the Lord’s Table. As we hear the words: “Do this in Remembrance of Me,” we’ll be reminded that the one who died on the cross continues to walk with us by the Spirit. And if baptism brings us into the community of faith, then the Lord’s Supper will nourish this missional faith even as we continue our journey of faith.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be exploring what it means to be missional. We’ll be talking about our neighborhood – who lives here, what their needs and desires might be. In time we’ll start to go out into the neighborhood so we can listen further to their voices. And in order to do this effectively we’ll be making use of a wonderful tool – a book called Unbinding the Heart. This book, which is written by Martha Grace Reese, is a follow up to a book many of you are already reading – Unbinding the Gospel. These books teach us how to share our faith with our neighbors in a way that is appropriate to our experience and traditions.

Being missional involves sharing our faith verbally, but it also involves working to transform our community. That might involve efforts at feeding the hungry – like SOS. It might involve putting together school supply packets or maybe building a home for someone in need of a home. It could also involve being an advocate for justice and pe.ace in our world. What and how we do this will depend in on the gifts and callings that are present in this congregation. Each of us has different gifts and callings, and so each of us will play a different role in this work of God in our neighborhood.

Last week I invited you to join me in prayer of discernment for our way forward. Today, I’m going to invite you once again to join me a prayer of discernment, but this time I want to make this prayer a bit more specific. I’d like us to pray about what it means to be a missional congregation that is living and ministering in the neighborhood in and around Troy, Michigan.


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 3, 2008

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