Church planting congress goes “missional”

How Imagine 2007 will shape MB mission strategy for years to come

Ten years ago, an interdenominational church planting congress in Brampton, Ont. set the stage for a long-term Mennonite Brethren mission strategy. The heart and soul of the Evangelism Canada program became a pragmatic numbers-driven master plan that borrowed from the latest mission research. It was known as the 10-year “Key Cities Initiative.”

Those 10 years are now over. It’s likely this year’s congress, Imagine 2007 – held in Ottawa Nov. 23 – will have a similar long-range effect, says Ewald Unruh, director of the Canadian conference’s church planting efforts.

“There used to be endless statistics on church growth, how many churches we had to have per capita, and how we could get people to come to church,” says Unruh. “All of that has changed – we’re moving away from a ‘come and see’ attitude to a ‘go and tell.’ ”

The way we do mission, he says, will define our church for the 21st century.

Imagine 2007 centred on the idea of a missional church. The featured speaker was Australian missiologist Alan Hirsch, whose book, The Forgotten Ways, proposes six “latent potencies” in God’s people that can be observed whenever there is phenomenal church growth.

Inward-focused programs aren’t part of the package, he says. To move forward in the mission of the church, says Hirsch, we must focus on the centrality and lordship of Jesus, disciple-making, a missional-incarnational impulse, organic systems, apostolic environment, and community formed in times of duress – called communitas.

Though it’s been around for more than a decade, the “missional church” idea is now at a tipping point of sorts. In Ottawa, 800 delegates – 85 of which were MB – gathered to see Hirsch and think through what this new strategy will mean for their respective organizations.

Terry Wiseman, regional director for church extension in Ontario, has fostered a missional mindset among his leaders for the last two years.

“It’s about moving into our communities,” he says. “If we have an inner-city ministry, we should be living in the inner-city. The everydayness of Christian life impacts those around us.” Wiseman says the results will be seen in changed lives, lower divorce rates, and less teen pregnancies – not simply the amount of conversions or new memberships.

“In Ontario, we’ve put the basic missional model in practice with our 614 St. Jamestown community – we’ve been working hard to raise the bar.”

The new model also comes with a new attitude towards leadership development. Theological training is migrating back to churches, as younger leaders choose to follow mentors in the trenches. “It’s easy to form a theology of sexuality based on the Bible at seminary – be we need to go and meet homosexuals face to face. Only then can there be that measure of truth together with grace,” says Wiseman.

At the Ottawa congress, Hirsch emphasized that all believers are missionaries who carry the capacity for world transformation. “Often we frontload our ecclesiology and not mission,” responds Unruh. “Our centre needs to change. In the past it’s been education and theology; in the future we’ll be able to recover the centrality of Jesus’ incarnational mission. Christ determines how we should do mission.”

“Mission isn’t just one expression of what we do,” says Unruh. “The results of missiology form the church.”

But what leadership looks like in this new paradigm, and how structures survive “organic” growth while maintaining their identity are questions many pastors in the MB conference will be asking. Anabaptist theology is now more popular in North America than ever. Anabaptism is more compatible with postmodern trends because it lacks a systematic theology, says Unruh. The real test will be whether we can live up to our model of discipleship-building and communitas.

“Taking care of the church is not that appealing today,” observes Unruh. “Rather, it’s about becoming contextual to each community.”

Hirsch also upbraided consumerism, which he called “the greatest idol of the church today,” and articulated the problem of low commitment and disregard for consistent tradition in culture. “The early church and the church in China made it hard to follow Jesus,” he said.

This missional idea, like all great ideas says Hirsch, travels like a virus. You have to “sneeze Jesus” – keep it simple, and pass it on.

Nevertheless, results and growth-based thinking remains a top priority at church planting congresses. But we’ll have to wait another 10 years to find out just how infected, and just how many different strains of the virus our churches are able to sustain.

—Andrew Siebert

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