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Neighbourhood missionaries

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Living incarnationally is key to reaching the community for Christ

Several years ago, as I was pastoring an established church, my wife and I were struck by how hard it was to get our unsaved neighbors and friends to come to church with us. Some might come to an Alpha Course in the church building, but that often didn’t translate into regular church attendance.

Something was wrong with our approach to evangelism.

Allan Hirsch, in his book Forgotten Ways, describes four types of people in our society. The first group is made up of those who have some concept of Christianity and are often willing to explore Christian beliefs. The second group is the average non-Christian who has little real awareness of, or interest in, Christianity. They’re often suspicious of the Church, but are generally open to spirituality. The third group has no idea about Christianity. They might be part of an ethnic group with totally different beliefs or they could be part of a fringe group that has been turned off by their perceptions of a narrow-minded, restrictive kind of Christianity. The fourth group is highly resistant to the Gospel. They view Christianity as a threat to their way of life.

Now, obviously, the first group is usually the easiest to reach. They may even send their kids to youth, a church day camp, or even a week at a Christian Bible camp during the summer. They may come to an Alpha Course. These are the ones who may still attend a church at Christmas. The way many churches are set up allows them to be reasonably successful at reaching this group, especially if they are intentional about it. This is good and yet, there is also a problem.

According to Hirsch, the first group only makes up 10% or less of the population in many Western countries. That means that most churches can only hope to reach about 10% of their neighbors using an attractional model that seeks to draw people into church programs.

The other 90%, those in groups two, three and four, are unlikely to cross the huge divide between their lives and church life.

Learn the language

So, what’s the solution? We need to become missionaries in our own communities. We need to bring Christ into our neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools, and places of recreation. We need to learn the language of our neighbors, so that we communicate the Gospel in a way that they hear and understand. This is living incarnationally.

You see, the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood according to the Message’s rendering of John 1:14. As Christ’s representative, as his hands and feet on earth, we need to do the same.

In 2005, our family left the church where I had pastored for 16 years to start missional communities (we called them house churches at the time). We did this with the blessing and support of our church and our denomination. We realized that our neighbors would probably never go to church, so we decided to bring the church to them.

For some, it’s a pretty big stretch to think about starting organic missional communities in homes, coffee shops, businesses, golf courses and other places where people naturally gather. Yet, I’m convinced that it may be a key way for us to reach those who are far away from Christ and the Church.

Hirsch says, “Attractional church demands that in order to hear the gospel, people come to us, on our turf, and in our cultural zone. In effect, they must become one of us if they want to follow Christ. I can’t emphasize how deeply alienating this is for most non-Christian people who are generally happy to explore Jesus but don’t particularly want to be ‘churched’ in the process. The biblical model…is not so much to bring people to church but to take Jesus (and the church) to the people” (The Forgotten Ways, p. 142).

Neil Cole, in his book Organic Church, proposes six myth-debunking truths about the Church. The first one is that the Church is a living organism, not a static institution. Cole suggests, “We would do much better as leaders in the Church to learn at the feet of the farmer rather than study with the CEO of a corporation” (p. 35). He then throws out this question, “What farmer would build a barn and then stand in the doorway calling all the crops to come in and make themselves at home?”

Coles’ second truth about the Church is that the Church is so much more than a building. According to Cole, “Buildings are not wrong or immoral…Unfortunately, we often begin to function as though the church buildings are our life source…Many a church continues long after the soul of the church has departed because the building itself keeps them going” (p. 37).

Another truth about the church is that the Church is not bound to a single location. We can worship God with anyone, anywhere.

Cole goes on to say that the Church is much more than a one-hour service held one day a week. He argues that Scripture does not talk about weekly gathering times. Instead, he claims “you will find verses, chapters, and entire books that speak to how we are to live together as a spiritual family” (pp. 39-40).

Cole’s fifth observation points to our tendency to centralize church functions, which is different than what we see in the early church. Of course, persecution sometimes helped to break down any centralized structures and dispersed Christians to witness in unreached areas.

The final myth-debunking truth about the church that Cole proposes is simply this: We are the temple of God. The old system we read about in the Old Testament is done. Jesus’ death and resurrection opened up a new way. According to Cole, God “has established a new nation of priests (1 Pet. 2:8-9) to cover the globe with His power, His presence, and His glory. Why, then, do we work so hard to reestablish the old ways with centralized buildings, priests, and constant offerings to appease the system?” (pp. 44-45).

Let me conclude this session on Living Missionally with a summary quote from Organic Church:

“Jesus paid a huge price to set His people free to take His presence everywhere. We need to resist the seductive magnet of glamorous buildings and religious hierarchical systems that bind us to a place and form of church that cannot spread His glory across the planet. Recognize, once again, the beauty of the New Covenant: a decentralized nation of priests bringing the presence of Christ all over the world. All of us who are children of God have been set free and empowered in order to spread His glory all over the place. We are not all called to go overseas, but we are called to take His presence into the dark pockets of lost people in our world. Whether to your neighborhood or the nations, Christ in you is the hope of glory. Freely you have received; now freely give.”

Randy Wollf, PhD is the academic dean and associate professor of Leadership Studies and Practical Theology at MB Seminary and the director of ACTS World Campus. 

This article originally published on MinistryLift.ca 

Planting seeds of hope in Winnipeg’s North End

ecently, a lady came by the church looking for prayer. We’ll call her Beth. A lay leader of one of the gangs (respected, but not a queen boss), Beth sent gang members to Living Word whenever they needed help. On that particular visit, Beth was distressed because of the violence taking over the gangs. The gangs, she told me, were intended to help young people overcome their depression. However, gang life has turned chaotic over the years, and the violence is overwhelming. So many of the young gang members are killing each other and dying. Concerned for the young people in her gang, Beth tried to look after a group of them in a house. She wanted to treat them to a barbeque supper but only had burgers. She didn’t have hamburger buns or side dishes, nor did she have a barbeque. She asked me if I could come down to barbeque their supper. 

With no other experienced pastor available to join me in this ministry, I was unwilling to barbeque supper at the house. However, I did offer to drop off food so that they could still have dinner together. I picked up some groceries, and a colleague and I went to the gang house to deliver it.

Only Beth was there waiting for us when we arrived. I sat down and had a great conversation with her. Beth is a believer and wants her young gang members to find hope, which she recognizes can only truly come from Christ. I shared some Scripture with her and brought a handful of bibles for our house. One of the young gang members was excited when he saw the bibles.

As Beth and I spoke, she expressed her vision to set up two houses, one for men and one for women, where these young people could find stability in their lives. Though she wasn’t confident they’d leave street life, Beth wants to see them have a good life, a safe hope-filled life.

Seeing this opportunity to bring the hope of the gospel to those without hope, I offered Beth our help in whatever she needed. God’s timing is incredible as Living Word has been dreaming of starting discipleship housing for men, women, and families. Here, Beth, a gang leader, had the vision. We have been praying for a breakthrough, and God is showing himself willing and able to accomplish all according to his will.

Justin Dueck, associate pastor, Living Word Temple (Winnipeg, Man.)

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