I serve on the elder board and the “vision team” of my church. I also serve on the “banner committee,” because the village our church is in (Lombard, Illinois) has a thing about how, where and when churches hang banners on their property. But that has nothing to do with anything.
As is often the case during staff transitions and annual budgeting, my church is in the midst of a discernment process. I took this as an opportunity to get better acquainted with the trend du jour among church planters and planners—the missional church movement—so I read the cheapest book I could find on the subject, which happened to be a copy of The Ministry of the Missional Church by Craig Van Gelder, a professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary.
Left by one of my coworkers on the free table, it’s a densely written and highly complex book about, essentially, “what the church is—that is, a community created by the spirit and . . . has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity.” (p. 17) Van Gelder seeks to establish the primary mission of each church, which is, in brief, “to understand the leading of the Spirit in shaping the church’s ministry.” (p. 19)
Each church’s responsibility is twofold: the church embodies the Spirit in pursuit of (a) the integrity of the body of Christ and (b) the mission of God. So we have this dual responsibility that is both harmonic—we resemble Christ in how we relate to one another—and melodic—we follow God into our locality and beyond to reconcile the world to God and itself. This is not an easy task but it is also not an uphill climb: the mission of God has been accomplished in the ministry of Christ and is now proclaimed and projected forward. Likewise we are empowered by the Spirit in our pursuit of a communal life that rightly bears the name “body of Christ.”
Nevertheless, the challenge of “maintaining our harmony” and “keeping sight of our melody” is very real, in part because contexts are always changing. “Contexts go through fundamental change, which require congregations to consider how they might respond. . . . On the surface such congregations [might] appear to be in inevitable decline and a slow death. In reality, new opportunities for mission and ministry await their engagement.” (pp. 48-49)
So the responsible church keeps an eye out for the inevitable changes in its context.
• How has the economic status of its community changed over time?
• How has the demographic mix changed over time?
• How does the average person in the church’s context define “the good life”?
• How does the average person define moral and ethical responsibility?
• What expectations does the average person bring to relational life? God?
• What forecasts can be reasonably anticipated regarding the church’s context?
• How do these changes manifest themselves in outreach and life together?
Beyond these observations, however, the church has the theological responsibility to view its context through the eyes of Christ, “to discern the work of God that is taking place.” (p. 59) Van Gelder filters this down to two questions:
• What is God doing? This is a question of faith and discernment.
• What does God want to do? This is a question of wisdom and planning.
So the vision of any church is a responsive exploration of those two questions: What is God doing in my town? What is God doing among the people of my church? Moreover, what does God want to do in these little communities? “Every congregation,” Van Gelder concludes, “needs to learn how to confess the faith within its particular context.” (p. 66)
The Ministry of the Missional Church isn’t the book to systematically retrofit your church for its next season of meaningful ministry. The average layperson—say, for example, me—would be regularly confused by the mix of scholarship, theology and jargon, and the chapters don’t yield immediate, specific action plans. No, this is a foundational book, and as such it’s worth a slow read among the culture leaders of your church, to figure out what questions to ask of their church, their community and themselves in order to lead their culture well.