Thursday, July 15, 2010

Between Churches: Excursus on Mission

I've been writing intermittently about my ongoing experiment in finding and re-settling at a new church. (Read my earlier posts--in reverse order, I'm afraid--here.) Today I want to interrupt myself with a question that came to mind the other night: Should I be looking for a church, or do I need to find a mission?

The question came up while I sat in on a gathering in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago--close enough to home that I could crash the party, but far enough away that I didn't need to worry about getting committed. It was intended as an initial discussion about how people in this particular community could be more missional--more actively and thoughtfully engaged in showcasing the Christian faith where they lived. But it quickly became a recruiting opportunity for Forge America.

Forge is an international missionary-training organization formed in Australia by Alan Hirsch. I became a bit of a Hirsch groupie earlier this year--a little late to the party, I freely admit, since his books have been circulating for nigh on a decade now--and as it happens, Forge America is being established in the Chicago area. I met the people who are launching it here, and they're very cool--just months into this new initiative, they're bubbling with enthusiasm and creative energy. I like to be around people like that; it makes me feel more enthusiastic and creative myself.

One of the main elements of the Forge methodology is a year-long residency, in which people develop the theological grounding for their perceived mission and get skill-training in doing the work of a missionary--cultural anthropology, sociology, theology, what have you. I should hasten to add that this isn't primarily a means to the ends of the earth; Forge emphasizes the notion that being on mission is what it means to be the church, so wherever you find yourself is, to borrow a phrase from Jesus, ripe for the harvest. Some people who are trained by Forge go on to travel internationally, but the vast majority start or continue work where (or near where) they live. A year of anything costs money, of course, so my eye went quickly to the bottom line: $2500.

Gulp.

Just above the bottom line, however, was another requirement: participants in the residency program have to be (and continue to be) actively engaged in an ongoing mission. That is, of course, open to interpretation, but I found myself deferring the money question and fretting instead over the mission question. What, I wondered, would I write on that line of the application form? What is it that I'm actively giving myself to? In the midst of window-shopping all these churches in and around my community, what am I producing, creating, engaging? What in the world am I doing?

Big gulp.

In the grand scheme of things, $2500 is not a ton of money; a college or graduate student would easily spend that in a semester (maybe a quarter, maybe a week) and not blink. But a mission you can point to and say with confidence "This is what God has me doing right now" . . . For a melancholic cynic like me, saying anything so emphatically is hard; for a suburban sloth like me, locking in to such audacious activism is even harder.

I know for a fact that I'm not alone in carrying a certain amount of ennui about how to relate to church. I've heard from enough people over the past several posts, over the past several months--over the course of my adulthood, really--to know that contemporary people struggle to identify with churches as institutions. But maybe we're asking the wrong questions; maybe we're setting off on the wrong quest. Maybe instead of searching for a church to consume, we should be discerning the mission God has for us, and letting whatever then passes for church coalesce around it.

OK, enough of that. I'll get back to deconstructing churches as institutions soon, I promise.

4 comments:

Michelle Van Loon said...

Many of the same thoughts and feelings are tumbling around in me, too.

Andy Rowell said...

I think you are probably right that one reason that it is so difficult to find the "right church" and when you find one, it is so difficult to get heavily involved, is that every church has such a diffuse mission and it is usually unarticulated. I find myself eventually discovering the type of people that a particular church ministers to after being there a while. "Aha, this church ministers to an intellectual crowd and though it does not bring in many new people to the faith, it keeps these intellectual in the faith." "Aha, this church ministers to suburban people and it gives them a degree of comfortableness because of its attractiveness and it hopes to gently push congregations members to greater sacrificial fidelity to Jesus Christ." When I discover the implicit mission of the church--who it reaches--I come to a sense of peace. "This church does some things decently well and a lot of other things not so well." Therefore we need to be partnering with other churches and organizations that are different than us racially, socio-economically, denominationally, and globally so that we see more of what is going on in God's kingdom. I always want to caution people about idealism regarding the church and regarding mission. The jokes apply: "The church is like the ark--it stinks inside but it is worse to be outside." Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue or John Howard Yoder's Body Politics might encourage people about why the church matters. But my advice is to join the church that annoys you the least and get really involved--soon you will be annoyed with yourself as much as other people--which is kind of the point.

Note:
David Fitch reflected recently on Alan Hirsch's theology of the church.

The Emerging View of the Church in Society: Alan Hirsch/Michael Frost and the Danger of De-Ecclesiologizing The Church in Mission

Anonymous said...

It may be bacause I am old and have learned of numerous groups that have claimed to have the answer: Moonies, Jonesboro, Taliban, etc., but whenever there is a dollar figure listed in the bottom line, I become suspicious. This is usually just the "first" request for money.

Move cautiously

Jennwith2ns said...

I'm late to the party, "yalls" (word verification), mostly because I haven't been reading blogs for, like, a year . . . sorry. So I haven't gone back to catch up on the thousands of posts I've missed.

I don't know about joining a group to help you find how to do mission through church, but it could work I guess. I will say, though, that I agree that the mission should, I think, be one of the main things one looks at. It's definitely how I came to my current one.

Ever since moving back to the US from London, I had been attending the church my parents planted back in the 80's. It's a good church. It's a big (for New England) church. It's got pretty solid theology. I grew up there. But I *never* truly felt like it was my community. I felt kind of superfluous. Then I got this Director of Christian Education job at a church whose culture and theology differs in many ways from mine, but also coalesces with mine in ways that I may not have discovered had I not tried it out.

I feel sort of "lucky," I guess, but I have to say I think this job AND this church "fit" my personality and vocation better than anything I've yet experienced. And I think the reason the church fits is because the mission does.