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.
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?
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.