Mission as Organizing Principle – Not Priority


This post has been stewing for a while, but conversations in last month’s Mission Alive Church Planter Forum have prompted me to begin the process of downloading the jumble of thoughts.

When my family moved back to north Texas in order to participate in the ministry of church planting, we did so by joining with a young church plant in Burleson, TX. My first task was to develop a spiritual formation process which would equip and sustain the leading and multiplying of house churches in our community. These house churches existed as expressions of the Christ Journey Church, which also gathered for corporate worship weekly.

This task proved quite difficult. Many people within the context of the “Bible belt” culture, both long-time members of Christian churches and those who do not self-identify as Christian, have strong notions of what church participation “looks like.” In our local experience, when pressed beyond knee-jerk and reactionary statements, both groups have a similar expectation: being a faithful member of a church means avoiding behaviors recognized as sinful, being a good person and attending multiple worship gatherings/bible studies each week.

Attempts to develop a process of spiritual formation in the context of house church leadership, which would emphasize the healthy cultivation of disciples and multiplication of house churches, was met by the most unlikely (via our expectations) of adversaries: community.

Strangely enough, the concept of community can (CAN, not will or must) become its own form of passive resistance to discipleship. It should not have been surprising – this same dynamic was present in the small group ministries in every established church with which I have worked. I believe my mistake was misinterpreting the problem. People often resist the multiplication of small groups because it is an unnatural and painful dissolution of community.

We hoped that our approach of multiplying by sending would address this problem. We did not have a set point (date or number of participants) at which a house church would split and form two new groups. Instead, we attempted to take our cue from the church in Antioch (Acts 13). Each house church was encouraged to regularly pray, listening for who God may be calling to be “set apart” and sent to form a new house church.

Participants in the house churches of Christ Journey were committed to one another. This was a great blessing and should not be downplayed. Community was seen as a very high value in the Christ Journey context. But community as a value can be attained without discipleship, without participation in mission, without any real goal beyond the deepening of connection with people with whom you are already in relationship. And community proved to be a poor organizing principle.

Alan Hirsch raises the issue that we should pursue communitas (the experience of deep connection formed in the midst of a shared mission or struggle), rather than community. This shift of focus moves us away from an approach to community that “has become little more than a quiet and reflective soul space…or a spiritual buzz.” Such experiences, though important in the proper context, fall considerably short of the church’s purpose. Communitas, on the other hand, is cultivated through a shared commitment to a common struggle, ordeal or mission. Community can be a very passive concept; communitas can never be such.

In addition to the focus on community, our experience with house churches also suggested that though we had adopted a much more decentralized structure than many “established congregations,” we were still heavily entrenched in the development of internally focused ministries. The church’s obsession with developing an impressive list of ministry opportunities within the congregation is another symptom of the problem Hirsch is addressing, as well as a barrier to fulfilling our purpose.

Experience tells us that a church that aims at ministry seldom gets to mission even if it sincerely intends to do so. But the church that aims at mission will have to do ministry, because ministry is the means to do mission. Our services, our ministries, need a greater cause to keep them alive and give them broader meaning.

What we began to realize is that we had made community our organizing principle – and as Hirsch suggests, this focus stalled many of our sincere intentions of moving deeper into discipleship while engaged in mission with God.

That’s the first part of the story.

Once we began speaking of mission (rather than community, worship or ministry) as the organizing principle we also began hearing others using the same language.

A couple months ago Mike Breen of 3DM wrote a blog post titled “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail” in which he directly (and rightly) challenged any movement which attempts mission without discipleship – or begins with mission with hopes of getting to discipleship later.

That this critique is even needed is evidence of an underdeveloped concept of mission and a problem distinguishing between organizing principle and priority.

First, when we speak of mission we must guard against reductionist tendencies. Mission is more than evangelism. It is more than discipleship. It is more than social justice. It is more than community development. It is more than reconciliation… Mission is all of these things. Remember, when we use the word mission we aren’t referring to an act we initiate. We’re talking about what it is that God is up to in this world and what we’re called to join. So, in the context of God’s mission, we’re called to discipleship, evangelism, justice for the oppressed, reconciliation, new life and community in the kingdom of God – and “we” in this case refers to all those who have heard and responded to the gospel, not just the “professional” ministers or super-Christians.

And so it is important to recognize in this missional orientation of faith that mission should be our organizing principle precisely because it either involves or naturally cultivates so much of the life to faith.

When we say organizing principle we are saying something different than priority. I’m not sure that priority is necessarily a bad word here, but it may lead (and perhaps already has) to a misunderstanding. It isn’t that we begin with mission and then get to the other stuff when we’ve attained that goal. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an individual or community must hold the basic physiological needs as a first priority – if you don’t have food and water it is useless to run after less immediate needs like intimacy, morality, recreation, etc. But that isn’t what we’re talking about here. Mission may be our priority, as might worship, discipleship, ministry, etc. That’s a conversation for another time. But we’re not (or at least, shouldn’t be) talking about priority here.

Rather we say organizing principle because a commitment to the mission of God binds us together in a context where all of the priorities of life and faith are addressed. We not trying to make mission the priority, we’re saying that without mission as our organizing principle it is difficult to actually get to our priorities. Hirsch says that with mission as the organizing principle: “ministry is the means to do mission.” Likewise, discipleship/spiritual formation is the result of following Christ intentionally; community develops as we go out together; worship is a natural response to encountering the missional God; justice, reconciliation, evangelism, new life and kingdom ethics are the contexts in which the mission is actualized.

In most congregations, worship serves as the organizing principle – the Sunday morning hour is what holds us together and from there we try to move into the other aspects of faith. Worship is a vital aspect of our life of faith, but it falls short as an organizing principle – we can get together to worship each week without moving into discipleship, mission, community, etc. Focusing on the development of community through small groups is a good thing, but community falls short as an organizing principle for the same reasons.

However, for this to work as it is described here, we must organize around participation in – not merely discussion of – the mission of God. But that, too, is a whole other conversation…

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Posted on February 15, 2012, in Missional and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Couple of uneducated and uninformed observations. Nehemiah went to Jerusalem on a mission (from God) to rebuild its walls, and a seemingly unintentional result was community. Does this story fit at all with what your saying?
    Second, the early church got a mission in Acts 1 to be witnesses “…to the ends of the earth…”. But they never got around to that in Jerusalem. They were totally focused on their “gathering”. I have heard this early period when they met daily described as the ideal church and community. Be it from God or from Satan, they didn’t seem to get around to their mission until the persecution broke out and they were scattered. Should established churches focused on that one hour Sunday morning learn from that? Maybe, but I doubt they will.

  2. I think the Nehemiah example is spot on. To run with Hirsch’s statement, if Nehemiah had set out to build community – with that as the organizing principle – one wonders whether the wall would have even been built, and if the community which was formed would have been as cohesive as that which grew up around the shared struggle of building/protecting one another.

    And yet, I don’t know that community formation was an “unintentional” result – the restoration of place seems to be directly tied to the restoration of identity, worship and community in the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative. The difference, as we’ve pointed out, is that rather than community serving as the rallying point, community, identity and worship were reclaimed through the shared mission at hand.

    As for the early church experience in Acts, let’s assume for a moment that they were missing the call to take the mission “to the ends of the earth” until persecution arose. Even so, they met together in the temple courts (a public space) and from house to house (relational space). Nowhere do we get the picture that this early group holed themselves up away from the goings on of the people around them – that didn’t start until much later when the persecution of Christians became more widespread. If this was the “golden age” of the church (a point I’m increasingly less willing to concede), our practice of focusing on the “one hour” which is cut off from the world around us seems woefully out of sync.

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