I attend what some might call a “missional” church or a church that focuses on “incarnational” ministry. In the past five years or so, the incarnational and missional movement has become quite sexy and trendy to be a part of. Maybe it’s a shift across the board in theology–a shift which sees God Himself as missional. Maybe it’s the New Perspective that is lately sweeping many off their feet and pointing from Justification to The Kingdom.
Maybe it’s just because Hugh Halter, Jeff Vanderstelt and others have written some really good books.
Whatever the cause, missionality has become a catch phrase, and it’s trendy. Similar to how we all secretly want to be hipsters, we all appear to have a desire to call ourselves “missional.” It’s always interesting to me how culture and the church slowly absorb the “other” until they actually want to be the other itself. I can recall talking with friends five years ago using phrases like “incarnational ministry” and talking about going to bars to “love on people”– I received looks of concern mingled with shock. Had I suddenly sprouted a second head, I often wondered? Why did people look at me so strangely when I suggested that to do ministry like Jesus we had to go where the people were. It didn’t seem so difficult.
Five, six years later, it’s become this new perspective in the church to see everything through the lens of missionality. Not only has it started to shape everything from youth groups to seminaries, it’s become a great thing to talk about in pubs over a pint or down by the river while puffing away on a CS Lewis style pipe. No longer are missional or incarnational churches the oddity. We’re part of networks and tours, we do conferences and write books–we’re the new “in thing.”
But what I’ve noticed lately is that we do a lot of talking about such ministry and lifestyles without actually doing anything. We like the idea, the notion of doing ministry as Jesus did: with prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors. There’s an allure to such ministry, in a bizarre way it has developed as something we consume because we want to do the cool thing, we want to be on the inside, doing what the “in crowd” does. It has sheen and intrigue. So we call ourselves missional and we theorize about what that looks like. We talk in smoky atmospheres full of alcohol and delicious greasy food and we so often say to ourselves, “ah yes, I’m in a bar or a pub and I’m enjoying a pint. I’m not legalistic about such things, in fact I may order a second! Aha! Look at me being incarnational and not attending six Bible studies but rather going to meet people where they are–here! in this bar! Where I am seated at a table that consists of–well–er–only–um–Christians.” We’re talking about it, but are we really doing it? Is the theorizing about it just making it harder? I think so.
Being missional is not just about location as we sometimes seem to think. It is, but it isn’t. For one thing, we often think about incarnational ministry as going to “where the poor are.” So people move to the inner city to live among the broken and poverty stricken families of the hood. That’s great and I support that. But there are poor people in our suburbs too, there are spiritually and emotionally devastated families out here in the ‘burbs surrounded by wealth and affluence. So being missional is not about location in the sense of going to the places most unlike ourselves that are “needy.” In reality, everywhere is needy.
Being missional is not about reacting to the legalism many of us inherited from parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles. Living in reaction is just as binding as living under the legalism itself. Being missional isn’t about being different from “all those other stuffy Christians.” Those other stuffy Christians might actually be more missional than the younger generation often gives them credit.
Being missional is not about being with a different “type” of person. It disturbs me when Christians talk about being with other people as though they are somehow alien or foreign simply because they don’t go to church and they have their medical marijuana card. Talking about spending time with “those people” as if it’s trendy and earning you a sick-awesome reputation is just as objectifying as treating those people as outcasts or unworthy. It makes a bizarre sort of idol out of them, like a trophy to be shown off about just how great we are for befriending them.
Being missional is about…well, relationships. Which is why it’s messy to define and yet easy to step into. Perhaps a better way to define it would be to say that missionality is about presence. And not to be entirely post-modern but the best way to explain may be with a story.
Last night, my boyfriend E picked me up after class and announced that he was starving. I was too so we drove to a nearby pub where they have by one-get one sandwiches on occasion. Our lucky night! Not only was the food on sale but we made happy hour and one of our favourite servers was working! Though we weren’t sitting in her section, Linze came over and sat with us whenever she wasn’t busy with customers or sidework. Eventually, one of her tables had departed and we bought her a beer so she really had to sit with us. We talked about her crazy roommate, her two jobs, her parents, etc. Eventually, one of the regular customers left the bar and came to sit at our booth as well. We’d never met this man but he was friends with Linze so he settled into the seat beside me and proceeded to tell us about his wife and two kids (one of whom’s name he has tatooed across his knuckles–I loved it). Even after both E and I had worked all day and I had class until 930pm, we stayed at the pub until everyone else had left and they were literally closing down (sometime around 12am). We walked out, laughing, apologizing that we had to turn down bar hopping with Linze and this other man and headed to my car. As we drove to my apartment, I said to E, “that was so much fun. Seriously. I’m so exhausted, but it was so great. I freakin’ love Linze. And that other guy was great too!” He nodded, “yeah, I would love to meet up with them sometime outside of Linze being at work.”
That’s all it is. We go to this pub pretty often and over the past year we’ve talked to Linze. It was so easy. On slow nights we’d invite her to sit while she took our order and chat for a few minutes. We tipped well. One night I left a note on our receipt that said how awesome she was–and not just as a waitress but as a person. She remembers things about my schooling, we remember stuff about her primary job. The thing about being missional is that you don’t have to go out of your way to do it: you see where you already hang out and you start getting to know people in that place. We go to this pub because it’s close, it’s cheap and it’s always open late after night classes. After a couple times, E just started talking to the servers: Linze, Jen, Brittany, Suzie, Elgin, Assad, and all the others. He’s outgoing like that and I like to listen. So we realized where we were and decided to show the people in that situation that they had value and worth. Someday, I hope I get to tell Linze about how much Jesus loves her. Right now, we just want her to know that we love her.
Missionality is not difficult. It’s just about being present somewhere and then being aware of who you are and who the other people are in that situation. It requires intentionality: I always try to remember one thing Linze has said and then follow up on it the next time. It requires that we actually care because people can sense when we don’t and they are turned off by the fake vibe we might give off. It requires persistence and time. But other than that, it just requires that we act as human beings who are full of God’s love–so full that it spills over onto the people around us.
It’s not that hard.