I’m not sure if there is anyone in the church world who hasn’t heard the word missional. Maybe like you, I have read a lot of books about missional church. I understood what they were saying. I agreed that in some circumstances the church had lost its focus; that sometimes we are more concerned about attracting people to worship services than anything else.
I understood that ‘program’ wasn’t enough to draw people into the church anymore, and that ‘program’ only rarely makes disciples. The problem was, while I understood all of this, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it meant to me, the pastor of a long-established church about 35 miles outside of New York City.
But the Holy Spirit had laid a conviction on my heart to make disciples. With that conviction came an unceasing desire to figure out how to do that. Along with Anne Havrilla, the pastor of Spiritual Formation, we tried various things; all of which seemed like different versions of what we had tried before. Then By God’s providence, as these things always happen, I fell into a conversation with John Terech at the ECO/Fellowship Gathering in Dallas in 2014.
In the conversation John said something like, “You should join Future Travelers”. I had no idea what Future Travelers was, but it turned out to be a cohort group that ECO was putting together to explore churches who were farther down the missional road than any of us. I was game and fortunately was in a position to travel to these various churches in Ohio, Washington, and Texas. What I discovered was nothing short of amazing. It was the beginning of figuring out what the Spirit was saying.
All the books and literature about something are great if you don’t understand a concept, but at some point you have to understand how someone is putting those ideas into practice. Each of these churches approached ‘missional’ in slightly different ways, but once I saw how it was actually done, I began think to myself, “We could do this.”
For us, it all started around a dinner table in my house on a Friday night about 8 months ago. Before we got together I sketched out in very little detail what I thought a missional community could look like: People gathered together with a focus to reach a specific group of people in the community for Christ. While we were on mission together, we would teach each other to be better disciples of Christ, learn to love each other and the world, and establish deep enough relationships that we could safely hold each other accountable in areas of life where we needed to grow in faith and behavior. Far from a small group whose focus is generally inward, this focus of this group would be outward toward the world.
To my shock almost everyone I discussed this with was ‘in.’ There was hunger I hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t think everyone would commit to meeting every week, but they did. In fact, they almost insisted. They intuitively understood that if we are going to make disciples, we have to start at the heart; at the level of relationship. Quickly, we realized that we finally had a place to invite people who were struggling in life and just needed a place to land with some people who would love them. Our mission turned out to be both to those we invited in, as well as outward to a specific group of people. Many of our ‘guests’ were not people who would normally come into a church. Even if they had, we would never have had the chance to engage them at the level we could on Friday night. In a strange way, we became a small mission outpost in the middle of suburban New Jersey.
Over the months, I noticed that the group was growing…teenagers came (even if their parents didn’t make it that night), we had a guy who was an ex-heroin addict going through a divorce, a woman in a wheelchair, a single mom and her daughter, foreign exchange students who were more hungry for dinner and companionship than anything, a baby was born to one of the original families, people of different ethnic backgrounds, passionate believers and polite skeptics. Some Fridays I was making dinner for 30 people. One night as I was doing dishes and people were gathered in the living room it struck me, “This is looking suspiciously like the kingdom of God.” Now, has every person stuck? No. Did they all come to church? No. Did it get messy from time to time? Yes. Have we multiplied? Not yet. But, every person who has come through the doors knows without question that there are followers of Jesus who love them, who believe that God is on their side, and who won’t give up on them. That’s a victory I wish I could say about every person who walks through the doors of a church.
We are still in the very beginning of figuring this all out and with the power of the Holy Spirit we will. All the answers aren’t clear yet. Truth is we are still figuring out some of the questions. This much I can tell you, I am absolutely convinced that the next generation of believers is going to be found in people’s living rooms long before they ever find their way into a pew.