James Rebanks farms in the Lake District in England and wrote The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. While so much farming has turned toward greater size and efficiency, the Lake District is a setting so rugged that only the most ancient of methods work. It’s an all-too-perfect metaphor for churches.
I had the privilege of speaking at the Commonwealth Collective leadership training conference in Richmond, VA, on February 8th. The topic is a great one: When Missional is Not Enough. Missional language is thrown around often and, at this point, by a broad sweep of people. At this point the meaning of the word "missional" has become almost indiscernible. Is it a program? A mindset? A philosophy? A particular activity or focus? Put simply, it is an orientation around the mission of God. So, to understand the word missional, at least in a gospel-centered church context, we need to first identify and understand God's mission. Only then can implications be drawn for our churches and for us individually. Click through the links above to tune in and listen. I'd love to hear your thoughts in response.
The idea of the local church takes its share of lumps. Usually the critiques come from self-proclaimed Christians or people who once claimed to be Christians. If you trust the blogosphere, it seems like the least cool thing a 20-something Christian could possibly do is to actually connect with and sacrifice for a local church. This gets thrown around often, as if it is somehow revolutionary each time when it really feels like the latest grasping-at-straws attempt to drive traffic to one's site. I’ve been there. I have made the grand arguments for my own individualized spiritual journey. I could just dig into all kinds of biblical arguments, but that will just lead to ongoing debate as to the validity and interpretation of those texts. So, let me at least start by arguing from the experience of my own heart. For a period of time I was frustrated and angry, too. Here’s what was really going on in my heart:
You can’t tell me what to do.
The idea of any kind of submission to anyone as a spiritual authority seemed crazy. I didn’t want anyone to tell me how to live. I sure didn’t think anyone had earned the right to try to tell me how to think. I was the only one who could understand what my walk with God needed.
You’re not meeting my needs.
I could listen to better preachers any time in any place. Technology changed all that. I could listen to better music, too. I would be frustrated when a church missed my nuanced theological view, or said anything that poked me in a sensitive place (see the first point). The major question I was asking the church was, “What can you do for me?”
I don’t need these people. I don’t even like these people.
My relationship with God was about him and me. Church people drove me crazy. I didn’t relate to them. I didn’t want to be around them. I didn’t think I needed any of them for anything.
The church isn’t a building. I’m at church right now.
I couldn’t stand the idea of institutions and restrictions. Jesus says that anywhere that 2-3 of us are together, he’s right there in the middle of us, right?
All of life is worship, so I’m worshiping right now.
I thought, and argued, that worship couldn’t be limited to a special meeting on Sundays where we are told what to do and asked to stand up, sit down, and sing along with mediocre musicians. I didn’t think I needed any of that, and that I could do better on my own.
God’s Word on the Church
Hopefully you see the theme developing. When I have been most apathetic about the local church, it has been driven by an outright focus on myself. Thank God that Jesus didn’t carry my arrogance with Him through the Incarnation. He never would have humbled Himself to take on the form of a servant and submitting Himself to another, even to the point of His death on the cross. He never would have looked at the beat-up, broken, ugly lot that we are and called us to be His Bride, His Church.
The local church is God’s ordained instrument to advance His gospel. We don’t get to define it, but He does. To get that, we do have to look to His Word, the Bible. Right worship in the early church necessarily included devotion to the Apostles’ teaching about Jesus, prayer, and sacraments (Read Acts 2:42-47). We are also commanded, throughout Scripture, to sing our praises. While it’s true that all that we do should be done to the glory of God (1Cor. 10:31), that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set aside time to focus our worship on Him and gather with His people. In fact, we’re called to do the opposite.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. - Hebrews 10:23-25
It’s awfully tough to say you follow Jesus if you don’t reflect His love for His Church, which is expressed in local bodies of believers. It’s awfully tough to say you love Jesus if you aren’t willing to obey Him. It’s impossible to fulfill the command to stir one another up to love and good works and to encourage one another if you “church” has a membership of one. It’s hard to square with the emphasis on submitting to godly leaders if you won’t submit to anyone (Acts 20:28-32; 1Pet. 5:1-5; Heb. 13:7, 17).
Back to Experience
Now, the arguments from the Bible might not matter to you, or you may have ways for explaining them away. I did, too.
Eventually my hyper-spiritualized excuses were exposed by a combination of God’s Word and my own realization of my isolation. It was lonely at the top of my self-constructed spiritual hill. To make it worse, I couldn’t actually square things with a thorough reading of the New Testament and I still told everyone I believed it was God's Word. So, I was living in contradiction and committing spiritual suicide. I claimed great theological knowledge and a mystical faith journey, but my soul was an arid wasteland.
When I got over myself and started to at least try to humbly serve others (like Jesus), an amazing thing happened – my relationship with God ignited. I started to see people the way He does, with love and grace and mercy. That doesn’t mean it has always been easy. There are still times when the church is frustrating, when people don’t want to listen to me and things don’t go the way I think they should. I wouldn’t trade it, though. You see, what Jesus is by nature, the Son of God, He offers to us by grace. The Holy Spirit can move within us to unite us as children of God through Jesus. We are knit together into a big, eclectic, beautiful tapestry.
I would never trade what I have as a committed part of a local church for what I had before.
Don’t get too high on yourself or your excuses. You’re missing out. We need you to give yourself to Jesus’ work in building His church, even if it doesn’t sound as cool.
When the Apostle Paul returned to Antioch following his first missionary journey, Acts 14:27-28 tells us, “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples.” This is my hope in this post: that you would be able to linger in celebration of God’s work with us.
From before Redemption Hill Church even had a name, let alone worship services, we felt called to plant a church that would plant other churches. Starting new churches is done by planting the seeds of the gospel of Jesus Christ, cultivating them through hard work, and praying that God will grow them into a new local church. It takes a lot of work and significant resource investment. The time, work, and cost of a church plant double in major urban centers. I am amazed by the generosity of the Elders and Members of RHC who, just over two years into the work here in DC, are making significant contributions in partnership with two church planters.
This past Sunday was an exciting one for us at RHC. We were able to pray for Village Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Pastor Lucas Parks as they launched public services. Lucas has preached at RHC, and our members have loved the connection to another capital city. We are working toward a true partnership between our churches, one that goes beyond a financial commitment to include consistent prayer, coaching, and more. I love that when we announced the Village’s launch on Sunday our church burst into applause for Jesus’ work in Belfast. We are part of one family through Jesus.
We also commissioned Jesus (Chuy) Rodriguez to plant a church in Mexico City, another capital city. Chuy and his wife Karla have spent the last year and a half with us at Redemption Hill Church. In that time they were members of the church and we had the privilege of dedicating their two beautiful children, Joel and Luciana. Chuy completed a Church Planting Residency under the elders and pastors. As part of his residency, he completed intense theological training and became licensed in the EFCA. Chuy was also assessed for church planting through the Acts 29 Network and accepted as a candidate. I am convinced that there is no better process for assessing church planters than Acts 29's process. It has been amazing to see other churches join in supporting the Rodriguez family as they raised funds for the work ahead. Now the time has come for us to send him to his beloved home city to begin the work of planting a new church, a true extension of God’s work through Redemption Hill Church.
The gospel is advancing and Jesus is building His Church. There is no better news. There is no better mission. Linger with us in celebration!