The four-fold process of focusing on local neighborhood mission.
By Tim Sitterley, US West Regional Director
A church I visit often for various pastoral association meetings has a sign immediately adjacent to their parking lot exit. “You are now entering your mission field.” I have to wonder how many of the members who pass that sign Sunday after Sunday really understand its implications.
It’s far too easy to read “missional” and think “missionary.” We are all familiar with the idea of journeying to a far-off land to share the gospel with people who have never heard the name of Jesus. I’ve done the missionary thing a couple of times, and I have to admit that my short presence left little (if any) mark on the country I was visiting. Stretching out a sheet and projecting The Jesus Film provided an evening of entertainment to a village where electricity was a rare luxury. But if there was any transformational change, it was more likely the result of the relationship and example between the villagers and the indigenous pastors and local Christians. It’s possible that the presence of a handful of wealthy (by their standards) and somewhat self-righteous Americans may have done more harm than good.
But if we are going to live out the great commission – to think and behave as a “sent” people – we are going to have to become far more familiar with the concept of living missionally rather than just as visiting missionaries. Many articles have been written on this subject in previous Equipper issues, but let’s take a moment to briefly review the four-fold process of becoming more missional and less missionary in our thinking.
The first element is to develop a missional mentality.
On the wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC are the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. In that message he petitions that rather than praying for God to be on our side, we should seek to be on God’s side. In a nutshell, this is the missional mindset. We are called to participate in Jesus’ mission, not our own.
You can find dozens of books dealing with the best practices to engage your immediate neighborhood. We’ve written articles on the subject. But rather that picking a ministry outreach from a long list, we must first prayerfully seek to discern what Jesus is already doing in our neighborhood. Have we taken the time to walk through the streets surrounding our meeting place? Have we engaged the neighbors directly to see who they are? What are their needs? To which part of our neighborhood is the Holy Spirit leading us?
This leads us to the second element: missional development.
As you discern the needs of your community, it is equally important to assess the giftings of your existing members. This is where the 4 Es come into place. This is where equipping becomes crucial. And this is also where frank honesty is equally important. If you are a group of 60-somethings, you are probably not going to start a basketball camp. If you don’t own your own building, and only rent on Sunday, a food pantry is out of the question.
But in the midst of potential negatives, there will always be a wealth of possibilities remaining. A group of 60-somethings may be just what the local school needs for their afterschool reading program. What organizations or businesses are your members already embedded in? What are ways you can partner with those outside of your membership to engage the surrounding community?
Which brings us to the third element: missional movement.
I don’t know how many times in my pastoral career that I quoted John 4:35: “…open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” (NIV) How many times had we prayed, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 9:38, for the Lord of the harvest “to send out workers into his harvest field”? And how many years did it take us to finally begin to understand that WE are the workers, and the harvest field is not our Sunday worship service?
What is the day-to-day life of the neighborhood surrounding our church, and how can our members best interact and insert themselves into that rhythm? What community events are taking place where we can serve? Participation is nice, but service gets noticed. What are the local organizations? Where do people hang out?
Which of course leads us to the final element of becoming a missional church: missional rhythms.
When we first published the circular graphic we use to depict the Christian calendar, I had someone question why we were placing so much importance on something that had not been that important in our past. The easy answer was to point out that the Christian calendar reflects the annual life of the greater Christian church. Hopefully, this answer is obvious to us all. But what I did was to ask the individual to tell me what his friends and family were doing during each of the larger seasons depicted on that graphic. Together we quickly began to outline the seasonal rhythms of his immediate community. Even during Ordinary Time, there was a clear rhythm of activity.
Add to this recognized national and local holidays, school calendars, and activities and events specific to your local community, and you begin to see and feel the rhythm of your neighborhood. The rhythm of your missional interaction with your neighborhood needs to sync with this greater rhythm. And in that rhythm, consistency is extremely important. Doing an event once, or attending some community activity once, will have little noticeable effect. To live missionally is to become a part of the neighborhood around you. The more you are consistent in your presence, the more you will become visible. And the more you are visible, the greater the opportunity to actually live out and share the gospel.
As I said in the beginning, this is only a brief overview. Living missionally will look different for each of us. But regardless of our age, experience, culture, or surrounding community, we each share a calling to emulate the one who established the very notion of living as one sent. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased it in the first chapter of John, the Word (Jesus) “moved into the neighborhood.”
The fields have always been ripe for harvest in our neighborhood. And we have always been called to get out of the barn.