A Starting Point for Missional Churches: Growing Deeper and Wider (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Gary Holloway
September – December, 2005

It has become a cliché to say that our congregations are in crisis. Many are not growing numerically. Some are shrinking. We seem unsure of our identity and mission. We struggle with what leadership is best for our situation.

One the other hand, there are signs of hope among us. Many are choosing to venture out and plant new churches. There is a widespread hunger for a more holistic evangelism, a living-out of our faith with our neighbors. There is much talk of becoming “missional” churches. The model here is the mission church in a “foreign” land, a church that intentionally sees itself as different from the surrounding society while at the same time intimately incarnate in that culture. This is quite different from the maintenance model most American congregations have inherited where we mirror our “Christian” culture instead of witnessing to it in love.

This missional model is nothing new. It goes all the way back to the first church in Jerusalem. That church was intimately connected with its culture—all were devout Jews. Yet there were remarkable differences between their community and the wider society. They proclaimed Messiah had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced the presence of Jesus through the gift of the Holy Spirit. They embraced the life of the cross through baptism in the name of Jesus. Filled with joy, they ate together, shared their possessions, and were favorably received by those outside their community.

Can we be missional like that first Jerusalem church? Are they in any way a model for us? Or is it merely nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time that makes us long to be like them?

We do live in a different time and place. A time where changing our congregations from maintenance to missional requires new paradigms, programs, mission statements, leadership, and (above all) vision. At least that’s what our American corporate culture tells us. However, one reads nothing directly on any of these topics in the Book of Acts. Is Acts irrelevant to our situation? Or could it be that there is a better starting point for developing a missional church?

There is. In the words of Elizabeth O’Connor:

We are not called primarily to create new structures for the church in this age; we are not called primarily to a program of service, or to dream dreams or have visions. We are called first of all to belong to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, and to keep our lives warmed at the hearth of His life. It is there the fire will be lit which will create new structures and programs of service that will draw others into the circle to dream dreams and have visions.

To understand this is to be thrown back upon those disciplines which are the only known gateways to the grace of God; for how do we fulfill the command to love, except that we learn it of God, and how do we learn it of God, except that we pray, and live under His word and perceive His world?

In other words, churches must first grow deep before they grow wide. Or better said, growing deeper is growing wider. That first Jerusalem church “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Consequently, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

To focus on spiritual practices first may sound like a selfish inward turn for our congregations, instead of an outward mission. Such is not the case. Instead, by disciplining ourselves spiritually, we become more aware of God at work in us. Genuine evangelism and growth in numbers never come through our own plans and efforts. It is God who calls, God who saves, God who adds. By growing deeper in the love of God, we receive that marvelous gift of participating in the mission of God, to reconcile the world to himself.

Spiritual deepening also removes many of the false polarities that arise when we begin to talk about the direction of our congregations. It unites personal spirituality and lived faith, inreach and outreach. It removes distinctions between staff-led and elder-led mission. It calls scholars and practitioners and all Christians to respond together with their unique gifts.

More than anything else, intentional spiritual practices make us aware of the presence of God. Too often, talk of congregational change emphasizes God’s absence. We talk as if a new model, program, or structure would force God’s hand, would make him bring growth. By contrast, spiritual deepening opens the eyes of our hearts to see God already at work in us, among us, and in his world. It allows us to hear his invitation to join him in that work.New Wineskins

Gary HollowayGary Holloway teaches Spiritual Formation at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee. See his book Living in God’s Love at the ZOE Life Store and his article “An Invitation to Live in God’s Love”, co-written with Earl Lavender in our Spiritual Formation issue. E-mail him at [gary.holloway@lipscomb.edu].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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