Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Bridges of God

In Don McGavran’s book, he is formulating an evangelistic understanding based on what he sees as “The Crucial Question in Christian Mission” (also the title of the introductory chapter). The crucial question is simply, “how do people become Christian?” He does not ask with any soteriological curiosity, but practically, how do people hear the message of the gospel and decide to live under the Lordship of Christ. For McGavran, present practices in missionary evangelism revealed a categorical al misunderstanding of conversion. This misunderstanding, in turn, perpetuates ineffective and inappropriate evangelism strategies. In particular, McGavran is seeking to understand the phenomena of exponential church growth—simultaneous conversions (note plural) of an entire group rather than the aggregate conversion focused on individual response to evangelism.

The Unfamiliar in People Movements

Before progressing too far, McGavran defines the People Movement for those unfamiliar, i.e., the Western church. His image of a People Movement is an evangelistic multiplication as entire families/tribes/clans come to faith. In the process of coming to faith, they retain their distinctive cultural supports which enable others to join without needing to adopt a new cultural framework.

People and the New Testament Church

To lay the groundwork for restructuring the method of the Church, McGavran examines the record of Acts to see how large groups were brought into the life of the church. Starting at Pentecost, he sees the 3,000 added as proof that the individual method is not the original approach. He also notes the extensive familial connections in the greetings in the epistles as evidence for the strategy of Paul. For example, in the letter to the Romans are listed the names of dozens of family members who Paul has never met. But through these family connections, the gospel finds fertile ground in the acceptability of the family unit.

Down Through the Centuries

It is interesting to see the growth of the church painted in broad strokes to express the dominance of the people movement process historically. This history leads up to the Enlightenment in Europe, after which the collective-worldview began to give way to the preference for individualism.

The Characteristic Pattern of the Great Century

The Great Century which the author speaks of is the time which the church woke up to its mission to take the gospel message to areas outside of European Christendom. This approach has a structural emphasis located in the mission station. In this approach, the mission station becomes a barracks for the church against the greater culture. When people come to faith, they also adopt the way of life of the foreigner and sever ties with their familiar life. The mission station and expatriate staff become the new support system for the converts and the culture is marked by extreme insulation.

Gathered Colony Strategy in the Light of People Movements

In comparing the insular strategy of the mission station with that of the People Movement, there is only one context where the author sees the former remaining pertinent and that is in the area hostile to the Christian message and the church needing a safe place to live and base their evangelistic activity. I do not agree with this exemption, as the protected church will always seem at odds with the community that it is trying to reach.

Co-operating with Growing Churches is Today’s Strategy

Given the premise that there are enough contextualized church movements in existence in different areas of the world, the task before the Western church is in determining their cooperation. In this and a later chapter, McGavran addresses the financial relationship between groups and moves toward an equitable understanding of how the global church is meant to support one another. By comparing the cost of planting new churches and training pastors with the operation costs of mission stations and the services they spawn (hospitals, schools, etc.), he present the People Movement as the most profitable venture that the church can undertake.

Important Aspects of This Strategy, The Marvelous Mosaic of God, Marching with God to the Heart of the Nations

The most important aspect, in my opinion, is allowing the mission station model to cede its seat of prominence in our thinking about how missions ought to be conducted. Recognizing that the indigenous work of evangelism takes place as the message is contextualized and barriers to the Christian community are removed, the world Christian is freed to explore the entirety of humanity as it constitutes all of God’s people.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community

Authors Tim Chester and Steve Timmis tell the story of their church plant in the UK and the rationale behind the direction they have followed. The book was written quite pragmatically, as if this is the long-hand version of a manual of how to do church in their community, called The Crowded House in Sheffield. The book is divided into two main parts, Part One being the basis for their understanding of the church as a gospel community. Appropriately, the titles of their chapters are Gospel and Community. The remainder of the book examines the ramifications of this gospel-community-perspective on various aspects of the Christian life.

Why Gospel: The gospel is what gives meaning to the group of people who gather. It is the story which unites the people and establishes their identity. The focus on gospel also incorporates the living message of God given to humanity in the person of Jesus. This message is distinctive in history, and prevents the church from becoming solely defined by their feelings, associations, and opinions (essentially, the gospel keeps them focused on God instead of themselves).

Why Community: The context for the gospel is not isolation or an ethereal spiritual plane, but the day-to-day common life of people. The community life is the laboratory for experiencing the message of Jesus, testing it and discovering its power.

Given these two necessities each area of church life takes on a distinctively different tone. Each chapter expands on the ramifications of gospel-community in the different aspects:

Evangelism: In gospel-community, evangelism is not debating others into cognitive submission of theological truths, but the incorporation into a group-life that is faithful to God. Evangelism, then, is not event-centered (such as passing a tract) but invitation-centered. Someone may experience an aspect of the community life, which would draw them deeper into relationship with the people.

Social Involvement: This chapter focused on the directive for God’s people to be concerned with the wellbeing of the vulnerable in this world (orphan, alien, widow). The gospel-community is in a position to respond directly due to their consistent presence in the lives of those vulnerable. To come alongside of and walk with the downcast is a living proclamation of what God has done for humanity in Christ.

Church Planting: As the community welcomes people into the life together, it is entirely organic for the community to expand into other vicinities. This missionary activity, taking the community into new contexts, is intentioned to follow where the spirit of God leads in order to bring more members into the communal life.

World Mission: A considerable shift from the institutional church, the perspective on world mission cannot be perpetuated when there is not an institutional sending church. Mission, to the gospel-community, takes on a different life as each member is expected to live the gospel-life in their context, whether in the neighborhood or the neighborhood of people who doesn’t look like you.

Discipleship and Training: In the community, the responsibility for discipleship and training is removed from the responsibility of a single person or program and is an integral part of life together. As a group of people each struggle to live the gospel life faithfully, discipleship occurs in the encouragement within the community.

Pastoral Care: Much like Discipleship and Training, every member of the community is responsible for the care of its members. Some may be more suited in different situations, but the focus is on the community as a whole processing through any distress in life.

Spirituality: I was impressed by the authors’ disregard for the disciplines of silence to connect with the spiritual. Their dilemma with meditation, solitude, etc, came from the tendency for these acts to become solitary ventures into the world of God and not contribute as readily to the growth of the community.

Theology: Not surprisingly, the theology of the gospel-community is word (gospel)-centered and community-centered. This understanding creates an active church, establishing a mission-centered theology. Theology that dismisses these center-points are categorically contrary to the life of the church.

Apologetics: Unlike the historical model, the apologetic of the gospel-community does not depend on debate, but the transparent invitation to those outside to experience the life that members have found together. As such, a victory does not by obliterating an opponent, but by welcoming someone into the fold and seeing their growth.

Children and Young People: The obvious benefit that I see in the gospel-community is that a person is exposed to a wider of variety of Christian mentors. By seeing how committed Christians address nuanced life decisions, a teenager especially can establish a similar approach to the difficult decisions in their life.

Success: Just as the gospel-community has taken the behaviors of the institutional church and undone them, the rationale for success is dynamically different as well. By shifting away from the criteria by which we gauge success in the world, the gospel-community finds fulfillment in faithfulness expressed in the life of its members. This is in contrast to the tendency to rate efforts by numeric growth and financial stability.