August 27, 2016

My Missional Journey Ten Years On: Pt 1

I will be 49 soon.  The countdown to the big 5-0 begins.  Not complaining. I love this stage of my life. But it’s a good time to reflect on the past ten years.  It was easily the most momentous decade in our (my wife Jill’s and my) lives.  Especially in ministry terms, and especially in how ministry unfolded from the time I was a year away from turning forty until now – a year away from turning fifty.  So here’s what could be an open-ended series of blog posts (intermingled with the usual stuff, and hopefully signed off before my fiftieth birthday party!).

Bakers Delight Is Open Seven Days: Whatever Happened to the Day of Rest?

It’s hard to believe in these days in which everyone is “missional” (and to paraphrase Syndrome from The Incredibles, “When everyone is missional, no one will be”), just how momentous, strange and alien that term was back in the early  2000’s.  A term that has now been stretched so thin as to mean anything a church, a pastor or a blog wishes it to mean, was once tight, vital, dangerous and rare.  As I said, hard to believe. But it was.

And here’s how missional intersected with me. Having done my dutiful duty; good small “r” reformed theological training, several years as a Baptist Pastor associate, I had a growing sense that no matter what we said, no matter what we did, things in the church were changing fast. Things in the culture were changing fast. And those two things were linked somehow.

I attended a litany of conferences at which US mega-church pastors or planters explained the solution to decline by simply exacerbating the problem – or my problem at least.  They had plenty to say to a setting in which people had stopped going to the church. Plenty to say about how to get the cultural Christian back into the pew (or theatre seat more likely).

They had plenty of advice to give a planter who planted out from a mothership with 100-150 start-ups (say what?!) but precious little, it seemed, to say to the hardening secular framework of disinterest in the rest of the West.  Forget the US, the UK seemed to be the closest example, and the place to find answers if I went looking.

The line in the sand for me was, like many lines in the sand, less perceptible on the day than in hindsight.

One Sunday I walked into a Bakers Delight store after church to buy a panne de casa for the lunch time soup.  Their latest advertising campaign caught my eye – and my imagination. It read:

“Bakers Delight is Open 7 Days. Whatever Happened to the Day of Rest?”

Now I am a good solid conservative type (my more charismatic friends think so anyway), so when I say that it felt like a prophetic moment for me, you can take my word for it. I walked back into the store there and then and asked for the poster, which I then laminated and still have in my office today.

That poster echoed my own questions about church and its increasing distance from the surrounding culture. Whatever happened to the Christian framework that people in Australia had assented to without adhering to?  Whatever happened to the  days in which we had sung, bored and scandal-lessly, The Lord’s Prayer at a local government primary school back in the mid-seventies?

And why did it seem that no matter what we put on, no matter the conversations we had with work colleagues, no matter the guest services, no one turned up or show a bit of interest? Ever!

And why did our own people turn up to these events either worn out from the week, or not turn up at all?  Even the assurances among my more theologically conservative friends that if we just “keep preaching the Word”, we would see off the less theologically robust and reach the culture eventually at the same time, rang hollow.  Primarily because the evidence wasn’t there.

Now I was not naive.  I had completed an English Degree at university, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Creative Writing, and had done my fair share of introductory post-modern foundational units.  But the university tone towards Christianity, disinterest bordering on hostility, was leaching downwards into the wider culture.

All this occurred at the same time that I burnt out at work, took six months off, and then decided not to return.  Having a wife with vastly more earning potential than I gave me a few good years at home with our young daughter, and a chance to ruminate and plot some sort of return to something – whatever that might look like.

I started researching.  I started scouring the web for resources, ideas, and theological friends.  In short I was looking for any group in a post-Christian Western setting that was theologically from the same boat, but had an ecclesiology more malleable, adaptable, and brave, in the face of the changing world.

Now I wasn’t ready to throw out my theological framework and I read plenty from plenty who had.  Those early adopters of blog technology seemed to fall into two camps:  the burnt-out post-evangelical/licking-our-wounds types, and the hardy theologically conservative/ecclesiologically radical types.  I knew where my roots lay, if for no other reason than the post-evangelicals looked and sounded like the early 20th century liberals.  And look how that had worked out!

Two contacts changed everything, and looking back I can still say that for all of the pain some of this caused us, it was something we would do again.  One was contact online with a church planting group in the UK (more on that later), and one was an invitation from a mate, Andrew Hamilton, (Hamo of Backyard Missionary fame), to go and hear a bloke speaking about missional church to a small bunch of 15 or so interested people in a small, uninteresting room.  That man’s name was Alan Hirsch.

When Hamo invited me to hear Alan I was already a little cynical of aspects of the missional crowd, especially the post-foundational set.  Hence I turned up ready to meet a 20 something slightly whiney, Kurt Cobain type who bagged out the church and had a few Bible verses to show why.

What I got was a quiet, erudite, well read, theologically savvy, Australian of Jewish and South African heritage who, nevertheless, blew me away with a presentation about the problems facing the church in the West that ticked all of the boxes.  It was as if he had been thinking about this stuff for the previous decade.  Which, of course, he had.

When I sat around the table at lunch talking with him, two things lodged in my mind:  One, this man was ahead of the curve when it came to understanding where things were going.  And secondly, and this was a clincher for our story for the next couple of years, when I mentioned to him the name of the UK church planting network I had gotten in touch with, he said it was probably  the closest thing he had seen to a working model of the missional church culturally and evangelistically.

I was hooked.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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