In light of my previous post the issue can be summed up thus:
How does the missional church maintain an evangelistic thrust that is not swamped by a commitment to long-term, low key relationship in which there appears to be no interest in the gospel over an extended period of time?
In other words, can we keep growing the “holding pen” of friends who do not know Jesus, or is there a point when we need to take stock and reassess the level of time commitment to those friendships? And if we do decide to keep growing the holding pen, doesn’t that put at risk the very raison detre for missional church in the first place? Below are some concerns and some possible, and humbly offered, solutions.
Concern#1: Thin Relationships
A key concern in our culture is that our relationship connections are increasing in quantity, but decreasing in quality. People are time poor, live at fast pace over greater distances, and involve themselves in more activities. Ad hoc catch-ups once a month are poor substitutes for more meaningful relationships and, given the depth of relationship required to have a significant spiritual discussion with a person, would seem to preclude effective evangelism – particularly in a post-Christian culture in which the average person has no latent grasp of the biblical worldview. The problem is, can those committed to a long-term, low-key missional approach to church really slow down the pace of life without “dropping out“? After all no one else is slowing down their lives on the off-chance you have an amazing message about Jesus to tell them. If we don’t keep pace with people what are the chances they will slow down for us?
You cannot talk to that friend at the soccer club every day, and probably not very often at all over summer, but you can talk about that friend every day to God. The God who created time has more time and more concern for your friends than you do. Do you have a written out list of people to pray for? You should! Praying for friends is the most obvious way to ensure that they remain high on your agenda, and certainly extremely high on God’s. Pray that they may also meet someone else who is a Christian in another avenue of their life and that as they converse, they start to connect the gospel dots back to your friendship also. After all, if we believe that God is sovereign (we DO believe that God is sovereign don’t we? – Ed), then he is more than capable of ensuring that your friend for whom you are praying meets another Christian with they can also spend time with.
Solution2: Get Off the Catch Up Merry-go-round
It’s ok to NOT catch up with someone who says “Oh, we must catch up!” If you are able to prioritise a narrower set of friendships who are high rotation, rather than a wider set at low rotation, it may serve you well. You will have to allow your “No’s” to give meaning to your “Yes’s”. If you are part of a missional church plant you have done this already (haven’t you?) when you decided that you would prioritise the brothers and sisters in the plant over those Christian friends from your old church. You need to have the conversation with those old friends kindly, but firmly. You need to explain that the limited time you do have you are going to use to prioritise new non-Christian relationship for gospel reasons. Now that you have done it once you have to learn to do it all over again – this time by concentrating on those relationships in which you have been able to have gospel conversations – if mission and evangelism is to remain a priority.
Concern #2: People Pleasing
This piggy-backs off Concern #1. Why do we feel compelled to “catch up” with so many people? Because if we don’t, we often feel the pang that derives from our fear of what they may think of us. People in the West are driven by “catch ups”. What happens when you stop playing the game? Outwardly we don’t want to make people “feel bad” if we don’t catch up, but inwardly the real concern is often fear of what others might think of us if we constantly say “no”. The number of “have to’s” that we feel compelled to attend for the sake of others can often breed resentment and a passive anger.
Solution: Fearing God
Dylan sang that we all “gotta serve somebody”, meaning either the Devil or the LORD. The same is true of our other relationships . We either serve/fear others or we fear God. In other words, we find ourselves giving significant weight to the opinion of other people about us, or we give significant weight to the opinion of God about us. Fearing God, in the knowledge of his goodness and kindness towards us in Jesus, is incredibly liberating and often leads to a new sense of clarity and direction in our lives. Over recent years I have been learning to say “no” to many good things that I have been asked to do. The initial sting of saying it, has been more than compensated not simply by the relief at having a space in my diary, but by the knowledge that God accepts me and loves me, regardless of the disappointment the other person may be feeling by my response.
This fear of God has a bonus for our long-term, low key relational evangelism. The more we invest in a relationship the higher the stakes. Should a long-term investment relationship fail, it is more likely to crush us than if a short-term one were to fail. However the problem with long-term low key relational evangelism is that the quality of the relationship is often inversely proportional to our ability to share the gospel into it. Not always, I might add, but if you have made friends with people who do not know Jesus, the longer you don’t mention him, the harder it will be to do so at a later date. The worst place to get to is when your friend commends you on your friendship with them precisely because you don’t “push the Jesus thing” at them. That’s a recipe for conflicted emotions, I can tell you. At one level we feel proud about that, because it shows we are not some fundy nutbar, but on another level we are ashamed, because everything in us is screaming “tell them about the greatest thing in your life (not a Thermomix in case you were wondering – Ed) Getting to “the Jesus thing” early is the solution. It will either result in the relationship cooling off, or it will result in someone knowing more about him, seeing his work in your life, and perhaps coming to know him themselves. And you will only be able to get to “the Jesus thing” early if your fear of people is overcome by your fear of God.
Concern#3: The Size of the Task
In Romans 15 when Paul states that he has preached the gospel all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum he is not saying every person every where. And there is no way that he could have done that long-term, low key relationally. Now, granted we are not Paul, and granted that we do not have the missionary call he did. But somehow he just decided to “carpet bomb” the region with the gospel. Not everyone is called to be a “carpet bomber” evangelist, but some are. Australia is growing, and growing quickly. Perth, where I live, is throwing up houses in its northern and southern suburbs at such a pace that shocks the annual holiday maker trying to get out of the burbs. We’re not scratching the surface evangelistically.
Solution: Find the Carpet Bomber
I believe it is the role of the missional church to identity those who are “carpet bombers” and help build teams around them who are equipped to do long-term, low key relational evangelism. Each new church plant should have someone willing to go out and do the dirty door-to-door stuff that most others shy away from. Greg Lee from Hunter Bible Church told some of us recently that occasionally he rocks up at the office, says to the staff “Off we go”, and, like it or loathe it, they go on a door-knocking expedition together in Newcastle for the morning (and they thought Monday morning staff meeting was going to be at Gloria Jeans). It’s his way of keeping that carpet-bombing impetus in the church. How would anyone else in Hunter Bible Church be compelled to gossip the gospel as far and as wide as they could, if the leadership doesn’t demonstrate that it is its priority. I wouldn’t want to make too big an issue of this, but there is something about the carpet bombing approach that enlivens and quickens the long-term, low-key relational approach. Perhaps there is something that unlocks spiritually when we do, perhaps it is it simply cause and effect. Either way I am convinced that if a missional church plant is not committed to both, it will eventually do neither. I once met a group – a self-consciously styled missional community group – that had been the same fifteen people for more than a decade. Something got lost in translation folks.
I’d be interested in responses to this. If experience tells me anything it is that the overwhelming reaction is that I am diminishing true relationships by seeing people who don’t yet trust Jesus simply as “targets” or “numbers”. I truly don’t. I truly want us to have deep, encouraging, enriching relationships. But more than that I want those relationships to continue into the age-to-come, and for that I would make no apologies.