Repost from Oct 23, 2006 (I’ll start reposting old content selectively)
Individual/personal transformational mission statements vs. city/community/world transformational mission statements.
I don’t know if churches had mission statements before the seeker movement. The Seeker movement employed business tools in churches and part of what came along with this was mission statements. Mission/Vision statements are supposed to help churches get specific and focus their efforts and energies. It’s a good goal. Most churches wind up with mission statements that are a hodgepodge put together by committee. They accurately express the diffused assumptions and aspirations of churches that at one level kind of know what they want to do/ought to do but struggle to put it into one tight sentence.
The flagship of the seeker movement is of course Willow Creek in Chicago. Before I say anything else I want to say that I’ve visited Willow twice for their Church Leadership Conference and deeply appreciated both experiences. The first time I visited it really shook me out of my missionary slumber and showed me that I had to be just as much a missionary in North America as I was in the Dominican Republic. I believe that God has done a wonderful thing through Willow and the seeker movement and I respect and admire Bill Hybels as a Spirit filled, grace giving leader. I want nothing I’m about to say to detract in any way from their work or the positive ways they’ve impacted the church world wide. So many statements echo in my mind: “lost people matter to God”, “the local church is the hope of the world”, etc.
Willow had the keynote mission statement: “to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” This is a great mission statement communicates a great missionary message cleanly and succinctly. Churches around the world soon began to copy and tweak this statement. Many many churches today have similar mission statements most centering around individual, personal transformation. Isn’t that what the church should be about? Of course.
How did the Seeker movement pursue it’s mission? It was clear that in the 80s and 90s as Americans were generationally moving further and further away from their Christendom roots that common sinful maladies were wreaking havoc on their experience of wellbeing. Divorce, addiction, work-a-holism, etc. combined with affluence were increasingly making life unmanageable. In the words of an older mission maxim: find a need and meet it. The Seeker Movement found a broad, common need and were able to address is in a compelling way. The church has wisdom about discipline and self-control that can reign in the sinful nature and in the words of the 12 step movement restore your life to sanity. Credibility is earned through the performance of lives saved from the out-of-control American dream and an opportunity to “present the gospel” becomes more inevitable. Not only does Jesus and the Bible give us wisdom to curtail our avarice but they also resolve the unfelt (post-Christendom) need hell by means of the cross. The Contagious Christians helped newly churched Joe and Jane draw the cross on the napkin and lead their neighbors who are already coming to church now to Christ. It worked and in many ways it still works in many places.
Willow did not in any real way tweak the gospel presentation or understanding from it’s earlier iterations by Bill Bright or Billy Graham. The 4 Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion basically needed an additional front end (the Seeker Service, wisdom preaching, 12 step small groups, etc.) The American suburban world was changing but it was still mostly haunted by it’s Christendom past.
In Tim Keller’s address to the Desiring God 06 Conference he referred to a sermon given in the 50s by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones claiming (even then) that the world was changing. Allegorizing the story of the demon possessed boy in Mark 9 he claims that the “demon is in too deep”. In the Christ haunted Christendom evangelism required a rousing of people slumbering within a Christian worldview. They needed to be awakened, reminded and energized by a program and could be revved up and sent out. The Seeker Movement demonstrated that the population was moving away from this state quickly and so via Wisdom was able to once again restore credibility and be fruitful in evangelism.
Twenty years into the Seeker Movement many are seeing a dark side to the movement. The next cultural church wave, the emergent movement would, like each succeeding American generation it seems, find cause to disparage the faith of their parents. Part of it may just be youthful rebellion, but some of it (as usual) has some validity. The Seeker Movement hooked out of control affluent suburbanites by offering a way to make their lives work. Now again, in Willow’s defense their standard or definition of a “fully devoted follower” was not a watered down discipleship. Every time I heard Hybels preach I was deeply convicted of one thing or another. Too often as is common the copies are not as sharp as the original.
As Americans find full blown secularism and consumer culture hollow they seek to fill the void and gap with lots of spiritual means to “make life work”. Older cultural observers like Luther and Chesterton noted how incurably religious creatures we are and how fast we fall for the latest sexy “making life work” Baal that comes our way. The difficulty with the Seeker Movement and the individual/personal transformation promise they offer is that it fits so well into the religious “making life work” spiritual/self-help market place. It is too easy to leave the central idolatry of our hearts in place. We already deeply want God to serve us, bow to us, and cede to us the throne of the universe. We are already too prone to see God as the genie that rubbing the Christianity bottle releases. If we don’t directly confront this deep addiction we will simply seek to use God and his stuff for our own schemes of divinity.
It is for this reason that I think churches should move on from individual/personal transformational mission statements and look at broader community/city/world transformational statements. When we say that God is saving the world we have to cut people off at the unconscious mental translation pass which still hears that as God keeping disembodied souls from hell. God does that, but God does so much more. He is saving the world and we are the tools he is using to do just that. Expressive individualism wants to turn Christianity into merely a personal relationship by which God exalts me. Yes God wants a personal relationship with us, but it isn’t about us, it’s about the world.
This isn’t just good soteriology, it is good missiology. Brian McLaren noted this in his book A Generous Orthodoxy :
“One of my mentors once said to me, ‘Remember, in a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based on the benefits it brings to its nonadherents.’ This surprised me, and I thought about it for days. Many people think the opposite of what my mentor said: that religions offer benefits to adherents and catastrophic threats for nonadherents. This offer/threat combination motivates people, they assume, to become adherents out of fear of catastrophe and desire for benefits.” p. 111
If you take this and see it through the lens of Keller’s Gospel vs. Religion matrix it becomes even more clear. With an individual transformational mission focus we too quickly wind up with a self-salvation scheme which the adherent intends to yield all of the goodies any normal religious consumer desires. Grace works in the opposite direction:
1. We have no coin with God, just our crap.
2. We contribute nothing to our own salvation, we are utterly dependent upon God’s grace
3. When we really begin to see our salvation (Misery, deliverance, gratitude), it changes us from the inside out. It transforms our value system making the American dream look shabby compared to this strange suffering path of Jesus. It changes us from calculating American pragmatists to in-love Jesus followers who gladly sing hymns in Roman prison cells.
The church is then no longer simply yet another corporation seeking to enlarge it’s religious market share, it is a community of servants who are joyfully and deeply committed to seeing the flourishing of community/city on planet earth at whatever the cost. We don’t seek the supremacy of our organization or party, but we seek the well-being even of the pagan enemies around us. It is the reverse of the Christian culture war. We want our unbelieving neighbors to praise a God they don’t know for the presence of Christians in their city rather than resenting and fearing them in the public square.
The transition from an individual transformational statement to a communal one apart from the church itself helps us to bear a better witness to a Christ who came not for himself but for the rest of us.