By Karen Wilk
When the conversation about a church plant began to take shape over a dozen years ago in Edmonton, we jumped on board! I took up leadership responsibilities filling a wide variety of roles. It was exciting to be part of something new and innovative. Our numbers increased. We hired more staff. We began considering permanent facilities, adding services, offering more programs and classes.
We were very effective as an attractionali church. In the midst of this growth however, a new light was beginning to poke through the cracks. Our lead pastor heard Alan Hirsch speak and got a copy of his book, The Forgotten Ways. Suddenly there was a disconnect between what we had become, and what we began to understand was the mission of God and the nature of the church.
I began asking questions like: What was I really called to do? To be? Was this what church was meant to be? I was overseeing a lot of great programs. People were appreciating Sunday morning experiences; why wouldn’t they? We had fresh toasted bagels with three kinds of cream cheese, talented bands, speakers, drama teams and puppetry, as well as a fun, high energy children’s ministry. Each week we offered numerous interest and need-based small groups addressing a wide variety of affinities, age groups, wishes and concerns.
But were we making disciples? Were those far from God experiencing the good news of the Kingdom? Could the characteristics of a viral Gospel movement, which Hirsch described, be viable and applicable today?
These inquiries led me on a journey of wrestling with God, texts, myself and others. I read, listened to, and pursued missional thinkers and practitioners. In the fall of 2007, I attended my first Church Planting Canada Congress and it was catalytic in helping me grapple with and apply the concepts of missional church. It led me to register our church for a Forge Canada event in Edmonton. Fifteen of our leaders participated in six all-day training seminars over 6 months. We were challenged by the incarnational nature of the Gospel. We were struck by the link between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment as a means of participating in God’s mission.
The Spirit was inviting us to discover what God was up to in our neighbours and neighbourhoods and to join the Spirit at work there. My passion and imagination had been awakened with a dream for our neighbours to experience the Kingdom of God in their midst, for God’s shalom to be embodied as we were faithfully present.iii At the same time, I wanted other followers of Jesus to be reignited with love for their neighbours and commit to their neighbourhoods as places to which they were called and in which God was already at work.
For my family that journey became more intentional after we hosted our first neighbourhood Christmas Open House:
The first couple rang the doorbell and before the woman had her coat off and we had introduced ourselves she blurted out, “we just had to come to see who would do such a thing: inviting strangers into their home!”iii
I was more convicted than ever. How had it come to be that I and we, as followers of Jesus whose greatest commandment was to love our neighbours, have neighbours who think of us as strangers?
In 1993, Alan Roxburgh described the church as a vacuum cleaner sucking believers out of their neighbourhoods, and in to the institution. Despite the fact that many pious church-goers were offended, the data confirms his analogy. Studies show that, after 5 years, even new believers no longer have any significant relationships with nonbelievers. Couple this statistic with the realization that in a postmodern, post-Christendom culture, our neighbours have no interest in coming to church, and the need for a renewed understanding and practice for bearing witness in the communities God has placed us becomes not only essential but necessary if we are to be all that we are already called and made to be as God’s people.
Experiments and insights from across the globe suggest that this paradigm shift begins with learning again how to be good neighbours, how to keep the great commandment and how, in so doing, to bear witness together, to the incredible reality that Jesus reigns, His Kingdom has come and we get to be a part of it!
What’s the story of your journey into missional? How are you joining God in your neighbourhood?
i. Attractional church is a term used to describe a model of church that seeks to provide services and programs that attract people to the church facility by meeting their needs and desires, e.g. by being engaging, comfortable, culturally relevant.
ii. The term ‘faithful presence’ comes from James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010). We began to turn our attention to the neighbourhood, becoming convinced that God calls his people to be a faithful presence of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the neighbourhood.
iii. Karen Wilk, Don’t Invite them to Church: Moving from a Come and See to a Go and Be Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive, 2010), 14.