By Merv Budd
In this second portion of the interview (read part 1 here), The Church in Exile author Lee Beach shares some hard words for Western Christians today, as well as some provocative encouragement:
Forge Canada: On page 144 of The Church in Exile, you make the bold assertion that, “many Christians in the West today live in a culture they do not understand.” What brings you to that conclusion? Can you illustrate your point?
Lee Beach: I think that a lot of Christians today think that the answer to the churches decline is to develop better techniques, or find a new pastor, or that it is just best to condemn the culture and sit back smugly. I think that lots of people in churches today think that by tweaking their Sunday service, or adding a new church-based program they can be more effective in reaching out to their neighbourhoods.
I recently consulted with a church that had a goal to double their Sunday morning attendance in ten years. Their overall plan was to use the Sunday service as a the primary tool for community outreach. While the people were definitely sincere and their hearts were in the right place I was dumbstruck by their naivety. It was an example of how the leaders in this church completely misunderstood the changes in our cultures perception of the church and its message. They needed to be “converted” just as much as the people in their neighbourhood.
They needed to be converted from a Christendom mindset to a post-Christendom mindset. That is, they needed to come to an orientation to the world that understands that, by and large, people today find the Christian gospel irrelevant to the their lives. The only way that church will double its attendance is if it begins to develop a strategy for outreach that puts its Sunday service on the back burner and starts to focus on community service and engagement.
Stop worrying about how to get people into church and instead focus on how to get church people out of church and into their neighbourhoods doing the good work of Jesus among their neighbours.
Forge: You write about the need for God’s people to live holy lives as a missional posture within culture but you say that “It is a holiness that emphasizes living engaged but nonconformed lives that are guided by love and exercise genuine, abundant grace” (page 195). Are you able to give an example where you have seen this non-conformed, love guided, and abundant grace filled holiness?
Lee: We need to be known by what we stand for instead of what we stand against. We need to be known as those who love, care and welcome instead of those who build barriers and reject those who do not fit our code of ethics.
I see this happening in many places. I visited a church in Hamilton recently where street people and people with mental health issues are invited to participate in the service as leaders despite their very obvious issues. In another church I know they have taken seriously the idea of adding value to their neighbourhood (the whole city in fact) by starting small businesses and taking leadership in cultivating a new economic vision for a town that has been through a lot of hard times.
The positivity and love that these churches share is an embodiment of the good news. They are truly helping to transform lives and communities by living lives of practical love and service. This is embodied holiness. It is a demonstration of gospel shaped lives that incarnate the Kingdom message of Jesus.
Forge: You talk about the frustration that some may have forming community around mission but not being sufficiently able to quantify the results and measure the progress—which is a great source of angst in a “results oriented” culture (page 203). If we are not oriented around results which are measured for success what would you say is the necessary orientation around which a missional congregation needs to focus?
I think that the key question is what are we doing to benefit our local community and communities that are far away from us? “Success” is being able to identify specific initiatives that our church is involved in that has us engaged, face to face, with people in our community. How are we serving our community in an ongoing way? What new initiatives did we start this year? What feedback have we received from people outside the church that may lead us to believe that our work is valued by our community?
Further, what are we doing outside our local community that is supporting God’s worldwide mission? Are our resources (money, time, human) engaged in places where we may never see any direct benefit to our church (i.e. attendance, money, etc.) but without our help ministry in that place may not take place?
What are we doing for people who are marginalized? Can we identify ways that our church is tangibly making life a little bit better for people who are economically and socially disadvantaged? If a church can answer these questions positively then, in my mind that is a measure of success.