Faith on Display

I've been thinking a lot about the effectiveness of the local church these days. Having spent almost 25 years of my life as a pastor much of my energy was spent trying to build a healthy church by drawing folks into the life and activity of the church. When I stepped away from leading within the local church in 2004 my ministry moved outside the walls of the church. Initially, I felt like I had lost my home. So much of my identity, relationship base and platform for ministry were tethered to the local church. But this season 'away from the church' has given me the space and opportunity to step back and take a fresh look at the church, more from the vantage point of an outsider than an insider, and ask some honest questions about how we carry out our mission.

I recently began reading a provocative book at the invitation of a new friend who is launching an innovative church plant here in Atlanta. The Shape of Things To Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st_Century Church (Frost and Hirsch) asks the reader to reexamine our understanding of how the church will best represent and reflect Christ in today's post-Christian cultural setting. It is worthwhile reading for anyone concerned about the increasing ineffectiveness (some would suggest irrelevance) of the church within western culture. The church has historically defined itself in institutional terms. It's the place to which people are invited to find Christ, enjoy the benefits of knowing Christ and serve Christ. By contrast 'the shape of things to come' may require the church to define itself more in incarnational terms. That is, followers of Christ displaying their faith by moving into a community, living among its people and within the fabric of the community, serving the community with compassion and building authentic friendships through which people see and hear about Christ. The question that stirs the heart of those who think more in incarnational terms is "how do we stop thinking conventionally about how to make the church more attractive to our community and start thinking creatively about how to make Christ more attractive by serving our community?" It requires a completely different set of assumptions and approaches to ministry.

The incarnation of Jesus is a fundamental doctrine, not just as an essential tenet of our belief system, but also as a theological prism through which we view our mission and behavior as followers of Jesus. Jesus represented His Father by becoming a man and doing life with people so they could see grace and truth lived out before them ( John 1:14 and Philippians 2:5-8). His story was marked by genuine involvement in the lives of ordinary people with authentic displays of compassion for hurting people. He was emotionally engaged with their longings, fears, hurts, hopes, lifestyles and worldviews. His ministry emerged very naturally from within the fabric of the friendships he formed, sometimes in the Temple but mostly in the community.

Do I long to live here! And it's my dream for each of you. It's risky. It's real. It's genuine. It's natural. And at times, it's messy and costly. It requires us to connect with the real needs of hurting people, to invest in their lives in meaningful ways and actively demonstrate the love of Christ, not just talk about it from a safe distance.

But is this the way we really think about ministry?  It's an honest question. More often than not don't we limit our personal ministry to the safe confines of the programs we serve or lead within the walls of the church? Don't we see ministry 'in the community' as inviting people to attend an event, a workshop, a study, a retreat, or a church service where they may be exposed to Jesus? That's institutional thinking. When we begin displaying our faith outside the walls of the church, engaging people, serving them with compassion, and inviting them into a relationship with us where they may experience Jesus we're thinking and living incarnationally!

I spoke with a friend yesterday who owns a small business who decided to serve within the fabric of his community by teaching English to Hispanic folks. He is the only Anglo involved! As he described the friendships he was forming and the sense of purpose he was experiencing, his heart was passionate and alive. He was serving folks with compassion, building friendships by meeting a need in their lives and modeling the love of Christ for his community. His heart was alive because he is thinking and living incarnationally.

In John 17:18 Jesus prays to His Father for all his followers, "In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world (The Message)." Jesus lived out His mission by doing life with people, putting grace and truth on display. Should it be an different for those of who are followers of Jesus?