The 30th Annual General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Meeting in Englewood, Col, began its 2010 meeting with a day of equipping “God’s People for God’s Mission.”
After opening worship, the speaker of the day was Reggie McNeal, the missional leadership specialist for the evangelical para-church organization Leadership Network. “I want to start with good news before the persecution,” he said.
Acknowledging the myopic church-centric view of most North American mainline Christians, McNeal noted that most “tribes,” as he refers to all variety of people groups, mistakenly believe that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. McNeal confronted that misconception with statistics.
“According to Phillip Jenkins, there will be 2.7 billion Christians in the world by the middle of the century. If the middle of the century feels too far away, let’s just talk about the next 24 hours. Steven Douglas of Campus Crusade, which is partnering to plant a million churches in India in a decade, tells me that they’ve discovered that a million churches is not enough. India was 2 percent Christian in 2002; in 2010 India is passing 10 percent. That’s 80 million new followers, 30 to 40 thousand people a day.”
McNeal pressed his point, “Witnesses on the ground report that you can double those numbers for China. Churches are forming at every bus stop, subway station, apartment…it’s viral. We are seeing a Pentecost every single hour.”
Continuing his global report, McNeal celebrated that although “Africa was 3 percent Christian in 1900; it is now 47 percent Christian and post-tsunami Indonesia is meeting Jesus, not as a Western philosophy but as an enacted grace through the witness of Christian relief.”
He challenged participants to “imagine just for a moment being in that kind of environment where the church is literally springing up.”
Then he paused and made the transition most in the room actually experience is the context of North American mainline Protestantism.
“But here we are, importing witness. Only 20 percent of the church in the world today looks like us. We are now in the backwaters of the Christian movement. We are having to import stories of Pentecost everywhere the Western footprint went down. Australia, less than 5 percent Christian, which matches our U.S. West Coast reality. Not one European country will have 2 percent of its population in church this Sunday. Not one.”
McNeal acknowledged that the EPC is a denomination that is growing, making the astute observation that much of that growth is attributed to the “transfer of people from one file system into another file system.”
Turning again to statistics to support his message, McNeal lifted up the Pew study of religion in America noting that “16 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion. That’s one out of six Americans. One out of every five men. In the 20-year-old cohort, the stat rises to 25 percent.”
McNeal concluded that “there is a growing disaffection for any organized religion.”
Those present were then challenged to consider that although people are increasingly disinterested in organized religion, people are just as spiritually interested as they have ever been. McNeal described it as a “God-intoxicated culture” where spiritual conversations are welcomed. What is not welcomed are conversations about “church.”
“On the street it’s a wild God conversation,” he said. “In the church it’s a managed church conversation. There’s the disconnect.”
McNeal then pressed his point, “It’s not going to matter if we do church better.” Noting that “we have been building the best churches we’ve ever had while the percentage of people in our culture that hear and follow has doubled.” So, the question is posed, “how can we follow the Spirit where the Spirit is instead of trying to get the Spirit to show up at our joint?”
McNeal’s provocation continued, “What if we’re right back in the pre-Christian reality of the book of Acts where the church has to catch up with the Spirit?”
He then turned to the 15th chapter of Acts where he characterized the Jerusalem council as “a church meeting to determine if the Spirit of God would be allowed to keep doing what He’s doing. As if all of heaven held its breath waiting to see what the church would decide.” McNeal then acknowledged that God is running the movement, we are not.
As a church and culture diagnostician, McNeal observed that “God is having a new conversation with the church today. He is helping us see things that we’ve not seen before. Maybe winds of Pentecost might be picking up. I would like to see it reach gale force in my lifetime. I would like to see what I now hear is happening around the world. Yes, there is a growing sense of desperation, and that is hopeful. We have to run out of ourselves.”
Turning the conversation specifically to the matter of the missional church, McNeal stated that everyone present would either “self-select in or out.”
“People in every tribe are trying to go missional and have more in common with Christians in other tribes who are trying to go missional than they do with members of their own tribe who are not trying to go missional,” he said. “Some of you already get it. Your denomination has been moving toward this appropriately. And every obstacle to your going missional is in this room.
“For those of you who decide to, you will go out of this room and you will change the world,” McNeal said. “You will change the conversation, you will change the way you lift up and equip leaders, you will change the way you expect to see God working and how you engage in what you see Him doing.”
This is not about doing church better, it’s about being church better, he said.
Missional church, McNeal said, is recasting the conversation:
The people of God
partnering with Him
on His redemptive mission
in the world.
Working his way through the list, McNeal unpacked what a missional worldview and a missional mindset looks like.
“The church is nothing until you get to the people. The church is not an it, the church is a who. You do not invite your friends to church, you invite your friends to meet the Savior. The church is not a vendor of religious services for consumer Christians. The church is not something that you need to support with your money. Missional followers of Jesus understand ‘I am the church and you are the church and others are the church too.’ Everywhere I am, the church is. I church in my office, I church in my neighborhood, I church at school, and yes, I church at church. This is a movement understanding of the church as a people of blessing beginning in Genesis 12. It is the original covenant. We’ve got to go back and recapture the covenant of being a people of blessing on behalf of God.
“The mission was already under way before there was a church. There was a mission of God before there was a people of God. God is on a mission. The mission is already under way in the Garden. God didn’t lose Adam but God is always coming, always seeking. People aren’t seekers, God is. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. As the Father sent the Son, so the Son sends us. We get to participate in what God is doing, His mission.”
McNeal’s instruction then turned to John 4. “Jesus says ‘drop me off here.’ After all, where do people in a water-toting culture go? You know the story, Jesus met a woman at that well. And the disciples? Well, he sent them on a mission trip into the town. But they just went into town and picked up lunch. They missed the point of the mission trip. They didn’t engage the culture. They picked up sack lunches, but they missed the people and they missed the mission of God. In the end, one woman went into town to do what 12 men on a church mission trip had not done.”
Turning the point home, McNeal pointed out that “God is inviting us out to play on His turf – and all the turf belongs to God.”
He then juxtaposed the church-centric view with the missional view as a releasing of the church for mission in the places where God has already deployed His people. The gathering is not the point, the deployment is the point. His chosen illustration was that of “Jesus’ meeting with Nic at night.”
A church-centric view teaches that Christians take Jesus into the world. A missional view understands that Jesus is in the world by the power of the Spirit. We are invited to participate in what God is already doing.
When you move to a Kingdom-centric view you get it that God has been working this thing forever. Everything that sin broke, God is addressing.
McNeal’s closing illustration grew out of our mutual experience of travel. He observed that airports play a very important role in modern-day travel. But airports are not the destination. The parallel was then drawn to the church.
“When churches confuse themselves with the destination, people are disillusioned,” he said. “The Kingdom is the destination. The airport is necessary, the airport is my connection, the airport plays a vital role. So does the church.”