Christians must not conceive of mission as only that which takes us far from home or into harm’s way. Too often, would-be missionaries are energized by the possibility of going across the world to minister to unreached people groups but are not energized by the prospect of going across town to engage in cross-cultural mission with local unreached immigrant or minority communities.
Young, restless church leaders are writing books and attending conferences about urban ministry in London, New York or Buenos Aires. But who is getting excited about planting churches in Midwestern suburbia, rural Appalachia or the tiny towns that dot the farmland in flyover country? Arguably these forgotten, unsexy frontiers of mission are some of the places where gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church planting is most needed.
Why is it easier for us to go to the other side of the world than it is to go across the street to talk to our neighbors about Jesus? It’s uncomfortable to share our faith with people in our immediate context because, well, we have to continue to do life with them and it may get awkward if we bring up Jesus. Plus it is sometimes easier to care for the soul of the foreigner who we don’t know than the proven heathen that we do. But if we don’t approach our day-to-day lives, neighborhoods, workplaces and relationships through the lens of mission, we are not doing it right. Mission isn’t just something made possible by a passport or a seminary degree. It’s a paradigm which should inform everything we do.
“Everything a Christian and a Christian church is, says and does should be missional in its conscious participation in the mission of God in God’s world,” says Christopher Wright in The Mission of God’s People.
This includes the sometimes uncomfortable task of widening our notion of mission to include our “secular work,” whether we are lawyers or teachers or stock brokers or baristas. It includes the dignifying of mundane “mission” at home: being good mothers, fathers, children, siblings, roommates, neighbors. It also includes the uncomfortable call to commit to a local church community and focus most of our missional energy therein. This means asking of the church, “what is the need here and how can I help fill it?” rather than “here is how I’d like to serve; can you accommodate this?”
This may not be sexy or self-actualizing. But to commit to and simply serve in a church, without anyone noticing or without having selfies or exotic stories to show for it, is a beautiful thing. There is something countercultural and revolutionary in a church simply being a church, a community of actively serving members practicing resurrection in their neighborhood or city. There is a powerful witness in this, even if it doesn’t involve explosive growth, the conversion of celebrities or some sort of 10-year plan for seven new church plants.
It’s not that we should lower our expectations or squelch the ambitious visionaries in our midst. It’s just that sometimes the most effective mission is the patient, quiet, unheralded: the 60-year-old pastor who led his congregation in rural North Dakota for 40 years, helping innumerable broken people find healing and hope in Jesus without every having started a blog or attended Catalyst; the 39-year-old insurance salesman who only has 62 Twitter followers but has led three children and two coworkers to the Lord; the stay-at-home mom who volunteers at a battered women’s shelter three days a week and organizes meals for the needy families in the congregation; the 14-year-old girl who resists the cattiness of junior high cliques by seeking out and getting to know the unpopular kids.
There are many “ordinary” ways to be ambassadors of the extraordinary gospel, but none more important than building up the body of Christ by committing to a local church, however “boring” it may seem. As Kevin DeYoung says:
In the grand scheme of things, most of us are going to be more of an Ampliatus (Rom. 16:8) or Phlegon (v. 14) than an apostle Paul. And maybe that’s why so many Christians are getting tired of the church. We haven’t learned how to be part of the crowd. We haven’t learned to be ordinary. Our jobs are often mundane. Our devotional times often seem like a waste. Church services are often forgettable. That’s life... Life is usually pretty ordinary, just like following Jesus most days. Daily discipleship is not a new revolution each morning or an agent of global transformation every evening; it’s a long obedience in the same direction.
The church is imperfect, messy, maddening and at times mundane. But she is the body of Christ, the organism God has chosen to physically manifest the Son to the world, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It may not sound exciting. It may seem too predictable and institutional and bourgeois. It’s certainly not going to be comfortable. But showing up at church week after week, and giving oneself to the building up of the body, is a revolutionary act of mission.
This post is an excerpt from my book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, September 2017).