Sentness is the by-product of Grace

Last week, Ray Ortlund posted a quote from Lesslie Newbigin on his Gospel Coalition blog. The full quote is reprinted below.

“There has been a long tradition which sees the mission of the Church primarily as obedience to a command. It has been customary to speak of ‘the missionary mandate.’ This way of putting the matter is certainly not without justification, and yet it seems to me that it misses the point. It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel.  If one looks at the New Testament evidence one gets another impression. Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told. Who could be silent about such a fact? The mission of the Church in the pages of the New Testament is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life-giving.”

sentnesslogoNewbigin says, with slightly different language, what I’ve been trying to communicate for some time now. Namely, that sentness is the by-product of grace. The missionary impulse, living sent, is an overflow of grace before it is obedience to a command. Sentness as the by-product of grace is summed up in the tag line of this blog. “God’s glory, our spiritual poverty. God’s grace, our sentness.” Ultimately, it’s our life with Jesus and our realization of God’s great grace that fuels the mission of living sent to make disciples.

Bonhoeffer on Sentness

The Christian belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?’

Bonhoeffer quoting Luther in Life Together, p. 17-18.

Dallas Willard on Sentness

The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples—students, apprentices, practitioners—of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence. Will they break out of the churches to be his Church—to be, without human force or violence, his mighty force for good on earth, drawing the churches after them toward the eternal purposes of God? And, on its own scale, there is no greater issue facing the individual human being, Christian or not.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Omission, p. xv.

Stott on Sentness

If we have resisted the missionary dimension of the church’s life, or dismissed it as if it were dispensable, or patronized it reluctantly with a few perfunctory prayers and grudging coins, or become preoccupied with our own narrow-minded, parochial concerns, we need to repent, that is, change our mind and attitude. Do we profess to believe in God? He’s a missionary God. Do we say we are committed to Christ? He’s a missionary Christ. Do we claim to be filled with the Spirit? He’s a missionary Spirit. Do we delight in belonging to the church? It’s a missionary society. Do we hope to go heaven when we die? It’s a heaven filled with the fruits of the missionary enterprise. It is not possible to avoid these things.

John Stott in The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World, p. 335.

Every Believer A Missionary

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My hope is that this blog helps catalyze the following vision: every believer a missionary resulting in a Holy Spirit directed spontaneous expansion of the Church. I’ve heard it said in response to this vision that if everybody is a missionary then nobody is a missionary. The words of the late missiologist J. Herbert Kane summarize this objection.

The Chinese have a proverb: If two men feed a horse, it will lose weight; if two men keep a boat, it will soon leak. What is everybody’s job is nobody’s job. If every Christian is a missionary, missionary work is bound to suffer. It is correct to say that every Christian is, or should be, a witness. It is not correct to say that every Christian is a missionary.

When missiologists make statements like this they are wanting to preserve the important task of carrying the gospel across cultural boundaries to those who owe no allegiance to Christ. If missions is defined as everything the Church does, what’s lost is the notion of going somewhere to minister cross-culturally. Without crossing cultural boundaries, everybody’s job becomes nobody’s job and true missionary work suffers. I get that. I understand the reasoning. And I agree-for the most part.

Not everyone is able to pack up their family, move overseas, and cross significant cultural and linguistic boundaries for the sake of the gospel. By the way, missiologists call this E3 evangelism. So, yes, in this sense not everybody is a missionary. However, every believer is called to participate in the Great Commission through neighbor to neighbor missions. Missiologists call this E1 evangelism, if no significant cultural or linguistic boundaries are crossed.

It’s at this point that I would like to push back on the missiologist and widen the definition of a missionary. Just because the cultural distance traversed through E1 evangelism isn’t great doesn’t mean the boundaries crossed are insignificant. Often times the most daunting boundary to meaningful engagement with the gospel is, for example, the backyard fence separating neighbors. The person who prayerfully overcomes that boundary has done the work of a missionary; this is more than being a witness.

So, not every believer is a missionary in the E3 sense but everybody is a missionary in the E1 sense. Some believers will cross great boundaries to bring about meaningful engagement with the gospel. Others will cross smaller, less daunting boundaries. Both are missionaries because boundaries have been crossed. It’s with this nuance that I suggest the vision of every believer a missionary resulting in a Holy Spirit directed spontaneous expansion of the church.

Do the work of a missionary. What is everybody’s job is in fact everybody’s job. Cross those boundaries. Live sent!

We affirm that Christ sends his redeemed people into the world as the Father sent him, and that this calls for a similar deep and costly penetration of the world. We need to break out of our ecclesiastical ghettos and permeate non-Christian society. In the Church’s mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary. World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world…. The goal should be, by all available means and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have the opportunity to hear, understand, and to receive the good news.

The Lausanne Covenant

The Choice Before Us

“There exists in every church something that sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. So we must strive very hard, by the grace of God, to keep the church focused on the mission that Christ originally gave to it.”  

~ C.S. Lewis

I want to begin with a story. It’s the story of the Church. Once upon a time, and for almost two thousand years, the Church enjoyed a prominent and important place in society, America included. The Church was a culturally significant and respected institution. In this period of time called Christendom the Church stood at the epicenter of culture.

As the center of society, the Church had tremendous authority and influence. Like E.F. Hutton, when the Church spoke, people listened. Universities listened. The Media listened. Businesses listened. Governments listened. These institutions were guided by the wisdom dispensed by the Church. And in many cases, people sought out the Church to find the answers to the big questions of life. And it was the happiest of days for this thing called the Church.

But in the United States, as had already happened in Western Europe, something changed. A seismic shift occurred. The nature of that shift can be illustrated by a seemingly innocuous event one sleepy Sunday evening in Greenville, South Carolina, 1963. That night the Fox Theater defied the state’s time-honored blue laws and opened for business. Unbeknownst to most, Christendom in America was mortally wounded.

In the words of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, 

“That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom…On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice it would no longer be a prop for the Church. There would be no more free passes for the Church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head to head with the Church over who would provide the world view for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.” 

Ever since, the cultural landscape in America has changed dramatically.The Church is no longer the central institution in Western society. It’s been dethroned—marginalized by an increasingly secularized culture. With its influence diminished the Church has now become just one of any number of different places that people go to find Truth and Meaning. Optimistically, a few might still look to the Church for answers. The reality, however, is that the Church has become culturally insignificant.  

Even though these seismic changes have radically altered the way our culture relates to the Church, the Church has not adapted in response. Consequently, the Church finds itself in a precarious position.  Consider the following statistics from a previous post

34% of the U.S. adult population has not attended any type of church service during the past 6 months

6 out of 10 unchurched people consider themselves to be Christian

1 out of every 3 is unchurched (73 million adults)

Since 1991, the adult population in the US has grown by 15%, and during the same period the number of adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled (39 million to 75 million)

Roughly half of all churches in America didn’t add one new person through conversion growth last year

These numbers are dated, conservative, and the trend is accelerating the Church toward precipitous decline. Without massive change, might the Church’s lampstand in the West be removed? What should be done? How should the Church seek to reach a culture that continually pays less and less attention to it?  What are the churches options? They are twofold. The choice is before us.

The first option is attractional in nature and consumeristic at heart. It says this, “we the Church must out-compete the other influences vying for people’s attention.” Over the last fifty years Evangelicals have believed that if we could get people to come through the front doors of a building we might be able to win people over with good coffee and a smorgasbord of relevant, felt-need related programs. Many churches have become, as Alan Hirsch puts it, expert “vendors of religious goods and services.”

In fact, you name it and the Church has tried it in order to get people through its doors.  In many ways, we’ve adopted a Field of Dreams mindset. “If you build it (attractive facilities, programs, preaching center, etc.) they will come.” Sometimes it has worked. On occasion, people have stayed and found Christ. But most churches simply don’t have the kind of resources to out-compete a Disneyland and grab people’s attention long enough to hold them. A select few churches, those with a plentitude of resources, have often grown very large ministering this way. The mega-church movement is proof positive of this. Sadly enough, one of the unintended results of the mega-church movement has been the cannibalization of under-resourced churches that simply can’t compete. With the residue of Christendom not wholly washed away churches may continue to see modest success ministering this way, but not enough to fully reverse the decline.  

And yet, Christians continue to think that this strategy will work; that the decline might be reversed. But it won’t. Eventually the final residue of Christendom will wear off and the Church will exist in a fully post-Christendom society. While we wait to get our act together the darkness over the land continues to creep and spread.  

There is, however, an alternative; a second, better, and forgotten way. In this second option the church responds to this seismic cultural shift, decentralizes and sends itself. The culture won’t come to us so we must go to it. I want to suggest to you that unless we adopt this second way of doing church, we will continue to grow increasingly irrelevant to the culture around us.

The exciting thing is this model of ministry is nothing new or even all that radical. I think Jesus intended this decentralized way of life in mind from the very beginning. John 20:19-21 says,

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

Our job as followers of the Way is to send ourselves in response to Jesus’ command.  We have to take the light of Christ to the darkness. Empowered by the Holy Spirit we must send ourselves in obedience to Jesus. This posture is what I call “sentness” and it is critically important for the future health and well-being of God’s church.

So, the Church in the West is at a crossroads with a choice. M. Scott Boren eloquently summarizes this choice when he says,

“We can fight to reestablish the church as a physical place where certain things happen.  We can work harder to compete with society, to out-entertain and lure people in with as much pomp and circumstance as a church can afford.  Or, we can become a church on a mission.” 

For the glory of God and the health of his Church, I choose the latter. Live sent!