The ‘Sentness’ of Ordinary Individuals

Here’s another great story from SOMA Communities about what life can (and should) look like when believers live as a missionaries in their neighborhood. There are some recurring themes in all stories of this type: utter dependence on the Holy Spirit for guidance, times of listening and waiting on God to speak, high value on personal relationships, the cultivation of community through mealtimes, obedience to the Spirit, mission as team not as lone rangers. What else would you add to this list as essential ingredients for healthy, reproducing missional communities?

The ‘Sentness’ of Ordinary Individuals

“Sentness” — New Logo

Through the gracious gift of a friend (thanks Paige!) the blog now has a new logo that perfectly captures the visual idea behind “sentness.”

Our lives, informed and shaped by the grace of God through the cross of Christ, necessarily take on a posture that leans away from self and toward others. This centrifugal effect of the gospel upon our lives is what some have called missional-incarnational. I call it “sentness.” It is, or should be, the default posture of every believer.

I’ll be looking to integrate the logo into the blog in the coming weeks. If you have any suggestions about how to do that please comment. Live sent!

The church tends to make tame the life that was once in us and then confines its constituency to a cage of respectability and safety instead of releasing people back into the wild where the church is meant to live untamed, full of love and life in the midst of sin, pain, despair and suffering, incarnating the very presence and love of God.

Tom Johnston and Mike Chong Perkinson, The Organic Reformation

Why ‘Sentness’ is Needed

These stats are taken from a friend’s Ph.D dissertation:

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

Without a major shift in the way we ‘do church’ this trend will only continue. If we continue to wait for people to come to us in order to hear the Good News, within the next twenty years we will be a country with a Christian residue only. Live sent!

The Way of Spontaneous Expansion

Recently, I’ve been reading selected writings by Roland Allen from his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. For those of you unfamiliar with Allen, he was an early twentieth century Anglican missionary and missiologist who had a profound influence on Lesslie Newbigin. In many ways, much of the current discussion about the missional church finds its roots in Allen’s writings.

At any rate, Allen is obsessed with (in a good way) trying to understand how and why the early church expanded spontaneously, why the church was spontaneously expanding in the East in his day, and why this spontaneous expansion wasn’t happening in the West. Here’s how Allen defines spontaneous expansion.

I mean the expansion which follows the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new Churches.

Essentially, what Allen describes here is a CPM (Church Planting Movement) and a wonderfully concise description of ‘sentness.’ Allen’s analysis as to why this happened is as insightful as his definition.

The rapid and wide expansion of the Church in the early centuries was due in the first place mainly to the spontaneous activity of individuals. A natural instinct to share with others a new-found joy, strengthened and enlightened by the divine Grace of Christ, the Saviour, inevitably tends to impel men to propagate the Gospel. 

As a pastor, one of the lessons Allen has taught me is that the pastoral task is not to control various ministries. Rather, I need to give up control and instead lead people to be compelled by the Spirit. Because we as pastors have excelled at structuring and programming the Spirit right out of our ministries we simply haven’t given the Holy Spirit the freedom to do what He does best—expand his Church. 

Allen goes on to write:

No one, then, was surprised at the spontaneous efforts of individual Christians to convert others to their Faith. They probably thought it quite natural. Thus as men moved about there were constantly springing up new groups of Christians in different places. The Church expanded simply by organizing these little groups as they were converted, handing on to them the organization which she had received from her first founders. It was itself a unity composed of a multitude of little churches any one of which could propagate itself, and consequently the reception of any new group of Christians was a very simple matter. By a simple act the new group was brought into the unity of the Church, and equipped, as its predecessors had been equipped, not only with all the spiritual power and authority necessary for its own life as an organized unit, but also with all the authority needed to repeat the same process whenever one of its members might convert men in any new village or town. Thus the results of the spontaneous labour of any individual Christian were naturally and easily consolidated and established within the unity of the Church.

Sounds like a decentralized network of house churches or a cell church, doesn’t it? For those of us in the position of helping churches and denominations process what it means to be missional it’s helpful to appeal to Allen. We all want spontaneous expansion. A voice from the distant past sometimes carries more weight with skeptics than the current missional writers who are frequently viewed as following the latest fad in evangelicalism.

So let’s read Allen, let’s ask God to give us ears to hear what Spirit says to the Church, and let’s live out of our ‘sentness’ so that we too might see the spontaneous expansion of God’s church.

There is some wonderful stuff in this message that fills out ‘sentness’ and why it’s important to the Christian life. Keller draws out the connection between sentness and joy among other things.

For those of you who connected with me at the Onward to Missional workshop at the EFCA Leadership Conference in San Diego last week, this would be a great follow-up message to listen to, especially if you’re still trying to wrap your head around what it means to live with a posture of ‘sentness.’