The term “on mission” is a popular one in the church planting world, so it begs the question: What does it mean to live on mission? Rather than do a Google search for a definition, we at Stadia asked some of our planters and partners to describe what living on mission means in their churches and in their contexts. This series of three blog posts will demonstrate what living on mission looks like for our friends in Ohio and Nebraska, as well as highlighting what our mission is at Stadia — why we will plant churches that intentionally care for children until every child has a church. We invite you to prayerfully engage in each of the next three posts and begin to ask the question, “What would it look like if my life (or my church) was truly ‘on mission’?”
Cause, Community, Church, Christ
I was introduced to a paradigm a few years ago that has fundamentally changed how I think about the world and how I think about church. The paradigm suggested that in the 1950s and 1960s the culture in the United States was predominantly Christian. By and large, people knew of Jesus or knew Jesus. Because of this, people went to Church (the church arguably was the gathering center of the town or city) and then they connected in Community (frequently Sunday School) and then some would participate in the Cause (the mission of Christ), either through local or global engagement or financial contributions. The process looked something like this:
Christ — Church — Community – Cause
Then, through a variety of circumstances that took place during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Christ was no longer central to the culture. Because of this, the emphasis eventually became, “How do we get people to church?” The assumption was that in the right environments with the right paid professionals and the right charismatic, energetic preacher, people would come to Christ. Enter the start of the church growth and mega-church culture. Church became the emphasis. Get people to the Church and the paid professionals will do the rest to introduce them to Christ, get them connected to Community, and help invite them to participate in the Cause.
Church — Christ — Community — Cause
Then as churches grew larger, they realized that their back door (people exiting the church permanently) was often as large as their front door (people entering the church), and so the heart cry for churches getting smaller (small groups) in order to continue getting larger became the norm in the 90s, all the way to today. People needed a place to connect and live life together in discipleship or they would not stick around. These smaller communities, often in people’s homes, would help people connect to believers and then hopefully to a Church where, again, the paid professionals would point them to Christ and eventually some would participate in the Cause.
Community — Church — Christ — Cause
Many would contend that another shift is on its way, or has indeed already come, in our culture. The Millennial heart cry is primarily about impact and so the mission has moved from the caboose to the engine of the narrative. Not only that, but the cause-conscious want to do so in the context of community. In essence, this shift we are experiencing seeks to form a Missional Family who is connected by cause and community.
From my vantage point as the founding pastor of City Campus Church in Columbus, Ohio, who seeks to have one toward the city and one eye to one of the largest university contexts in the country, I see immense evidence that this shift is and in many ways already has taken place in the 20-something generation who are, by the way, leaving the church in droves.
Cause — Community — Church — Christ
Certainly this is over-generalized, but if it rings as true as I’m contending it is, then there are some significant ramifications and opportunities for the Church to consider. Below are a few of these and how we have experienced these in our context in Columbus.
1. People Coming to Christ is a Longer Process Than Ever Before
Christ — Church — Community — Cause
Church — Christ — Community — Cause
Community — Church — Christ — Cause
Cause — Community — Church — Christ
*Note that his shift doesn’t reflect the order of the theological importance of each of these pieces, but rather, the changes in the cultural pathway to engagement with Christ
Shift after shift has rendered Jesus further and further from the center of the culture. We can certainly pout and shake our fists about this reality and reminisce about the good ol’ days. Or perhaps, this is the prime opportunity to become more agile in our thinking and practice. We no longer have the trust and credibility of our cities. Therefore, we must have a long view of conversion and discipleship.
Take Matt for example. A few guys from C3 decided to start a monthly poker night. One of the guys in the group brought Matt with him. Matt didn’t know anyone in the room except the guy who invited him but by the end of the night, he felt connected. It just so happened that I won poker that night (something about a pastor being able to tell when his people are lying!), and on the way home the guy who brought Matt told him that the one who came in first place was his pastor. “There’s no [use your imagination] way that guy is a [another creative word choice] pastor.” And for a year, Matt kept showing up and C3 guys saw God at work in it and kept inviting and investing. Matt jumped into a mentoring pilot one of our communities had begun at the school we were partnered with. He was mentoring kids and joining into a missional community. His wife eventually joined him and they connected to church. Eventually, Matt was baptized and then he and his wife invited one of their friends named Jess, who after about a year of checking things out and joining in the mission, gave her life to Christ and was baptized, as well. Jess has been investing pretty consistently in a younger lady in the church named Tori and earlier this year Tori asked Jess to baptize her! All that from a silly game of poker.
Gone are the days of drive-by evangelism. Here to stay are the days of a church who has to become known for our consistent and meaningful presence in our city.
2. The Necessity of Decentralization
If the shift mentioned above is indeed true, then most people will not find their way into the church until some significant groundwork has been laid. Because of this, equipping and mobilizing leaders becomes the top priority of the church. Our churches must embrace their missionary sent-ness into every neighborhood, network, and need if we want to reach people who are disconnected from church. The Pentecost paradigm suggests the Holy Spirit is stirring and gifting the multitudes and yet to look at our churches would suggest the stirring and gifting remains only on a select few.
Spending our resources on excellent gathering spaces and experiences is not going to draw people who are far from God. Our church budgets will have to reflect the priority of cause and community in ways we have neglected in the past.
When C3 began, we identified some potential leaders and gathered them around our table for consistent investment and discipleship for about two years. One of those leaders is a woman named Rachael. She now leads one of our missional communities (groups of 15-40 people doing life together and serving a specific context together) called Fostering Love. They provide respite nights, ongoing support, and meaningful care for all foster parents in one of our city’s foster care agencies. She has a dream of mobilizing a missional community around each one of the foster care agencies in our city so that every child is seen, every family is known, and every agency is loved. So far, Fostering Love has successful partnerships with two of these agencies. She is leading the charge in our city by fundamentally changing the Foster Care System.
We have communities who care for families with chronically or terminally ill children, invest in the poor and marginalized, serve with university students, partner with the school where we gather, and deal with mental health issues in our city. In fact, almost all of our mission is through this decentralized form of ministry. If people are most likely to experience cause and community in meaningful ways before they will plant roots in the church, then we have to orient our budgets, our paid professionals, and our ethos around the mobilization of the masses, development of leaders, and being tangible Good News to our community.
3. Relational Capital is the New Scorecard
In my opinion, the Church scandals and inauthentic, inaccurate expressions of faith have not helped the church’s case. Cynicism and skepticism are not frequently the approach people are taking to the Church and to organized religion in general. The church has to embrace a more incarnational approach to disciple-making that understands that staying in relationships without agenda is imperative. The days of evangelism that is void of deep relationship are in the past. The old adage is true that people don’t care what you know until they know you care.
At C3, we have a conviction that we cannot transform what we do not first incarnate. And we cannot incarnate something we do not know and love. That means we are committed to building relational capital and doing the sometimes painstaking work of developing rapport and credibility with people and organizations. After a couple years of one of our missional communities investing and serving at a free store that served under-resourced families on our city’s west side, the organization’s trust in us skyrocketed and they invited leaders from our church to make up about half of their board to help guide the vision and direction of how best to serve the poor.
When we first began meeting on Sundays at the school we rent from, they were hesitant to have any relationship beyond a rental agreement. However, after a year of faithfully investing in the school by cleaning and painting and doing some heavy lifting, the relational capital began to develop. We have become the school’s first ask when they have needs arise and we have piloted tutoring/mentoring programs, provided lunches for teachers and staff (where we actually eat with them and learn what they are excited about and what the challenges are), partnered with them in renovations, thrown epic back-to-school bashes for students and their families, and hosted backpack drives and weekend food distribution initiatives for under-resourced families. All of this led to us receiving the Outstanding Community Partner award for the entire family of schools in our city. Deans from other schools have approached us desiring to have churches planted in their spaces as well because they have witnessed first hand the positive impact of incarnation.
Relational capital means that we will not invest somewhere unless we can build loving connection there. Some people suggest they are missional because they give significant money to non-profits or missionaries. While this support is good and needed, we must resist the temptation to think that mission without incarnation will have any substantive impact over time. The church is Christ’s body and we are meant to show up faithfully, meaningfully, and consistently to live incarnationally with the people we are called to.
A question asked at the Exponential Conference years ago that has been a guiding litmus test for us is, “If we ceased to exist tomorrow, would anyone in our city (outside our own church people) grieve it?” If the answer is no, or at best cloudy, then the likelihood of the 20-something generation darkening the doors of our churches is almost zero.
Cause: Embody good news in lost and broken places. Community: Do so as a family who loves and laughs well. The church that endures will incarnate these two things exceptionally well, and if they persevere, will see people sit at the feet of Jesus.
Ben and Shaina Thompson planted C3 in Columbus, OH and have been committed to living missionally in their city ever since. Their three children, Chaia, Marquis, and Sloane add another layer of mission (and fun and chaos) to their lives!