You would think moving people from serving their church in its traditional organized functions (like the worship service, discipleship and internally organized justice programs) to serving in the neighborhood in mission would be an easy transition.
It is just a shift of service, moving from serving on Sunday regularly to serving in the neighborhood regularly.
But this is not so. Serving in programmed ministry doesn’t translate well into serving in mission in the neighborhood.
Moving people from one to the other doesn’t happen easily. Why it is that?
This observation and question was raised as part of an oral exam for one of our doctoral students in the doctor of ministry missional program at Northern Seminary.
The esteemed supervisor of the doctoral thesis ventured to answer that question by saying it was about ego.
When people serve within traditional church functions, there is immediate ego gratification.
One’s service is visible to the church community. One is then recognized and honored from within the church community.
Service within the church community therefore is motivated by ego. Service in the neighborhood, however, often goes unnoticed.
Its rewards are often few and far between as the fruit of such service to the poor and needy in the neighborhood goes unnoticed. It is often long in coming.
The motivation to serve the poor is, therefore, not based in ego. It is out of a different motivation and vision. Shifting one form of service to the other form of service, therefore, doesn’t translate.
The outstanding doctoral student shot back. Out of his experience, he contended that the motivation for both kinds of service come from the level of importance (or value) each group places on what is truly important to the work of church, ministry, kingdom and mission.
The one group who serves inside the church programs places a high value on worship, discipleship and other internal programs of the church. This is the way they see church.
The other group places equally high value on mission with the poor, hurting and brokenness of the neighborhood. This is where they see the kingdom.
This isn’t so much about ego as it is about the value and importance we put on these places of service within the church.
Often, he suggested, older traditional Christians growing up in Christendom, fall into the first group.
The second group is often composed of younger millennials, whose experience with church in post-Christendom has been fragmented and challenging. They find true kingdom work among the poor.
Based on these two views, to lead a church from being program- and worship-centric to being mission-centric would require two different approaches to leadership.
Following the supervisor’s take on this question, a leader might be prone to lead his or her church through a process of discipleship whereby one’s ego becomes submitted to Christ and his mission. There’s a recentering of the self into mission that is required for the shift.
Following the doctoral student’s take, the leader must fund a reimagination for what church is and what God has called us to be and what are the values and matters of importance that shape that new imagination.
My issue with both perspectives is that with either way of leading, one side of church gets devalued over the other. I continue to see that the two together make the church. As integrated, they form a whole way of life.
Thinking about this whole episode in the doctoral exam, I was reminded about the transition churches find themselves in and how most churches on the missional journey have yet to connect what happens “in here” (worship gathering, discipleship programs and so on) to what happens “out there” (presence in the neighborhood, mission engagements with hurting places and so on).
To me, it is essential the two not only come together, but that they are seamless, connected and represent a whole of way of life.
In essence there is no “in here” or “out there.” There is only a people who live their lives “among.”
The worship gathering and other programs of the church become part of a larger rhythm in the whole of life lived in the neighborhood and other places where we dwell. This requires an ecclesiology of mission.
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on his website, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
David E. Fitch (PhD, Northwestern University) is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance. He is the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and is currently on the pastoral staff at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois.