(Deu 10:19)  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

I heard a great sermon the other day that spoke about our strangeness. God reminds the Hebrews that they’re to love the stranger because they were once strangers.

How to be a community missionary

As members of the church, we often forget who the “strangers” really are. In contrast to our culture, those who are faithful disciples cannot be much stranger. Put the average lifelong churchgoing disciple in the midst of typical pierced and tatted suburban young adults at the mall on a Friday night and ask yourself, “Which are the most strange?” There are plenty of implications about being the stranger – and in welcoming the stranger into our own midst – but this post is about flipping your church, so let’s get to the point. Once a church has established a spiritual foundation, become focused on their mission, and achieved unity, it’s time to do something beyond enjoying what will seem like a perpetual mountaintop experience. It’s time to move out of the church building and into the culture.

WARNING: The national ethos of the North American culture is about as different from our church culture as one can imagine. Sure, we all speak the same language (sort of). We watch the same TV shows and listen to the same music (mostly). But when it comes to effectively sharing faith and making disciples of those outside the church, most disciples of Jesus Christ would do about as well in the Amazon rainforest as they would at the local mall’s food court. In fact, generally, we’d do better under the forest’s canopy because we’d realize we have to prepare. When effective missionaries head to a foreign land to minster to unreached people groups, they spend significant time getting ready before they set foot on the mission field or open their mouths to a stranger. They invest in learning the language, studying the culture, getting familiar with the history,  perusing the literature, researching the traditions, practicing the etiquette, and immersing themselves in the day-to-day world view of those they plan to reach. 

Effective missionaries learn to let go of their own traditions, preferences, and even practices so that they are as much of a blank slate as possible when they arrive on the mission field. Once they arrive, they learn to dress like a native, eat like a native, comfortably interact with the natives, and become one with the culture – without compromising the gospel. Then they seek common areas where they can build a bridge from culture to faith without compromising cultural practices whenever possible (and it’s generally possible – see Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17 and ponder his response to the Athenian idols as a Jew who found idolatry not only wrong, but repugnant).

Okay, with all that said, the fourth step in flipping your church and becoming missional is to become missionary to your community. This will take some re-visioning of both church and your congregation. For instance, being missionary means that the congregation becomes focused on taking the gospel to the community, rather than trying to convince the community to come to the weekly congregational meeting (worship service). And if that’s true, then the whole “worship as evangelism” concept gets turned on its ear – because everything that goes on in the church building shifts from seeker-focused, “y’all come” programming to missionary equipping, training, empowering, deployment, and accountability programming that not only includes worship, but is centered on worship as celebration of the hand of God at work in the faith community as it witnesses to the cultural community (Acts 1:8).

The basic tools for becoming missionary are:

  • Demographics,
  • Psychographics,
  • Observation,
  • Conversation.

The first two should be self-evident – I recommend shopping at www.MissionInsite.com or www.PerceptGroup.com for demographics and psychographics. If a congregation got serious about the last two, though, they’d almost not need the others.

Sadly, what goes on in most churches when it begins to “study” the community, is a pooling of ignorance by well-meaning folks who project who they are on the community at large. Just this week, I was informed by a church leader that a very small number of folks in their town were rock-n-rollers (and the leader suggested the rock-n-rollers were pretty fringe in the community). That surprised me, so I pulled a quick demographic study of their zip code. Well, it turns out the church leader was guilty of projection. In fact the top psychographic of the community was evenly split with a hankering for either rock or country – and they both represented a significant majority of the population… no fringe there.

To observe the community, the congregation needs to hang out where their neighbors hang out. Those doing the observing need to go as neutrally and objectively as possible, leaving anything that looks like judgment or preconceptions back in the fellowship hall. Just watch and listen. In the July–August 2010 issue of Net Results, check out my article “Transformational Leadership at the Margins: Good Beginnings”  for more information on observing and listening.

Once you’ve figured out your community by studying them, once you can make sense of the culture by experiencing it through a true immersion experience, only then is it time to start being missionary. The key to effective missionary-ing to the North American culture is conversation and relationships. Conversations remembering that you have two ears and only one mouth for a reason. Conversations in which you are more concerned with understanding than with being understood. Conversations that deprecate our own “gospelizing” agenda in favor of the Spirit’s agenda – which almost always means kissing our timeline goodbye. In today’s culture, it generally takes three or more years from initial conversation to a commitment to Christ. 

The goal of today’s cultural missionaries is having ongoing spiritual conversations in the community. The key, though, is shifting the congregational mindset from a “y’all come” to a “we are all going out.” But once the church has left the building, you’re well on your way to flipping your church to a missional church.

Question: How are you preparing your members to be community missionaries? Share your tips in the Comments section below.