Ten years ago I wrote on the Missional church for a seminary project. At that time, the term was not prevalent in the lexicon of the evangelical waters where I was dipping my toes. A decade later the term Missional is so fashionable that much of how I understood the term originally has been lost. Missional is not to be understood as synonymous with evangelism or social justice. It is not limited to a group of believers gathered in what they call a Missional community and it is not excluded from what many would call Mega Churches. It is not my current intent to offer an introduction to the Missional Church which can be found on our website. What I hope to briefly explore here is for the church to embrace her true Missional identity she must move from a posture of being benefactor to a posture of bearing. This posture impacts how the local church conceives and organizes its ministry; including leadership, discipleship, preaching and worship. A change in posture also will greatly impact how our denominations organize and conceive their role and purpose as well as how we conceive of theological education and preparation. It will be through the practices of humility, honesty and hospitality that our posture will gradually stoop and take on a bearing identity. What follows will be a brief introduction.
The congregation I am a part of is wrestling with our understanding of the mission of God and how it shapes our identity and behaviors. As we wrestle the Spirit of God is moving and exposing in me and others our own attitudes of self-sufficiency, pride and progress at all cost. We often have hid these underlying motivations with decorated auditoriums, attendance charts, desires for dream buildings, and financial statements. The Spirit continues to shape and mold us into an identity of ambassadors and agents of God’s mission to recreate and restore what was broken in creation. As a group we have embraced living a different story which has moved us out into the community to serve with the schools, government and other churches. We have changed how we organize our church calendar, worship gatherings, and resources so we can better engage our community. But I still wonder if our underlying motivations, or at least mine, have really changed.
Hearing the echoes of the Apostle Paul’s admonishment to the Philippian church to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” (Phil. 2:3) the Spirit of God is showing us that power, self-sufficiency, pride, individualism and progress at all cost is not how the world is supposed to be. The Spirit is calling His people away from these behaviors and into deeper understandings and practices as agents of God’s mission. This understanding moves us from power positions as benefactors to a deeper Missional posture of bearing; bearing of the consequences of living in a world that is rebelling and has been rebelled against.
Local church as Benefactor
The last two years has brought a dramatic shift in our activities as we grew in our understanding of the missio Dei and our calling to this particular context. I praise God for this and am thrilled over the changes we have implemented! The process of developing our Missional identity is dynamic; continually being re-formed and reshaped. As I listened to a class lecture describe a Missional identity moving from benefactor to bearing, I was immediately confronted that our behaviors often mirror the behaviors of a benefactor. Webster’s defines benefactor as “one that confers a benefit; especially one that makes a gift or bequest.” The benefactor has the power because they control the needed or desired resources of the bequeathed. Examining further I was challenged by synonym that Webster’s offered, “Sugar Daddy.” Are we behaving this way in engaging our community?
We have been active with a benevolence fund to serve those in need in our community. One request we received was from a single mother of two who was a recipient of our back snack program with the local elementary school. Upon hearing of her situation and needs, we offered assistance: paid some immediate bills, hired her to clean our church house twice a month, found her a place to live when she was evicted, and took title of her van after she received a same day loan from a title company at a significant interest rate. We were her benefactors. Her situation continued to deteriorate as she was unable to find a job, was in an accident while overdosing on prescription drugs, and was not paying rent. We were frustrated. Leadership decided we would list a series of behaviors and actions she would work on for us to continue our relationship. We would need confirmation she was applying for jobs, changed her prescription, visited a drug recovery program and made small efforts to pay rent or utilities. I am not claiming that these actions were wrong or unnecessary. I am claiming that in this process we maintained positions of power controlling the resource. We were not engaged substantially in relationship with her and did little to engage her world other than meeting immediate needs. We found a place for her to live that was not in our context or in our homes. We paid for her cleaning service. We directed behaviors and outcomes from a distance. We served as a benefactor. In similar -although less dramatic - ways we also maintain our distance as we offer land in the community garden, package food for the local food bank, or gather to pack the back snacks for the school. These behaviors represent changes that have helped us move beyond our church walls, but have still maintain our position as benefactor.
Benefactor behaviors are not limited to our interactions with the community but are also evident in leadership. I am confronted with my own leadership environment that too often confers a benefit – preaching, teaching, organizing, encouraging, directing, and planning–to our local church. I am educated for these tasks and receive compensation to make sure basic tasks of our fellowship are completed. For there to be a benefactor, there must also be one who is willing to receive the bequeathed benefit. The church receives these benefits with little hesitation. The relational connection I have with those in our fellowship is authentic and genuine. I am thrilled and thankful. The strength of our relationships easily masks the underlying postures of benefactor and recipient. Although our collective activities demonstrate greater congruency with our Missional identity, the practical structures of leadership have maintained attributes of power associated with a benefactor.
Local church as bearing
Benefactors maintain control of resources and maintain a distance in their relationships. What is bearing and why is it more congruent with our Missional identity? A variety of descriptions and definitions are offered: “the manner in which one conducts or carries oneself: the act, capability, or period of producing or bringing forth: the act of enduring or capacity to endure, to hold up; support; to bear” These descriptions bring us closer to the Biblical picture of what we are as new creations, with a new identity and new body; the church. Our conduct, bringing forth something new, enduring, holding up and supporting are descriptions of who and what we are as citizens of this new Kingdom. Bearing brings a different set of images void of selfish ambition, conceit and control based. In this brief examination of two passages will bring greater clarity and direction in understanding our Missional identity.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” (Phil. 2:3). These attitudes are the root problems that reflect the behaviors in our context. Paul’s answer for the individualism, selfishness, and ego in his context was reminding people of their true identity and pointing to Jesus: “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who… did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…, he made himself nothing… he humbled himself” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Paul’s call to the church to imitate Christ’s mindset and action is a call we must embrace in our Missional identity; although this is not a superficial call of admiration. Rather, Paul indicates that the actions of Jesus are not behaviors that we choose to imitate or dismiss, but are the very will of God for the church. Paul reminds them they participate and share in the “Spirit” (Phil. 2:1). Jesus had promised the gift of the Spirit (Luke 24:49) and that the Spirit would lead them to be His witnesses (Acts1:8). As Jesus told his disciples he was sending as the Father had sent him, he breathed on them to receive the Spirit (John 20:21-22). That a church exists in Philippi is the working of God’s love (1 john 4:7-12), the fulfillment of Jesus’ promises and the working of the Spirit. They have experienced the Spirit’s indwelling which created them as a body and is the sustainer of their life. Paul is reminding them of their very essence. They share in the Spirit; looking to Jesus not as example but as reminder of their true character. As the Father sent the Son, the Father and Son sent the Spirit, and the Spirit sends the church, in Philippi and in Kansas. The church is, “a community created by the Spirit and that has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity.”
When Paul points us and the Philippians towards Jesus he moves beyond example; clarifying who and what we are as a church, our true nature and essence. Our nature is that of servants (Phil 2:7) who are not benefactors dispensing resources. When we are congruent with our Spirit formed identity, we reject vein conceit, selfish ambition, and the control of being a benefactor. Rather, we live into our identity of putting others interest before our own. We enter into their world; bearing with them through all the consequences of a broken world.
Benefactors can maintain their place and distance from those in need. Bearing changes our position and place as we enter the space of those we hold, support, and bear with. Jesus empties himself (kenosis theory) moving from the most magnificent place and position. He limits himself, entering our time, space and place. He does this not with great fanfare or a benefactor’s welcome, but with the dependence of a child. His humility leads him to take on our form, bearing our limitations. He becomes the ultimate bearer of brokenness. Bearing brokenness involves the humbling and limiting of titles, position and place as we enter the physical, spiritual and emotional space of those who are broken; bearing with them in their brokenness. Our Missional identity of bearing will mean our arms will tire as we carry those who are weak, our hearts will break as we enter the stories of those experiencing pain, and our shoulders will be stained by the tears of those we comfort!
Bearing means that we become vulnerable and exposed as we remove our outer garment; stooping to wash the dirt stained feet of those who we are called to lead (John 13:1-15). A Missional identity of bearing transforms our understanding of leading from a benefactor of knowledge and skill to a vulnerable servant who kneels. Leaders lower their position and place. As Jesus humbled himself with a towel and basin, he washed the feet of those who would leave him, deny him and betray him. His humbleness and vulnerability in serving was not predicated on their level of support and loyalty; it is a demonstration of his character and nature. In bearing the towel and basin Jesus demonstrates that our true nature as leaders does not create distance –through knowledge, skill, or title-from those we lead. A benefactor identity provides the resources for a foot washing. A bearing identity stoops and washes.
Van Gelder, Craig and Dwight J. Zscheile. The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011.
Van Gelder, Craig. The Essence of the Church: a Community Created by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000.