I recently asked a pastor friend of mine, Nate McLaurin of Christ's Covenant Church, some questions about living on mission in area that's densely populated with churches.
Q1. What does it mean to "live on mission?"
A. I believe living on mission means we are actively and intentionally aligning our lives in a way that fulfills the God’s purposes for the world. God’s purpose in redemption is ultimately to glorify Himself, but that reality is attached to His people being restored to Him, living in obedience to Him, seeking to bear His image in the world, and walking alongside others to encourage those same pursuits. Another way to say it might be walking out our calling to make disciples of all nations.
Q2. Living on mission is difficult no matter where you live. What are some unique challenges about living on mission in an area saturated with churches?
A. There are a few unique challenges with living on mission in a churched community.
One big challenge is how many people in the community think they know what it means to be Christian. One of the first questions you get asked when meeting a new person is “What do you do for a living?”. As a pastor, I hate this question in a churched community. As soon as I tell people I am a pastor, they immediately assume they know what I do, what I believe, and they assume I have a hidden agenda in speaking to them. Most of the time, they assume Christianity is an external form of abstinence - not cursing, drinking, or smoking. Quickly, they clean up their language, they introduce spiritual vocabulary into the conversation, and they keep the conversation neutral and detached from their personal lives. It’s really unfortunate.
Another difficulty is how many people in the community have some sort of negative religious experience that causes a callousness to their sense of need. It’s as if they’ve been inoculated with the gospel. Just enough of a dose of Christianity to make them immune to being affected by the greater reality of the gospel. Many times, it takes a lot of relational equity to rebuild bridges of trust toward Christians due to ways the Christian community failed them in the past through legalism, abuse, hypocrisy, etc. I find this process is where I spend a lot of my time as a local pastor in the community.
Interestingly, there is an additional particular challenge from the Christian community. There are many people represented in the contexts above that will never step foot in a church. So, in an effort to meet them on their own turf, a pastor can quickly find his reputation being called into question by other Christians in the community as a result of seeing him in particular “questionable” contexts. This could be sitting at a bar, it could be talking to a female in public, it could be giving someone a ride and ending up in a sketchy part of the neighborhood - it could be a lot of things. Unfortunately, there is a strong temptation to assume the worst of people and attach wrong motives to a person when observing them in a missional context without seeking clarity on the matter first. It’s shocking how many Christians would quickly tell you gossip and slander are vile sins, yet how many of those same people would quickly start a rumor mill based on false assumptions.
Finally, and maybe a secondary complication of being on mission in a churched community, it is difficult to call others to a life of mission in any kind of corporate sense when there are so many church options for Christians to choose from when they get bored, want a program not offered by their church, face a relational challenge within their church, etc. Living on mission together takes time, energy, and commitment. It is counter-intuitive in a culture of mass consumption and limitless options. Without even realizing it, we come to church with an orientation toward being served rather than serving and we walk away when the church doesn’t “scratch our particular itch”. So, for the pastor seeking to cultivate a life of mission in the flock he shepherds, there is difficulty in communicating the heart of God’s vision for the world in a way that captures the heart of the hearer before they get bored and leave or hear how the church down the street does it and goes to check them out.
Q3. What are some ways that you have pursued living on mission in your own personal life?
A. Well, there are several ways I have sought to live a life of mission in my community. The primary question I ask myself when I enter into any community to dwell for a prolonged period of time is: “How can I help my community flourish?”
Obviously, as a Christian, sharing the good news of the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ is a big part of any community flourishing. But that manifests itself in many different ways - and I am always looking for new pathways to pave into my community. I will share just a few.
First and foremost, we are deeply invested in the lives of our neighbors. We constantly look for ways to engage them and incorporate them into our lives. I am currently building a brick, pizza oven in my yard because our neighbors love my wife’s sourdough break and pizzas. So, we decided to make a missional oven with outside dining space so we could make a bunch of dough and invite neighbors to being toppings and have pizza night on a regular basis. But beyond the complexity of that project, I just simply look to see if they’re outside when I come and go. If they are, I stop and I chat. I ask them about things they have shared with me, and I show genuine interest in their families. I offer to help them with projects, watch their houses and get their mail when they’re out of town, etc. Just the simple and mundane things we do on a day-to-day basis. I think a lot of times we overcomplicate the mission. If people know you care, they will open up to you and invite you into their lives. The gospel will surface in the conversation very naturally and effectively.
I also have a cafe in the community. This is partially because I’m a coffee-nerd, but also a good way to not be known as a “pastor” in a churched community. Don’t get me wrong, I am not ashamed of the gospel, and people will quickly find out who I am. However, when I meet someone for the first time, I prefer to remove any cultural barriers that would hinder my ability to enter into their lives in a meaningful way. It’s amazing how many people pursue me because they know me as “the coffee guy”. The majority of people in our culture love their cup of coffee in the morning, so my contribution to the community creates a bond with the people that causes them to want to pursue and cultivate a relationship with me. As I educate on coffee, I also seek to be on mission. I could go on and on about significant inroads the gospel has had in people’s lives who would have never come to my church!
Finally, I starting going to a CorssFit gym. I had a buddy who started a gym and asked me to come and be a positive influence on the athletes that attend. Many of these people work hard to achieve a body for the beach while their souls are wandering in the desert! Many of them work hard to gain confidence in the image of the outside of the cup because they are paralyzed by insecurity about what’s on the inside. It doesn’t take long laboring side-by-side with these athletes to form strong relational bond. We walk through a lot of difficult experiences together in the workouts, and this cultivates a deep respect and camaraderie. Before you know it, they are at your house having dinner, inviting you to events taking place outside of the gym, and looking for counsel on things broader than Olympic movements. Again, the gospel gets front and center very naturally and effectively.
Those are just a few ways I seek to be on mission in my context. And, most of the time, my family is with them in those endeavors. I believe it’s important to be the example and to invite them into God’s work in our community. It’s been awesome to see them self-initiate some of their own creative ways to reach out to others as well.
Q4. What are some ways that you have tried to facilitate, train and encourage living on mission among the folks that you shepherd?
A. A large part of the training is simply being an example to the flock. In my mind, being an example to the flock is a significant part of what an elder is. One thing we say at our church is this: “What every Christian should be, and elder must be.” So, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be an example - in all areas of life (even repentance!).
Strategically, we weave the implications of the gospel and mission into every area of our church’s life. It’s in our Vision Statement, it’s a part of our core values, it a metric by which we measure everything we do. We incorporate it in our preaching, it’s reflected in our financial support of local ministries, we weave it in our announcements, our songs, it’s a part of our small group ministry leader training, it’s in our sermon questions for application, etc. It would be difficult to be a part of our church for very long without hearing something about being on mission with God taking His gospel to those who are without hope.