Last week I was on a personal retreat at a little monastery. With my Bible and journal in hand, I tiptoed away to the surrounding knobby trails, nervously observing the rule of silence and solitude. There wasn’t a single sign of human life for nearly two hours as I sat peaceably on a tiny overlook. But there was a buzz. No really—I mean a bee suddenly attacked me. He came at me stinger-first while I flailed and danced and chanted nonsense. And in the rude interruption of the holy silence, wouldn’t you know it, an old man rounded the corner. He shook his head. I started to explain. He just walked off.
Buzz. It definitely gets things moving, but often requires some explanation.
Right now there is a buzz about churches and sending. Though a comfortably calm involvement in missions settled into many churches over the past few decades, things are starting to move in a hyped way. Take note of a couple recent happenings. One, the Send North America Conference championed every life on mission and featured the Captain Planet-style joined forces of the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. Two, pastor J. D. Greear released a visionary book entitled Gaining By Losing: Why The Future Belongs To Churches That Send, about which Thom Rainer confessed, “It took my breath away.” People are stoked, tweets are flying, pastors are listening. It’s an exciting twist in the narrative of the church and mission.
Yet buzz alone is like mixing energy drinks and coffee—it might help you charge through a lull, but eventually leaves you almost dead. Allowing ecclesiology and missiology to mix means local churches take the lead in the Great Commission, mobilizing all their members on mission in the neighborhoods, and some of their members onward to the nations. It sounds awesome, and biblical—and exhausting. Before the motivating pulse of sending church buzz wears off, we need a grounding explanation of why and how to do it.
A couple of years ago a handful of sending church leaders came together for this very purpose. They gathered at Lifepoint Church, producers of the book, The Sending Church: The Church Must Leave the Building. These leaders were locked in a room with one way of escape: complete a thorough definition of a sending church. Hours and arguments later, they stared in thoughtful agreement at this white-boarded run-on sentence:
A Sending Church is a local community of Christ-followers who have made a covenant together to be prayerful, deliberate, and proactive in developing, commissioning, and sending their own members both locally and globally, often in partnership with other churches or agencies, and continuing to encourage, support, and advocate for them while making disciples cross-culturally.
Then The Upstream Collective parsed the deliberate paragraph, defining each word one at a time over the course of a year. The project eventually became the book, The Sending Church Defined, a text created by churches for churches. It’s a starter in explaining the buzz about sending, and how to take steps toward actually doing it. Here are some of its key emphases:
God is a sending God. We have long heard and agreed that God is a missionary God, uniquely referring to his Son leaving heaven to incarnate himself on earth and give us access to the gospel through his life, death, and resurrection. Yet we can say more broadly that God is an outgoing God, or a sending God. His eternal love shared among the Persons of the Godhead (John 17:24) spilled over as he sent forth his word and Spirit to fashion the world. The Bible captures this progression as God plays out his redemption by sending angels, law, messengers, judges, priests, kings, and prophets—not to mention his own Son (Galatians 4:4-5). In the words of Andreas Kostenberger, “Clearly the notion of ‘sending’ is central to any treatment of mission” (269).
We are a sent people. In light of this God, it’s no surprise when Jesus turns to his followers and says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). If being Sender is part of God’s own character, then being sent-ones is certainly part of ours. Missions as a concept excites some of us, but sentness as an identity reframes every last one of us. And though the imago Dei indeed imprints sentness in every member of Christ’s body, it is our corporate sent identity that carries the fullness of Christ and the power to fill the entire earth with the knowledge of God's glory (Ephesians 1:22-23, Habakkuk 2:14). That’s why Ross Hastings says “the church as one with Christ (not individuals) is God’s primary missionary” (128).
Sending is churches’ God-given birthright. Sending is not a call for churches to do more, but to be more, to live into who they already are. For years many churches have neglected their birthright as the vehicle through which God would reach into every classroom, cubicle, hut, and high-rise. They've settled for being "missions-minded," outsourcing their commission by simply donating money or pointing people to parachurch organizations and missions agencies.
Sure, not every church has the capacity to be their own sending agency, but no para-church (literally "alongside-church") should replace the local church. Eric Wright calls for partnership: "Without vibrant sending churches, the whole missionary enterprise falters. The local church is the nursery where missionary vision is nurtured, the base from which missionaries are sent and the home to which they return for encouragement and rest. Local churches and mission boards are partners in the great missionary task" (227). But this is not a partnership between equals. For too long churches have been the water boys cheering on the parachurch as they take the field. The biblical concept of sending calls for a substitution. It begs for churches to remember that they are the central hubs by which he propels his global mission forward. It beckons for Antiochs, not Babels.
There's a bit of explanation. It's undoubtedly worth the buzz.
We would like to invite you to join Upstream Collective and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for the upcoming Sending Church Roundtable, held at Midwestern Seminary on Tuesday, December 15. More info here.