12 Jan, 2015 A conversation the NZ Church doesn’t seem to be ready for
Is the mission of Jesus truly the mission of our churches?
In recent years our nation has been rediscovering how our early missionaries actually got a lot more things right than they were previously credited for, all comparisons considered. In terms of their gospel efforts (noting that their efforts were in various areas), they labored to see the Church established among Maori in Te Reo Maori. There was an authenticity to it – certainly sufficient for Maori to embrace it. Maori spread the message, it was widely accepted, and it produced results. Lives were changed to the point where the Christian example of some Maori far ‘outperformed’ that of the later Pakeha settlers who called themselves Christian.
However, with the coming of those settlers, cultural Christianity truly arrived and settled, along with a structure that claimed to be in charge of the Church in NZ, both Maori and Pakeha. While this puts it a little simplistically, the focus went from the members ministry back to the clergy (ministers/pastors), and from the small group and camp fire discussions with missionaries and Maori evangelists back to the confines of the Sunday service, with only one voice heard.
Just as in the time of Constantine, Christianity lost its power when it was moved from meetings in houses to meetings in special buildings, and from the ‘priesthood of all believers’ to the priesthood of just the priest. Something of its authenticity and power was lost for Maori, while many settlers continued to ‘do church’ in the way they had already been doing it back in Europe. 200 years on I believe we are still significantly ‘doing church the way it is done’ instead of being the Church – even though there is sincerity in our hearts. Our way of doing church is about the pastor and the program more than living the teachings of Jesus (note that the point here is one of emphasis). It’s about the size and strength of the local congregation who meet in its local building, supported by various social ministries, well before its about the mission Jesus gave the Church. It’s a sobering thing. Our pastors go home happy when their services are full and congregations growing, even though all those new people came from other churches – and we members are equal with them in guilt because we applaud these pastors for their efforts and successes. Many of our members feel spiritually strong when the singing time captures their emotion or nostalgia, and the pastors’ preaching gives them goose bumps because of its challenge or ‘orderly’ feel, rather than when they have heard Gods voice through the Bible for themselves (whether at home or in the Sunday service) followed by a week of loving and serving others in response to that at great personal cost, which is what the way if Christ is really about.
We think we are blessed when we are prospering in material things and times of peace – when all that earthly prosperity will come to nothing in the end, as compared to a ‘saved soul’ or a costly selfless act, both of which will last for eternity. Of course, we know this (its not so much that our spoken theology is wrong) – but we still continue to serve the ‘structure’ with our weekly devotion first, thus neglecting (by comparison) the more important matter of ensuring that the mission of Jesus is the central mission of our churches, our families and our own lives. Yes, we have the truth, but our vision of it is subconsciously in second place to our vision for the prosperity and sustaining of the ‘church’ within it’s current structure, form and priorities. For a comparison: We go to church and are happy and content with large numbers at services. Jesus called us to be the church, and we should only feel truly content when we are seeing new disciples ‘made’! Until then our songs should be songs of lamentation and intercession, our hearts heavy, and our keenest intellect applied to how we might change this deathly situation.
Its not that we should abandon the Church – we should be changing it! I’m suggesting that something in the heart of the way we ‘do church’ is wrong, but this is only to the extent that it flows from a focus and priority that is unbiblical – even though the words of our sermons often state things correctly. The mission of Jesus is hard to recognize in many a NZ church as its obvious mission, and I’m not sure what it will take to inspire a serious conversation about this amongst leaders, because their seems to be little interest in this conversation – or alternately little belief that changing this is possible. We continue to do church as we have done church! Many Church leaders efforts are understandably focused on helping the Church be at its best within its current structure, and within the limitation of its current (and often historical) priorities. Many are maybe sceptical that any course of action could be found that could change the way things are – and this is why they are disengaged from this discussion conversation when it presents itself. However, the problem with this is that for as long as we accept the status-quo in this area, we are supporting and upholding it! Because this is a discussion about the very mission of the Church – the reason for which it exists – it is important.
Of note, any program created to address the shortcomings of our outreach efforts is considered acceptable in our current church environment – so long as it fits within the current structure of things. The Hope Project would be an example – even though it pushes the boundaries of what is considered possible in our current church environment. I have created and run a great many efforts and programs over the past 20 years, nearly all within the current structure of things, because it has been all that I could do. However, I fear it is something in the structure of things that needs to change, and I believe that we have an opportunity to address this right now (which is a comparative statement, saying this conversation was probably not seriously on the table for discussion, with practical suggestions that could potentially bring positive change, 10 years ago – and may not be in 5 or 10 years time. In leadership, sometimes there are MANY factors that contribute to creating a season or environment within which a particular thing can be discussed and actually addressed. I believe we are entering such a time for this topic. It is rare). From the top down our priorities need adjusting. The changes are not difficult or dramatic – yet are significant in the subtle changes that they could bring. And the opportunity is falling into our hands at this time.
Why is there not ‘take up’ on this particular conversation topic? This is my greatest concern from the past 4 years of conversations with church people and leaders throughout the length of our nation. It seems to me that we no longer even hold any hope for change in this area. It seems to me (and maybe as a result of the point in the previous sentence) that discussions about a possible paradigm change are interpreted again and again through program lenses, entirely missing the point that is being suggested. At various times and places, and in various ways, I have hit this ball out there for conversation, and the ball never comes back. Were a vision that things could change to be seen, it would come back, because desire for greater effectiveness in our mission would move us to action. I am increasingly coming to the opinion that until dissatisfaction turns to desperation there will be no sincere readiness for this particular discussion. However, I believe there is just cause for desperation already.
In summary, I’ve been back in NZ four years now, and lament that I feel I have seen very little of lamentation at the current state of things in the Church. Is the mission of Jesus truly the mission of our local churches? I believe this is our most important current question. If we conclude that it is not, then a very important conversation could begin, which I believe could lead to some potentially simple and yet profound changes!
Is the mission of Jesus truly the mission of our local churches? You tell me. It’s a very important question!