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To Christy: Who lived it with me.




When my daughter, Ellie, was a little girl we built a magnificent sand castle at the beach. It had turrets and towers, and little flags sticking up on top. We were standing there admiring it when the first wave lapped up against the foundation. “Daddy!” she screamed. “Do something!” So I did. I started digging a moat around the castle and Ellie helped me pile up a big floodwall in front. But there was a whole ocean out there and the tide was coming in. In the end we watched helplessly as the waves washed our sand castle away. “Now what?” Ellie asked, glumly. I looked out over the clear blue ocean, felt the warm water swirling around my ankles. “Let’s go swimming,” I said. ____________________ That story is a metaphor of what is happening to many of the churches in America today. The beautiful edifices we


constructed during the “Christian Century” have been emptying out over the past few decades. Those of us in leadership positions are doing everything we can to shore up the foundations, dig moats around the church, and build floodwalls to save it. But maybe that’s not the answer. Maybe at a time when the tides of change threaten to destroy the church it’s time to go swimming, time to dive into a culture that no longer loves the church and learn a few new strokes. In these pages I want to talk about what happened to that church we all knew and loved and how we might go forward from here. Most of what I will say is based on my own experience and observations. If it doesn’t ring true for you, close the book and put it aside. But if it does I hope you will join me in thinking about the church of the future and what we might do to help it thrive. One thing I know: no matter what happens to the church, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). And that’s a comfort.


The Church’s Golden Age In each of the churches I have served there has been a “legendary” pastor. In New Castle, Kentucky, it was Bill Hull. People would talk to me about how things had been back in “Bill Hull days,” when they had 300 people in Sunday school (a lot for that little church) and had to put folding chairs in the aisles to accommodate the crowds on Sunday morning. I was a seminary student at the time, doing all I could to build up the membership of that church, but we didn’t have anything like 300 people in Sunday school. The numbers were usually under 100. I knew Bill Hull. I admired him. But every time someone mentioned his name I cringed at the comparison. They didn’t say it out loud but they must have been thinking: “Bill Hull used to pack them in. What’s wrong with you?” At my next church it was Dewey Hobbs. People used to tell me how things had been back when he was pastor, how they built the new educational wing to accommodate all the people who were coming to Sunday school and how, on Sunday 7

mornings, they used to put folding chairs in the aisles (what is it with these folding chairs?). I got to know Dewey Hobbs while I was there and liked him a lot. I could see why people remembered him so fondly. And yet there was some part of me that was relieved to move on from that place, knowing I wouldn’t have to hear his name every day. I had been at First Baptist Church in Washington, DC, for about ten minutes when someone asked me if I had heard of one of their former pastors, Dr. Ed Pruden. Yes, I had, but over the next seven-and-a-half years I heard a lot more. Dr. Pruden was pastor when the church built its magnificent new sanctuary. He was pastor when Harry Truman used to come to worship. His portrait hung in the church parlor and the pulpit from which I preached on Sundays was called the “Pruden Pulpit.” And then I came to First Baptist, Richmond, where the legacy of Theodore F. Adams can still be felt, where we often gather for special functions in the “Adams Room,” and make conversation under the enormous portrait that hangs above the fireplace. There is no doubt that each of these men were gifted and able pastors, but only at my last church did I realize that each of 8

these men had served during the 1950’s, a time when going to church was—for so many people—the “Sunday morning thing to do.” When someone asked Dr. Pruden how he was able to grow such a large church in downtown DC he replied, “In those days it was a matter of opening the door and getting out of the way.” It’s not that way anymore, is it? I think there are a number of reasons for that, but let’s look at one of them: The churchgoing boom in America coincided almost exactly with the Baby Boom (1946-1964). The war was over; soldiers and sailors came home and married their high school sweethearts; they moved into houses with white picket fences and began to have babies—lots of babies. Those new parents wanted their babies to grow up in the church just as they had. They came by the hundreds, by the thousands, and soon churches were scrambling to find enough nursery space, and then enough Sunday school space for all those babies, all those children! And because their parents were coming to church too they needed bigger sanctuaries. They built them, or added additional services, and for a little while at least those sanctuaries were full, or nearly. And then, for a number of reasons, things began to change. The Fifties gave way to the 9

Sixties (anybody remember them?). The Sixties gave way to the Seventies. Those babies who had been brought to church by their parents grew up and went their own way, and for many of them the way did not lead back to church. Sometimes when I am driving through the rural South I will see three church buildings along the highway. One is the original sanctuary, built sometime in the 1920’s; next to it is a much larger sanctuary, built sometime in the 1950’s; and next to that is an educational building, built sometime in the 1970’s. When you look at the three of them in a row like that you can see how the Baby Boom moved through the church like an ostrich egg through a boa constrictor. I would guess that the Sunday morning crowd these days could easily fit inside that original sanctuary building, but of course that will never happen. They will stay in the bigger building, watching the pews empty out, telling the current pastor how good things were back in the 1950’s and wondering why he can’t bring them in like they did back then. Because this is one of the options when the church is in decline: blame the preacher. I have a friend who was pastor of one of those churches for a while. He said he would step up to the pulpit on Sunday 10

morning and look out over a cavernous sanctuary, where 300 people were scattered among pews meant to hold 1,500, and where those people would tell him how the church used to be full on Sunday mornings—full! You’ve seen the pictures: black and white photographs of church sanctuaries packed with men in dark suits and skinny ties, women in hats and white gloves up to their elbows. I asked him what that was like and he said, “Jim, I felt mocked by those empty pews Sunday after Sunday. I tried my best to fill them up—did a lot of outreach, tried some new programs, preached like I’ve never preached before—but in the end the church asked me to leave. They formed a search committee and went out looking for somebody who could do what I couldn’t.” And that’s a shame, isn’t it? My hunch is that it isn’t the pastors who are the problem, usually. My sense is that pastors these days are working harder and smarter than ever before. But the culture has changed in ways we are only beginning to understand, and the forces that once pushed people into the church are now pulling them out. “I can’t come this Sunday,” someone will explain; “my son has a soccer game.” “I can’t come next Sunday,” they say; “we’re 11

going to the beach.” “I can’t come at all,” someone else complains; “I have to work on Sunday.” So we sigh, and shake our heads, and look back to the good old days, when churchgoing was the Sunday morning thing to do. And there are some in our congregations who still hold on to the hope that if they could just find the right pastor, if they could find another Bill Hull, or Dewey Hobbs, or Ed Pruden, or Ted Adams… … it would be 1955 again.


The Collapse of Christendom In a book called Resident Aliens William Willimon suggests that the world began to change on a Sunday evening in 1963. He writes, “Then, in Greenville, South Carolina, in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us—regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church—made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox. That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom, South Carolina style. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. There would be no more free passes…no more free rides.”i It may seem trivial to date the collapse of Christendom to that summer evening in 1963, but Willimon would say that before that night he didn’t have a choice between going to 13

church and going to the movies. “The church was the only show in town,” he writes. “On Sundays, the town closed down. You couldn’t even buy a gallon of gas. And there was a traffic jam on Sunday mornings at 9:45, when all went to their respective Sunday schools. By overlooking much that was wrong in that world—it was a racially segregated world, remember—people saw a world that looked good and right. In taking a child to Sunday school, parents affirmed everything that was good, wholesome, reasonable, and American. Church, home, and state formed a national consortium that worked together to instill ‘Christian values.’ People grew up Christian simply by being lucky enough to be born in places like Greenville, South Carolina.”ii There may have been a time when you grew up Christian simply by being lucky enough to be born in a place like Richmond, Virginia, but it’s not that way anymore, is it? We could spend some time trying to identify the reasons. Maybe it’s because stores and malls and movie theaters began to open on Sunday, but maybe it’s because the Baby Boom came to an end, or because so many of those babies grew up and went off to fight in Vietnam. Maybe it’s because inventions like air 14

conditioning and television made it too tempting to just stay at home on Sunday mornings. Or maybe those people are right who say it’s because we “took God out of the public schools” (although I don’t think so). Whatever the reasons, the cultural forces that used to push people through the front doors of the church began to pull them back out again and we entered a period that I’ve been calling the Great Panic—that time in the late sixties and early seventies when church leaders saw sanctuaries emptying out like water draining out of a bathtub, and began to wring their hands, and wonder what was wrong, and how they might fix it. It was about this time that a couple of youth ministers from Chicago decided to start a new church, and they started by doing a survey, by going around and asking people why they weren’t coming to church anymore. The people said the music was outdated, the sermons weren’t relevant, and they didn’t like to dress up on Sundays. So, Bill Hybels and Dave Holmbo started a church called Willow Creek that met in a theater, where people could listen to contemporary Christian music, sermons that were edgy and relevant, dramas that brought home the central point and, best of all, they didn’t have to dress up. The church was a 15

phenomenal success. In fact, within just a few years, more than 15,000 people were attending every week for services that weren’t exactly Christian worship in the way that we know it, but were certainly seeker-friendly. Soon everybody was trying to emulate the success of Willow Creek. Community churches began to pop up everywhere, featuring contemporary worship that included live bands and talented singers; gifted speakers who strolled out onto the platform wearing golf shirts, peppered their sermons with real-life illustrations, and talked about things like how to deal with the stresses of everyday life and how to raise happy, healthy children (you know, the things people are really interested in). Some of these churches used drama, others used video, but all of them tried to make a break from the old way of doing church—from the hymnbooks and prayer books, the pipe organs and priests. And again, people responded. They seemed to like this new way of doing church. They came in droves. Experts called this phenomenon the “Church Growth Movement,” and it was during this time that one of my friends in North Carolina said he was thinking about starting a contemporary worship service at his church. Now this guy 16

(bless his heart) was pastor of a tiny Baptist church, way out in the country. I asked him why he was thinking about starting a contemporary worship service and he said, “You know, to bring in all these young people.” I didn’t say it out loud but I thought, “What young people? You serve a little church out in the country. All the young people have moved to the city. Do you think they’re going to come back just because you bring in a few drums and guitars and put the words of some praise choruses up on the screen with an overhead projector? Don’t you think you’ll just drive away most of the older people?” I don’t know if he ever tried it or not but the fact that he was thinking about it illustrates the point that in those days church leaders were doing whatever they could to keep the pews and offering plates from emptying out. What some of us missed in all of this was the shift from a model in which people came to church out of duty, devotion, or habit to a model in which we tried to make coming to church attractive to them. It’s a subtle shift, but can you guess what happens when you start trying to make coming to church attractive? You start thinking about what people like, and how you can give it to them. Do they like coffee and doughnuts? 17

Well, let’s give it to them. Do they like contemporary music? Let’s give it to them! Do they like preaching that relates to everyday life? Let’s give it to them. The problem, of course, is that some churches are better at this than others. Some have more resources than others. And while the megachurches begin to spring up across the religious landscape those little churches like my friend’s in North Carolina dwindle down to nothing and eventually have to close their doors. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have anything against relevant preaching, I don’t have anything against contemporary worship, and I certainly don’t have anything against coffee and doughnuts, but when you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens up an espresso bar. I think I learned this lesson right out of college, when I was a youth minister in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 18

pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to give them exactly that, and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds. In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.


Sifting Through the Rubble 20

A few months ago I was on retreat with a group of other pastors. We were talking about how things were going in our own churches and how things were going in the church in general when I said: “Fifty years from now will we still be doing this?” “Doing what?” they asked. “Fifty years from now will we still be getting up on Sunday mornings, knotting our neckties, getting into our cars, and driving to some central location to sit in a pew, say our prayers, sing some hymns, and hear a sermon?” And to a person they said no. What would make them say such a thing? Well, let’s see. It’s 2010. Fifty years from now will be 2060. When you look back fifty years to 1960 you find that roughly half the US population was going to church on a regular basis. By 1971 that number had dropped to 41 percent. In 2002 the number had dropped to 31 percent, but in 2005 a team of sociologists did the same survey but used a different question: instead of asking people, “Do you attend church regularly?” they asked, “Did you


go to church last Sunday?� and this time the percentage fell from 31 percent to 22 percent of the population. I hope that by now you have plotted a mental graph, and if you have you can see that if things continue for the next fifty years as they have for the last fifty years, churchgoing in America will drop right off the chart. In England, which seems to be twenty to twenty-five years ahead of us in terms of secularity, an estimated three percent of the population goes to church on Sunday—three percent!—and those waves are already beginning to wash up on our shores. That may be hard for us to believe in a place like Richmond, Virginia, where people still seem to be going to church. It may be harder still in the Deep South, where cultural change comes slowly. But when I was a pastor in Washington, DC, it was not hard to believe that the church was on its way out. I would drive downtown on Sunday mornings, park my car in the underground garage two blocks from the church, and as I walked along P Street and turned left on 17th people would look at me as if I were from another planet. Sitting there at the sidewalk cafes, sipping mimosas as they looked over the brunch menu, they would raise


their eyebrows as if to say, “You’re wearing a suit? On a Sunday morning?!” The world has changed. I don’t know what that does to you but it tends to make me anxious, and I must confess that the anxiety I feel is an institutional anxiety. I think of my own church, which appears to be thriving, but I wonder where it will be in twenty years. What will happen when that faithful generation of tithers dies off? Will I begin to see those pews and offering plates emptying out? Will I preside over the decline and fall of Richmond’s First Baptist Church? I was talking to my daughter in New York recently and shared some of those frightening percentages—how church attendance in America has been dropping from 41% to 31% to 22%—and she said, “Dad, you better start looking for another job!” She may be right about that, but even if she is I want to say this, and I want to say it loud and clear: Jesus did not come to found an institution; Jesus came to start a revolution, and to the extent the church which gathers in his name has lost its revolutionary character it has lost its way. I felt this most strongly on my first trip to Israel as I stood, looking out over the Sea of Galilee, while someone read the 23

Beatitudes aloud. I thought about that crowd of people Jesus was preaching to—the poor, the persecuted, the mournful, and the meek—and wondered how those words would have sounded to them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Can you see how Jesus is starting a revolution, how he is looking around and saying to those people one by one, “Don’t worry. They way things are is not the way they will always be. God’s kingdom is about to come, on earth as it is in heaven!” And yet here we are, his disciples, wondering how we are going to meet this year’s budget; sitting in deacons’ meetings and vestry meetings asking, “What can we do to get people to come to our worship services, and join our church, and give their money, and work in our nurseries? Should we offer a contemporary worship service? Should we increase the size of our parking lot? Should we add a satellite campus in the West End?” Do you see how all of that is about the institution, and not at all about the mission? We have lost our way; we are 24

either trying to build these enormous megachurches or keep our smaller churches from dying out completely. But that’s not the way it was meant to be. When I came to First Baptist nearly two years ago I took my staff on retreat and wrote one question on the flip chart: “Why are we here?” I had to explain to them that I didn’t mean why are we here on retreat; I meant why is this church here in the city of Richmond? What is our mission? What is our purpose? We spent an hour talking about the church’s existing mission statement but eventually I divided them up into four small groups and asked each group to choose a Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. I handed out some of those Bibles that have the words of Jesus in red, and asked each group to look through its Gospel for the clear commands of Christ. They worked on it for an hour and wrote down their results. You know what they are:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Love one another as I have loved you.


 Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation.  Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Teach them to obey all that I have commanded you.  Tell them that the Kingdom has come near.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Preach good news to the poor.  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons  And don’t be afraid  Don’t be afraid  Do not be afraid. At the end of the exercise I put those sheets of paper up on the wall and asked, “Now, which one of these should we do?” Well, they didn’t think we should do any one of them; they thought we should do all of them. But how do you sum up the clear commands of Christ in a single mission statement? I don’t think it was pre-meditated, but as we sat there looking at those commands I had an insight, and during the 26

break that followed I wrote across the bottom of those four sheets: “Is this what life in the Kingdom looks like?” Is it that place where disciples love their enemies, wash one another’s feet, preach good news to the poor, and visit the sick and imprisoned? And shouldn’t the mission of Jesus’ disciples have something to do with making that heavenly vision an earthly reality?



Rebuilding the Foundation When I started my work as a pastor 23 years ago the church in America was in decline, the leadership of the church was in a state of panic, and their strategy was the so-called Church Growth Movement. I went to New Castle Baptist Church in Kentucky assuming that my job was to get as many people as possible into the building for worship on Sunday morning, and then to get as many of those as I could to come forward at the end of the service so that they could make a profession of faith in Christ, or rededicate their lives to him, or move their membership from another church to that one. But I was still in seminary at that time, and in the New Testament class I was taking I kept hearing about the “Kingdom of God.� It seemed to be the only thing Jesus wanted to talk about. In fact, some 120 times in the Gospels, in one way or another, he refers to that Kingdom. I began to get the idea that this is what Jesus really came to do: to establish the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. I got excited about that discovery, and remember wanting to put up a banner in my bedroom that said, “Bring the Kingdom 29

of God to Henry County, Kentucky,” so that it would be the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning. Twenty three years later, I’m still convinced that that is the mission of the church. I haven’t found that place in the Gospels where Jesus says, “Go ye into all the world and build buildings, and meet budgets, and have meetings,” but everywhere in the Gospels I find him talking about the Kingdom. He says, The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed. It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep. It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market. It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the dad who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son. It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified. It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham. It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever.iii When his disciples come to him saying, “Teach us to pray,” Jesus tells them to pray for this, that God’s kingdom would come, that God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.


This is what I think the church of Jesus Christ ought to be doing—bringing heaven to earth—and the more I think about it the more I think the Lord’s Prayer is a perfect reminder. It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it says. “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” but then (don’t miss this part) “on earth as it is in heaven.” And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength. We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down. We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted; this mission is too important. And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever. Amen. Can you see how bringing heaven to earth is completely different from propping up the institutional church? I don’t think it’s easier; not at all. Without God’s help it would be impossible. But it is so much more…liberating. When the 31

members of First Baptist Church ask me how to do it I say, “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” And what I find is that they all see through their own eyes. One person will see a need to teach poor children in the city of Richmond how to read, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to share the gospel with people who don’t know Jesus, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to provide decent, affordable housing, and go to work there. Some people will visit with those in the nursing homes, others will make time to have coffee with a friend in need, still others will teach little children in Sunday school. As a result, church begins to happen everywhere, all the time, and not only in our building at 11:00 on Sunday. In fact, I have said to my congregation, “Let’s stop counting how many people happen to be in church on Sunday morning and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.” That’s liberating, isn’t it? Several years ago I found a quote in a book by Walter Brueggemann that has given shape to my ministry ever since. Brueggemann is a renowned Old Testament scholar, but he is 32

also a committed Christian, who is devoted to the church. He said, “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act—to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons—even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality. That’s the kind of work he calls us to: not the anxious preservation of an earthly institution, but the fearless, faithful, 33

joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. And that’s why, at the end of every staff meeting at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we stand and join hands around the room and say the Lord’s prayer, but instead of saying, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.” That’s our mission.


Going Forward from Here Once upon a time we lived in a world where almost everybody we knew went to church, when the city closed down on Sundays, and children grew up Christian simply by living in places like Richmond, Virginia. In those days we pooled our resources to send missionaries to far off places like China and India, where they could share the good news of Jesus with people who had never heard it before. Our job here at home was to behave like good Christians, and if some new neighbors moved in next door, to invite them to church. It was our own little version of Christendom. It seemed like a fairy tale. And maybe it was too good to be true. As I have noted in previous chapters the happy marriage between church and culture began to fall apart sometime in the mid-Sixties. The children of the Baby Boom were growing up and going their own way, movie theaters and shopping malls were opening on Sundays, people had a choice between going to church and doing something else and many of them chose to do something else. As the pews and offering plates began to empty out, church leaders panicked and started doing whatever it took 35

to get people back in church. I don’t think I realized it until this week but as long I have been in ministry that has been the question: “What can we do to get people to come to church?” I’m beginning to think that’s the wrong question. For too long now we have operated on this “attractional” model, believing that if we have a good enough preacher and good enough music people will come to us. And in the era of the megachurch we also seem to believe that bigger is better, and that our success is defined by how many members we have and how much money we collect. But author and activist Alan Hirsch talks about a “missional” model of doing church that is almost completely different. Let me quote:

A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one: who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as the missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church 36

has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”iv In other words, the church is not the goal of God’s mission; the church is the tool of God’s mission. It is what God is using to redeem the world. If we once believed that it was the church’s job to send missionaries to other, non-Christian, parts of the world we are beginning to understand that the nonChristian world is just outside those doors, and God is sending us. But hasn’t that always been true? In the previous chapter I suggested that Jesus called and trained disciples so that they could help him bring heaven to earth. In Luke 10 he sent them ahead to those places where he himself was about to go. He told them to heal the sick in those towns and tell the people that the Kingdom had come near. But here’s the part I love: the disciples returned “with joy,” saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17). Suppose that could happen for the church in America today: that instead of wringing our hands and fretting over the decline in attendance we could go out into the world God loves, look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then 37

roll up our sleeves and go to work. And what if—like those disciples—we returned with joy? What if Sunday morning were not a time to reminisce about the good old days or worry about the future, but a time to celebrate the miracles God is working through us here and now? Just a few weeks after I came to First Baptist Church I went on a mission trip with the youth group. It was a wonderful trip, but it was also a wonderful analogy of what it means to be a missional church. I explained it to my congregation like this: “When we finally got off the plane in Poland, exhausted from an overnight flight, we got on two big, beautiful tour buses and made our way to Ruzomberok, Slovakia, some four hours away. Most of us slept along the way, and when we got to our hotel in Ruzomberok we were able to stay awake just long enough to eat some dinner before trudging upstairs, brushing our teeth, and falling into bed. “We slept with the windows open, breathing fresh, mountain air, and most of us woke up feeling deliciously rested and wonderfully alive. We had a big breakfast in the dining room where there was plenty of food and plenty of hot coffee. By eight o’clock we were ready to go to the job site—an 38

orphanage in town that had acquired a house next door and needed someone to clean it out and fix it up. We had our morning devotions, said a prayer, and then got onto the buses, rolled into town, and pulled up in front of the orphanage. Every person on the bus had been assigned to a work crew, and each crew had a leader. Within minutes of our arrival the demolition crew was demolishing an old barn, the painting crew was working on window trim, the grounds crew was pulling weeds from an overgrown flower bed, and the fencing crew was sizing up the job of building a new fence. “We worked all morning, right up until lunch, and then we went back to work that afternoon. For the better part of a week these youth and their adult chaperones worked as if their lives depended on getting that house into good shape for those orphans. “I couldn’t have been prouder. “That experience serves as a useful analogy for understanding the missional church, because instead of thinking of church as that place where we come to worship and study and enjoy Christian fellowship we begin to think of church as those people who roll up their sleeves and take part in God’s mission 39

to the world. There will be times when we simply need rest (as we did after our long journey). There will be times when we need nourishment, both physical and spiritual (as we did the next morning). There will be times when we need to organize ourselves around the tasks at hand (as we did before getting off the bus). And there will be times when we need to put our hands to the work, and make a real difference in the world (as we did at that orphanage). “In and around all that activity are those rich opportunities for fellowship—for getting to know each other and coming to love each other. On that trip we laughed, we cried, we sang, we danced, and by the end of the trip we had not only done good work and worshiped the living God, we had also forged unbreakable bonds with one another. “Now, that’s what the church ought to be, and it ought to be true that it doesn’t happen only on once-in-a-lifetime mission trips. It ought to be part of our everyday experience as the church of Jesus Christ. So, maybe we could begin to understand that we are on a mission trip, right now. The bus that we have been riding has brought us to Richmond, Virginia. And having


rested, and eaten, and said our prayers, it’s time to get off the bus, and get to work.” Next time you enter the sanctuary of your own church take a look around. Think of it as a big, beautiful bus. It may have been traveling a long time, but at last it has brought you to the mission field. And it’s not only your church. Those “buses” have come to a stop everywhere, and in all parts of the world. The good news is that instead of waiting for the world to come to us, we’re going to go to the world, we’re going to get off the bus. We’re going to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and roll up our sleeves, and go to work. And we are going to return with joy. We’re going to come back together to share our stories, sing hymns of praise, hear words of encouragement, and pray for the strength to go out again. We are going to weep, and hug, and laugh, and hold hands. We are going to labor alongside Jesus to bring in the Kingdom, and as we do church will happen, not only on Sunday morning but everywhere, all the time. Because church is not a place, it is people: it is God’s people sent out to love the world God loves.


Hear again the words Jesus spoke to his disciples in that upper room, as he gave them the gift of the Spirit and empowered them to fulfill their mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.�v



Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: a Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something Is Wrong (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), pp. 15-16). ii Ibid. iii From my blog: iv Alan Hirsch, “Defining Missional,� Leadership Journal, December, 2008. v John 20:21 i

When the Sand Castle Crumbles  

Why is my church dying, and what can I do about it?