Initiating New Christians into a Missional Church

Elaine A. Heath

One of the great challenges we face today in the process of evangelism is to initiate persons into a faith anchored in God’s missional church. This is a difficult task because North American ecclesiology has been deeply compromised by consumerism and individualism. We have wandered so far from the church that Jesus launched that sometimes I fear we are promoting “another gospel” (cf. Gal 1:8).

Initiating newly forming Christians into the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church” of the sort Jesus had in mind requires that we catechize them into missional ecclesiology as well as the history of God’s gathered and sent-out people.

In some ways this is an alternative history than has been standard for many years. Rather than being a history of schisms, popes, wars, and overwhelmingly European male leadership, it is a history of courageous Christians of all ages and many racial and ethnic groups who have chosen to live as Jesus lives, often at great cost to themselves. It is a history of renewal in the church brought about by ordinary lay people like the Beguines, the Lollards, Phoebe Palmer, and nuns on the bus. Diana Butler Bass’s recent volume, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) is an excellent place to begin.

Initiation into God’s church includes a generous, informed, and appreciative awareness of multiple Christian traditions. We never do new Christians a favor by giving them the idea that our little congregation and tradition are superior to all others, or that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Jesus consistently poked holes in his followers’ special doctrinal and political balloons. We must let him also poke holes in ours.

Yet we do need to help our emerging followers of Jesus learn about the history and missional DNA of our local congregation and our theological branch on the family tree, for they are going to be formed in practices of prayer, hospitality, and justice in our specific story.

Having grounded our new Christians in the history of the missional church, we must also help them understand what it means to be a missional church today. The very best way for us to initiate others into the gathered, blessed, broken, and sent community – what Henri Nouwen calls the eucharistic body of Christ, Alan Hirsch the missional church, and George Hunter the apostolic church – is for us to model it. Jesus found this a daunting task. His disciples constantly jockeyed for power, wanted to incinerate others who disagreed with them, wanted to stop others outside their circles from using Jesus’ name, wanted to manipulate Jesus into favoritism and cronyism. Every day Jesus faced a new set of problems from his would-be church. And yet he soldiered on. He respected them enough to do that.

And so must we.

As we invite, companion, welcome, and initiate others into this holy life, we have to help each other remember that the missional God we love — the triune, kenotic, making-all-things-new God — is determined to heal the cosmos. As N.T. Wright has so beautifully described in Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), we get to participate in that healing. We get to help bring about the redemption of all things, the mighty uncursing of the world. This is a theology of evangelism that makes a compelling case for Christians of all traditions, not just Wesleyans and not just evangelicals.

(Adapted from Elaine A. Heath and Larry Duggins, Missional.Monastic.Mainline: A Guide to Starting Missional Micro-Communities in Historic Mainline Traditions [Eugene: Cascade, 2013].)

Posted Dec 02, 2013

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