Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches

Darrell Guder

Several years ago a pastor and former D.Min. student—having explored the topic of biblical formation for congregations challenged by our postmodern and postChristendom context—contacted me. While in the process of interviewing for a pastoral call at three different churches, he proceeded to share: “I do not think I can seriously consider any of these congregations. They have all lost members in the last years. They are very unsettled by the changing context, even afraid. They are looking for someone to come in and fix it—and by that, they mean returning to the glory days of the 1950s.” These congregations were committed to maintenance in a time and setting in which the church is profoundly confronted by its missional vocation.

His experience corroborates my own. Since the publication of Missional Church (ed. D. Guder et al.; Eerdmans, 1998), all of us involved in that research project have had numerous opportunities to explore what it means to be a “church that is missionary by its very nature” in the North American context today. The book and its theme have evoked a vibrant discussion. Clearly our analysis of the end of Christendom and of the churches’ cultural captivity within the Christendom patterns of compromise and adaptation struck a chord. Our tentative proposals about the shape of an ecclesiology that took missional vocation seriously have found much affirmation and just as much stimulating reaction, pushing us beyond where our study had brought us. But when it comes to the reality of most of our congregations, the discussion becomes quickly more difficult.

As I move around the country, discussing the missional church challenge in diverse venues, I find that the great interest on the part of many pastors and laity is often matched by great resistance in congregations to the hard questions this challenge raises. There is a strong investment in the status quo, and enormous energy available for the maintenance of what has been. People are looking for quick answers to problems of membership loss and diminishing budgets; they are not open to considering the fundamental questions of the church’s calling and purpose. These encounters compel me to be candid and realistic in the seminary classroom. It is not responsible to equip future pastors with the vision and theology of the missional church without preparing them as well for the hard task of evangelization that will precede any conversion to this vision.

These terms are chosen carefully. It is a matter of “conversion,” and not just “reformation” or “renewal.” It is not “re” anything, not a “re-turn” to something that once was and is now lost. The situation is comparable to the rediscovery of the Torah during the reign of King Josiah (2 Kgs 22:1-23:30), an opportunity to discover all over again what it means to be a called-out people, commissioned to witness to the world that God’s reign is breaking in in the rule of Jesus Christ. That is what I mean by “evangelization.” We have to face the hard fact that the centuries of making the gospel fit our context and serve our purposes, with the accompanying redefinition of the function and mandate of the church, require of us a conversion to the radical gospel that Jesus proclaimed and is.

How, then, does the pastor with missional vision and theology approach the task of ministry in a maintenance congregation (cf. J. Brownson et al., StormFront: The Good News of God [Eerdmans, 2003]; L. Barrett et al., Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness [Eerdmans, 2004])? A maintenance congregation is, by definition, a congregation shaped by the assumptions and patterns of the centuries-old Christendom project. As such, it is, however, a community of faith within which Jesus Christ lives and reigns, as he promised to do from the very outset. It must always be emphasized that our grappling with the Christendom legacy is not a one-sidedly negative undertaking. It is, instead, truly dialectical—that is, it entails a constant recognition of the presence and work of God’s Spirit throughout this long and complicated story. But like the field full of wheat and weeds in our Lord’s parable (Matt 13:24-30), the church of Christendom is a mixture of God’s goodness and human rebellion.

Not everything that is being “maintained” is wrong or bad, nor is the church ever truly and totally “pure.” This side of the eschaton we live with the reality of the weedy patch. It is urgent that the theological education of future pastors should equip our “teaching elders” to guide congregations in this process of discernment. How does a congregation begin to understand both its cultural captivity and God’s faithfulness in its story? How do we recognize the ways that we have reduced and tailored and domesticated the gospel so that we “fit” far too compatibly into our context? How do we learn what it really means to be salt, leaven, and light? The missional pastor’s need for such skills of discernment should shape her theological education. The task facing our seminaries is to rethink theological formation so that we can understand and interpret our Christendom legacy—historically, doctrinally, and practically—in terms of the fundamentally missional nature of the church.

Guided by its leaders, the congregation needs to come to terms with its commitment to maintenance. That means learning to discern what is worth maintaining and where maintenance becomes unfaithfulness. This discernment grows out of our learning to read the history of the church, its theology, and its practices, from the altered perspective of the missionary nature of the church. This reading begins with Scripture, and with the way that the scriptural witness is understood and interpreted. One of the fundamental skills of the missional pastor in the maintenance congregation will necessarily be the missional interpretation of Scripture (cf. D. Guder, Unlikely Ambassadors: Clay Jar Christians in God’s Service, A Bible Study for the 215 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. [Office of the General Assembly, 2002]; R. Bauckham, The Bible and Mission [Baker, 2003]).

“Missional hermeneutics” is a way of interpreting Scripture that starts from the assumption that the NT communities were all founded in order to continue the apostolic witness that brought them into being. Every NT congregation understood itself under the mandate of our Lord at his ascension: “You shall be my witnesses.” The work of apostolic witness was not only to proclaim the gospel of salvation and to establish congregations of believers. Their work was not done when there was a community of Christians now growing in their faith and moving towards its promised outcome, “the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:9). Their mandate was to found congregations where their shared experience of God’s saving love equipped them to become witnesses. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the word and the evidence of the gospel of new life and hope, and they did it! To that end, the NT documents were all, in some way, written to continue the process of formation for that kind of witness. They intended the continuing conversion of these communities to their calling—and that is how the Spirit used (and still uses!) these written testimonies.

Thus, the maintenance congregation must ask hard questions about who it is and what it is for. Typically, such a congregation understands itself as a community of the saved, and its primary responsibility is to tend, foster, and nourish the faith of its members—with perhaps some other roles expected by society. God’s Spirit wants to convert such a congregation from its internal preoccupation to its missional vocation. Its courtyards need to be cleaned out, in order to discover that it really exists to continue its witness to the Lord whose love and grace have already become real in the forgiveness, changing lives, and new purpose of its members. Its focus is not upon the needs of its members, but upon its calling to be “Christ’s letter to the world” (2 Cor 3:2-3).

The missional pastor cannot program that conversion. The Holy Spirit cannot be booked or manipulated to our ends. But that pastor can bring God’s Word into the life of the community as the divinely empowered testimony whose purpose is their formation for witness. This understanding will revolutionize the pastor’s own preaching and teaching ministry, once he begins to probe the text in terms of its missional purpose. Familiar Scriptures becomes powerful in new (and very old!) ways as we hear them summoning us to be faithful witnesses, and experiencing what it means to “go to school with Jesus” as did his first disciples. Worship is wonderfully energized when our gathering in the presence of Christ, our prayers, our praise, our hearing and responding, all come together around the crucial act at the end—our sending out as his ambassadors and witnesses, equipped by our shared experience for our various apostolates Monday through Saturday.

The missional pastor who understands this fundamental need for conversion to missional vocation, and who thus makes the missional interpretation of Scripture a priority, sees and interprets the congregation in its setting. She sees the congregation is itself a mission field in a particular place. At the heart of the life of every congregation is the gospel. In Reformation ecclesiological traditions, this conviction is defined in terms of the centrality of Word and Sacrament. The Spirit’s work in the congregation can be described as “ongoing evangelization” resulting in “continuing conversion.” Similarly, growth in faith can be defined as the ever deepening and widening grasp of the radical claims of the gospel leading to greater obedience, riskier witness, more confident hope. This continuing conversion not only takes place in the particular context of the congregation. It is constantly oriented toward the effective and faithful translation of the gospel into the context. The only congregation that can evangelize is the one that is continuously being evangelized.

Like any mission field, the congregation must be “learned” so that gospel translation can result in conversion. Just as a missionary to an unevangelized region will spend years learning the culture, the language, and the people, the missional evangelist in a post-Christendom congregation must learn her mission field. What is the congregation’s story with God? How is the congregation embedded in its context, and in what ways does the context dictate the way that the Christian faith is interpreted? How is the context changing, and how must the congregation learn how to communicate understandably to a rapidly changing world?

The missional evangelist will look for the people God is sending to the congregation to share in missional ministry. God’s mission is not carried out by soloists but by teams. The ordained leadership of a congregation makes it the priority to seek those people whom God has provided and gifted to share in the missional formation of the community. The ministry that “equips the saints for the work of ministry” is always apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, diaconic, and instructive (cf. Eph 4:11-16). No one person embodies all those dimensions of the formative Word ministry. The Spirit’s strategy is collegial: the calling and formation of a fellowship of “Word” ministers whose complementary labors together equip the saints.

The missional pastor functions as a missiological strategist in the maintenance congregation, looking for points of connection in its life and story that will open up the converting power of the gospel, drawing Scripture into the center of the people’s life as God’s instrument for missional formation, and discerning how God is calling and sending this congregation to “be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Posted Mar 01, 2005