Many people are bored in church. They are afflicted with a nagging sense that they ought to be doing something — that there is some meaningful mission they are supposed to be part of. But they can’t quite get their mind around what that is. And they wonder if when they get to heaven they are going to be rebuked for failing to do whatever it was God wanted them to do.
They go to churches where they hear that Jesus is building his church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against them. But they don’t see themselves, or their church, prevailing against the gates of hell.
They seem to be just getting by. Many can’t remember when a single adult convert — one truly brought out of darkness into light — came to Jesus in their church. And they certainly can’t remember one whose story they were personally part of.
Most churches have a difficult time maintaining their ground, much less storming anything that belongs to Satan. Gates, after all, are defensive ramparts, not offensive weapons. “Prevailing against the gates of hell” does not mean keeping Satan out of our backyards, but plundering his kingdom.
I want to suggest why the future of Christianity belongs to churches that send, and why those of us who want to see the world reached will be more committed to raising up and sending out than we are to gathering and counting.
1. Increasingly, in a “post-Christian” society, unbelievers will simply not make their way into our churches, no matter how “attractive” we make them.
For years, the Western church has enjoyed a common Christian language with the culture through which we could communicate the gospel. Not everyone went to church, but the bedrock of the culture was Christian. Our primary focus has been calling “lapsed” or delinquent Christians back to the God of their fathers.
But our world in the West is changing. The number of people checking “none” for religious affiliation on census forms increases at an astounding rate each year. “Nones” do not casually make their way into churches — for any reason. We have to think of them as we would people of a completely different religion.
A British friend of mine, Steve Timmis, cites a recent study in Great Britain in which 70 percent of Brits declare they have no intention of ever attending a church service for any reason. Not at Easter. Not for funerals or Christmas Eve services. For more than two-thirds of the people in Great Britain, nothing will carry them naturally into a church. In light of this, Steve comments:
That means new styles of worship will not reach them. Fresh expressions of church will not reach them. Alpha and Christianity Explored will not reach them. Churches meeting in pubs will not reach them. … The vast majority of unchurched and de-churched people would not turn to the church, even if faced with difficult personal circumstances or in the event of national tragedies. It is not a question of “improving the product” of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events.
Great Britain is a few years ahead of the United States in secularization, but judging by the rapidly increasing percentage of those reporting “none” for religious affiliation, I believe we will be there before too long. This means that if we don’t equip people to carry the gospel outside our meetings, our events, our gatherings and programs, we are going to lose all influence with them. There is another alternative: We can grow the pie. But that means teaching our people to engage people outside the church.
2. The presence of God accompanies those who send. If we want our people to really know Jesus, we will teach them to live “sent.”
Our God is a sending God, and nearly every time he speaks to someone in Scripture he is sending them on a mission. When God called Abraham to follow him, he made clear that the blessing he would bestow on Abraham was not only for him. Through him he would bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:1-3, ESV). The writer of Psalm 67, reflecting on that promise, prayed that God would bless Israel so that “your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations” (v. 2, NKJV).
The Old Testament Book of Jonah presents the sad picture of a nation running away from this commission, seeking only its own blessing. Jonah, who is a picture of the whole nation of Israel, is more concerned with his own creature comforts and personal vengeances than the message of mercy and blessing that God had given him to share with the nations.
Jesus came as the new Israel, the joyfully sent prophet that Jonah refused to become. Jesus is described as “sent” more than 44 times in the Gospel of John, and “you are sent” is his one-sentence commission for every disciple: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
The church is now Jesus’ vehicle for the completion of his mission. Jesus finished the purchase of our salvation, paying the full price for our sin on the cross and shattering the powers of death in the resurrection, but the mission of salvation is not yet complete. Through us Jesus continues the work of salvation that he commenced in his death and resurrection (Col. 1:24; Acts 1:1).
Christopher Wright says, “God’s mission is what fills the gap between the scattering of the nations in Genesis 12 and the healing of the nations in Revelation 22.” God’s worldwide mission, he says, defines every believer’s primary responsibility until Jesus returns.
So the question is no longer if we are sent, only where and how. Many of us are waiting on a voice from heaven to tell us what God has already told us in a verse: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
3. Jesus’ promises of “greatness” in the church are always related to sending.
Jesus’ promises to help those devoted to sending are truly astounding. To be honest, they are so astounding that sometimes I have a hard time taking them seriously.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples that they should be excited that he was leaving them, because that meant he would send them “another Helper” who would make them more effective than even he could make them. “It is to your advantage that I go away,” he said, “because then you will get the Holy Spirit” (John 16:7 paraphrased).
Imagine how absurd that must have sounded to those disciples! It was to their advantage that Jesus leave? How awesome would it be to have Jesus as your personal pastor? Every sermon would be a “10.” Every mission strategy “heaven sent” and every decision “divine.” If you had a theological question, he could just answer it. And if offerings were low one month, he could send out a deacon to catch a fish with $1,000 in its mouth (see Matt. 17:27). Even those benefits would be inferior, Jesus tells us, to a church of “ordinary Christians” empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Pastors are given, Paul says, for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry. The saints (in Paul’s usage, ordinary Christians) are the primary ones to do the ministry. How we build our churches today turns that principle on its head. We are excited when large crowds throng to hear a talented teacher. That’s simply not what Jesus was most excited about, and it’s not how he built his own ministry.
The problem, of course, is not those large crowds of growing attendance. It’s devoting most, if not all, of our energy into producing only that. Crowds won’t last, even when you gather them by doing miracles, as Jesus did. Can any of us hope to have more interesting or memorable sermons than he gave? Yet, when he died, where were the 5000 he fed? Surely they had seen and heard enough to stick around. Even Jesus’ preaching and miracles, by themselves, were not sufficient to produce enduring disciples.
Long-term movements are not built by swelling crowds, even when Jesus is the one doing the gathering. They come only when we take the time to replicate our faith in someone else’s heart.
The passion that sustains mission
Those who go the farthest and give the most are those who are most aware of how far Jesus went and how much he gave up to reach them. They are normal people who take seriously the good news of the gospel and think soberly about its implications.
Do you want to develop a sending culture at your church? Teach your people to delight in the glorious riches of what Christ has done on their behalf. Marvel in it every week. Ask God to open the eyes of their hearts to see how high, how wide, how deep and how long the love of God is for them. Ask God to let them feel that love. Let it simmer in them until it sets their hearts on fire. And then, I promise you, they will figure out a way to reach their world. They will soar in mission — without any need for you to smack them into action.
Apart from genuine, gospel-rooted heart change, sending will never take root in our churches. With it, we won’t be able to stop it. The gospel alone produces the passion that sustains the mission. Programs and institutions can be useful servants of passion, but never its sustenance. The gospel is its sustenance.
So abide in the gospel. Sending fruit will grow from deep gospel roots. As Jesus said, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5).