The Need for Missional Churches in Our Post-Christian Age

In my last post, I explained some of the reasons why I feel we need to plant new churches in Ottawa. I don’t think we need to plant new churches instead of trying to help stagnating churches to come alive again, but that we need to do both. Even if every evangelical church in Ottawa came alive, evangelicals still make up an incredibly small percentage of the population, and the percentage of people who are affiliating with no religion whatsoever is on the rise. In other words, Ottawa is too vast a mission field for just the existing churches to reach. We need revitalized churches and new churches, as well as for the churches who are healthy and thriving to keep doing what they’re doing and then some. However, I don’t think we simply need more evangelical churches, but more missional churches.

What is a Missional Church?

What is a missional church? Missional has become a buzzword in Christian circles, and, like the term gospel-centred, it means many different things to many different people. I think (emphasis on the I) a missional church is a church that has a missionary mindset. It is a church that understands the culture and the times it lives in and is willing to do ministry accordingly, that is it is willing to rethink how it does ministry in order to more effectively evangelize and disciple the people it has in front of it. A missionary, when he or she arrives in a foreign land, always asks the question “who are these people? What are their beliefs and values? What are their idols, their dreams, their longings, and felt needs? How is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus good news for them? How can I share that with them in a way that makes sense to them and would be most impactful for them? Where is there common ground that we can celebrate and build on? Where does the culture need to be challenged with the claims and teachings of Jesus? What barriers are there to belief in the gospel? What are their objections?” A missionary is usually prepared to spend years contextualizing the gospel, patiently walking with people towards faith in Christ, and building a framework in which the gospel would even make sense. Missional churches have this mindset, the mindset of a missionary.

Now why do I think we need more churches like this? Because I believe ‘the times they are a changin’ in Canada, and have been for quite some time. There have been significant shifts in our culture, and yet in many ways the church is still doing ministry like these shifts haven’t occurred or like they are not as significant as they actually are. The church has not discerned the culture and times in which it lives, or perhaps it has but is not willing to minister accordingly. The church is not acting or thinking like a missionary. The question is, what are the times in which we live? Who are the people we have in front of us in Canada, and how ought this to effect how we do evangelism and discipleship? The first question is the subject of this post.

The times in which we live

A friend of mine says that the church today “ministers amongst the fragments of Christendom.” In other words, we live in a post-Christendom society, the church is no longer an influential cultural and political force shaping the language, thought-forms, and ethics of our society. And in many ways we are living in a progressively post-Christian society. Sometimes when I say that ours is a post-Christian age, people react very negatively. I have heard people say “you cannot say Canada is post-Christian, people still get saved, and the Holy Spirit is still at work”. Absolutely! When I say we live in a post-Christian context, I am not saying that the Spirit of God has been removed from the earth and no one gives their life to Jesus anymore. If I believed that, I wouldn’t be planting a church that wants to help people who are far from God discover Jesus and become His disciples. What I mean is that not only has the church as an institution largely been relegated to the margins, but the Christian faith itself is being rejected. We live in a culture now that doesn’t think Christian-ly or speak Christian-ly, and people are increasingly not just indifferent to Christianity but hostile to it.

I don’t believe Canada was ever a Christian nation, or that there can be such a thing, but there was a time when people were culturally Christianized. They believed that the Bible was a holy book, that Christian morality was moral, that the God of the Bible was the God, that Jesus existed and was significant, that sin was real, that we needed to be saved, and that there was a heaven and a hell. Many people were not born again followers of Jesus, but they were conservative and religious. Now don’t get me wrong, this was not some golden age. Cultural Christianity is very problematic, and politicized Christianity even more so. But now, many Christian beliefs and values are deeply offensive to people and many people see the Christian faith as outdated at best, repressive, intolerant, bigoted, and immoral at worst. For some, Christianity is seen as a relic of the past that we must abandon or at least substantially reinterpret (liberal Christianity) if we are to move forward into our brave new future. For others, evangelism is seen as imperialism. If Christianity works for you, that’s great, but you must keep it private, or at least you must not try to persuade others of your beliefs, no matter how true and beautiful they are to you. You can tell your story, but don’t expect anyone to embrace the Saviour of your story. This is a significant shift in our culture that has been accelerating rapidly over the last while.

Tim Keller explains this shift and its impact on evangelism in particular very well in his book “Center Church”. He is describing the situation in America which in many ways is less secular than Canada. He is worth quoting at length here. According to Keller, there was a time when:

Americans were largely “Christianized” in their thinking . They usually believed in a personal God, in the existence of heaven and hell, and in the concept of moral authority and judgement, and they generally had a basic grasp of Christian ethics. A gospel presentation could assume and build on all these things in seeking to convict them of sin and the need for the redemption of Christ. Now, for more and more Americans (and Canadians even more so), all these ideas were weakening or absent. The gospel message was not simply being rejected; it was becoming incomprehensible and increasingly hated. The world that Christians in the West had known — where the culture tilted in the direction of traditional Christianity — no longer existed.

Before this shift, nonbelievers did need to be persuaded of many doctrines in order to become Christians. They needed to understand that God was more holy than they had thought, but there was no need to convince them that God existed or that he got angry at disobedience. They needed to see they were more alienated from God than they thought, but there was no need to convince them that there is such a thing as sin or that there were moral, transcultural absolutes. People did need to see exactly what Jesus had done to save them , but there was less need to establish that Jesus lived and that he did the things the Bible said he did. People needed to learn that salvation was not by works but by faith; but virtually everyone had at least some idea of “salvation” and some type of belief in an afterlife. Finally, people needed to have the difference between faith and works explained to them, and how they had been relying on their works. They would often say to the gospel presenter, “Oh, I didn’t realize that! How can I get it right?” In short, evangelicals could count on their listeners to at least be mentally able to understand the message of the Christian faith — a message largely seen as credible and positive. Their job was to convict people of their personal need for Christ and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to urge them to make a personal commitment to Christ. Gospel presentations could be kept rather simple, stressing the importance of repentance and faith, without the enormous work of having to establish the very existence and character of the biblical God or the other parts of the basic framework of the Christian understanding of reality. In addition, it wasn’t too difficult to bring people into church. It was generally understood that being part of a church was a good thing. In fact, those who wanted to be respected members of a local community understood that local church attendance would be part of the package. (Source: Keller, Timothy J. (2012-09-04). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (pp. 182-183). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)

In other words, in a post-Christian context, evangelism cannot be done as it was in the days of Christendom, or even in the days when Christendom was starting to crumble. We cannot assume people share our values anymore. In fact, we can probably assume the exact opposite. We cannot assume people value the Bible anymore, or that they have the needed mental furniture to be able to process and understand a simplistic gospel presentation. We cannot assume they believe in God or Jesus. We cannot assume people know what we mean when we say sin, God, hell, justice, reconciliation, repentance, faith etc… And we cannot assume people are going to come to our churches, programs, and events, no matter how seeker sensitive we make them. So much has changed. And in this context, we need missional churches. We need churches that adopt the mindset of a missionary and ask: “who are these people? What are their beliefs and values? What are their idols, their dreams, their longings and felt needs? How is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus good news for them? How can I share that with them in a way that makes sense to them and would be most impactful for them? Where is there common ground? Where does the culture need to be challenged with the claims and teachings of Jesus? What barriers are there to belief in the gospel? What are their objections?”

I sometimes wonder, how many churches are asking these questions at all or have asked these questions within the last five years? How many have taken the answers they have received to these questions and have actually thought through how they do evangelism and discipleship and wondered “is there anything we need to do differently?” How many churches have decided that their approach is going to be to continue doing everything as they have always done it and simply lament how much the world has changed? How many churches have decided that these are “the last days” and we just need to gather in our holy huddles and wait for Jesus to return? How many have decided all we need to do is go about our business as usual and simply pray harder? Now don’t get me wrong, I am not diminishing the importance of prayer. If God is not with us, our best efforts are worthless (Exodus 33:15). Prayer is central. You know who believed prayer was central, the apostle Paul, but you know what else Paul believed, that there was no one way to do evangelism. Just read Paul’s sermon to the Jewish people of Antioch in Acts 13 versus his sermon to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:16-34. He knew who his audience was and that shaped how he presented the gospel. Who he was reaching out to shaped how he lived and did ministry. He made significant changes to his lifestyle and ministry methods short of disobeying the law of Christ “that (he) might win more of them…that by all means (he) might save some” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). We often, I believe sinfully, choose our own preferences over the changes that might win more of the thoroughly secular people who live in our post-Christian culture. This is the challenge for us in the West. The church has been established here for centuries. There is a way we do things, a way we like doing things. Will we rethink some of those things, short of disobeying the law of Christ, that we might win more?

Missional churches ask the questions a missionary does, and missional churches act on the answers they get that they might win more. We need more missional churches; churches that embrace the reality that we live in a post-Christian society and that evangelism and discipleship need to be done differently now than they were fifty years ago. You might ask, in what ways do they need to be done differently? This is what we’ll explore in my next post.

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