A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years about missional Christianity. Without delving into the technical issues involved in defining the term, or attempting to say exactly what or who qualifies as truly missional, I would like to think out loud with you about some of the practical issues that sometimes come along with being missional. As I understand it, a big part of being missional has to do with getting involved in the community. It means, even though your church or ministry may be located geographically in the very same town in which you grew up, viewing this ministry with “missionary eyes.” It means not placing so much emphasis on activities organized on church premises by church people in order to further the interests of the church but rather on sending people out from the church into the community in order to meet felt needs and make a difference in the lives of unchurched people. It is less about “come” and more about “go.”
Some of the implications of this involve crossing boundaries—boundaries the church may not have been in the habit of crossing before. For some, it implies networking and forming partnerships with various initiatives and organizations that may not share all of the same core values and doctrinal beliefs as the church. In some instances, it involves taking initiatives like sending teams of people to do community service projects in needy neighborhoods or public schools. For example, when I was a missionary in Spain, the evangelical sociocultural association we formed co-sponsored a community drug awareness program with the local chapter of the Red Cross. We distributed Red Cross food to needy families. We also helped to organize international student exchanges with local public high schools. For local churches, it sometimes includes opening up their facilities for the use of community organizations and events such as Boy Scout chapters, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, high school graduation ceremonies, etc.
All of this is fine and well. As Christians, we are called to serve—and not just to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we are not called to isolate ourselves, but to make a difference in the world.
The problem comes when the values of some of these organizations and initiatives come into conflict in one way or another with our values as Christians. And if we are honest, we must recognize that, unless an initiative or organization is specifically Christian, their core values, though perhaps similar in this or that, will never be totally compatible with ours.
Even though they may espouse “morally straight,” or positive, or all-American values, a group that is not specifically Christian does not, by definition, share the church’s most important value of all: the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is because of this, I believe, in our missional endeavors to bless the communities in which we live, we must at the same time be on guard to not fall into the trap of entering into entangling alliances. We are called to be in the world, but not of it. As disciples of Jesus, we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. No one can serve two masters. And there are occasions when we must be perfectly clear where our true allegiances lie.
Does this mean we must steer clear of any and all forms of partnering with groups that are not specifically Christian? Not necessarily. As missionaries—whether in a foreign land or in our own neighborhood—one of the most strategic things we can do is to build redemptive relationships with the people that surround us. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to live life together with the people we are trying to reach. To the extent we are able to do so without at the same time compromising our convictions, it is good missionary strategy to go to the same places they go, do the same things they do, eat the same food they eat, and appreciate the same cultural artifacts they appreciate (see Jeremy Parks’ helpful post about this here).
At the same time, though, it means we must be tentative and maintain relatively loose ties with these groups with whom we partner. When we, as individual Christians, or as a local church, participate in activities sponsored by non-Christian entities, we place ourselves under the authority, as it were, of these entities. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We are commanded in Scripture to submit to the authority of secular governments. Even when we eat in a restaurant, to some degree we come under the authority of the management. When we send a group of church youth to a local sports event, we go in submission, as it were, to the rules and values of the organization hosting the event. Sometimes, however, there are potential conflicts of interest. When we send a church group to the movie theater to watch a Christian movie, for example, we go, realizing, at the same time, that the movie theater also shows morally objectionable movies. We may choose to go anyway, but we are free to decide not to whenever it is deemed to not be in the interest of the values and mission of the church to send a group to a particular establishment.
This does not necessarily imply that we ought to throw rocks at them when we make this decision, though. We must be attentive and ready to recognize whenever there is a conflict of interest and withdraw from participation in a joint initiative as soon as such a conflict becomes evident. Whenever we are not able to partner in this or that, or whenever circumstances call for us to dissolve partnerships in which we have previously been involved, to the degree possible, I believe we ought to seek to do so gracefully. It is not the time to publicly turn on and get revenge on our former partner. It is not the time to behave like a spurned lover.
Let me be clear. I am not saying there is never a time for legitimate boycotts. There are certain activities and entities which, as Christians, whether we formally announce it or not, we systematically boycott—at least in a de facto sense. If we are consistent in our Christian testimony, we do not, for example, frequent topless bars, crack houses, or KKK rallies, nor do we partner with environmentally destructive industries, or factories that exploit the poor.
Of course, we could, if we so chose, boycott every organization and entity that does not perfectly conform to every one of our values as Christians. But most of us do not. We buy gas and coffee at gas stations that also sell salacious magazines. We eat at restaurants that also serve alcohol. We watch television on cable outlets that also offer packages with pornographic programming. The values of the world around us are so pervasive it is hard to escape them. Neither do we choose to picket and protest and publicly denounce every organization that in one way or another promotes sin. One of the logical reasons for this is that, if we did, we would not have any time left to do what we are really called to do as the church. Instead of being the church, we would quickly turn into a Westboro-style cult.
It seems, however, that those we make the biggest deal about publicly denouncing are often those who stray, in one way or another, from a position we had previously regarded as more compatible with our own. Why did we as Southern Baptists, for example, vote to boycott Disney instead of the pornographic movie industry? Is it not because we considered them to have started out as a family-friendly organization? Why, for example, is the change of policy at the Boy Scouts such a big deal for us? Is it not because of what we perceive, in many ways, to be a shared cultural heritage and a lot of warm fuzzies in our collective memory?
What is it about certain decisions of certain organizations that tend to grab our attention? Does it have to do with expectations? What is it that we expect, though? Do the Boy Scouts exist in order to make disciples of Jesus? Does Disney? Do any of the political parties? What about the US military? Do we hope to somehow Christianize these organizations and convert them into Christian entities? The only way to do that would be for them, as organizations, to embrace the total package of the gospel, including the exclusivity of the cross of Christ. If they are not, and never have claimed to be, Christian, though, are these expectations warranted? The truth of the matter is that entities that are not specifically Christian will always end up disappointing us in one way or another if we expect something from them that is not a part of their natural DNA. Our expectations for organizations that purport to exist in order to make disciples of Jesus ought to be different than for those that don’t.
If, on the other hand, a church is going to co-sponsor an event with a group that is not specifically Christian, or open up its facilities to groups that are not specifically Christian, it has every right to expect that the church’s core values will not be attacked, undermined, or compromised as a result. We must weigh whether our participation in this event helps us or hinders us with respect to our ultimate objective, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, not to promote moral therapeutic deism or American civil religion.
Whenever an organization like the Boy Scouts, or Disney, or the public schools, or the US military, or the Republican Party, decides to exchange one set of values which is not in accord with the gospel for another set of values that is even less in accord with the gospel, we are legitimately saddened, but we should not be shocked. And since, ultimately, our horse is not tied to their wagon, and the mission of the church and the power of the gospel are not thereby negatively affected, we should not be overly distraught.
Whenever we have the opportunity to bear testimony to the gospel by appropriately partnering with and serving those in the larger community in which we live, we do well to take advantage of it. But, at the same time, we must always remember who is our true spiritual family, what are the core values that bind us together, and not compromise these values by forming entangling alliances with those who do not truly share them.