The Church in the world today faces many challenges. For many those, challenges are rooted in declining church attendance, lagging membership roles, declining giving, ageing buildings, and diocesan [insert your own governing body here]  pressure to perform better. For many clergy the pressure to find new programs, inspire more people, lead better liturgy, preach the best sermon, choose the best music, raise up new lay leadership, etc. has become all consuming.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for the pastor of any church to be the parson and live in the midst of the lives of the people in the community seeking to be present to them. Ministry revolves around the gathering of people in a building that has become ‘the church.’ We are so busy trying do church that there is little time left to be church.

On this Sunday when we hear the call of the prophet John the Baptist, I am thankful that there are those who love the community of God so much that they are finding a prophetic voice to crying out in the wilderness for us to make straight the path. There are voices of people like Michael Frost, Alan Hirsh, Alan Roxburgh, Craig Van Gelder and  Reggie McNeal, as well as others who are telling us to knock down the mountains we have built up for ourselves. These voices are calling into the wilderness and exile that the church currently finds ourselves in, and implore us to fill up the valleys.

Just as John the Baptist was a little out of the ordinary and was preaching a new a dynamic message of what it would mean to follow the Messiah who was coming, these modern prophetic voices are trying to wake us up from our complacency as a people of God.  We talk (a lot) at this time of the year, of preparing for the coming of a Light to dispel all darkness. We talk about expectation and waiting. We talk about having faith in the promise that God has made to us. We talk about the notion of God-with-us – Emmanuel. But what do we do beyond talk? That seems to be where missional leaders are asking some pretty serious and relevant questions.  We are being challenged to look beyond the walls of our beautiful edifices wherein we offer our prayer, our praise, and our proclamation.  We are being reminded that our churches are becoming fortresses where we keep ourselves separate from the world around us. How often do we still hear people speaking of this of secular and other things as sacred as if there is a clean difference?

In his book Missional Renaissance Reggie McNeal summarizing the work of Frost and Hirsh in their book The Shaping of Things to Come, offers this description of what the missional church will be:

The missional church…will be an anticlone of existing traditional model. [First,] rather than being attractional it will be incarnational. It will leave its own religious zones and live comfortably with non-church-goers, seeping into the host culture like slat and light. It will be an infiltrating, transformational community. Second, rather than being dualistic, it will embrace a messianic spirituality,…a spirituality of engagement with culture and the world in the same mode as the Messiah himself. And third, the missional church will develop an apostolic form of leadership rather than the traditional hierarchical model. [1]

At this time of year as we prepare for the incarnation these words are powerful. Missional Church is a call for us to leave behind that which has allowed to be ghettoised and become the Living Body with others. It is a call to knock down the arrogant high mountains of our churchy existence in order to be able to engage people at base level. Rather than seeing ourselves as removed from the world around us and alien to the culture in which we live, missional church calls us to prepare our communities to embrace a messianic spirituality. We can model our behaviour after that of God-with-us. Taking the lead of the One-for-whom-we-wait in Advent, we can sojourn into diverse communities and cultures in which we live without a need to name some places as sacred and others as secular.  We can fill the valleys of despair that have lead us to believe that is no future for us. We call raise up that valley buy coming to grips with the fact that our hopeful future is not a re-run of our past.  Taking our lead from Jesus we too might care to ask where God’s incarnational love is needed and then go be present. Our success might be best claimed because we have changed hearts, fed bellies, clothed back – because we have been a living presence fulfilling God’s mission.

Advent is a great time to be reminded that we are being called to be something new. It is a great time to examine who we are as a church. It is a great time to question whether or not we have come to grips with what God is asking of our communities. We read in Malachi:

Who can endure the day of God’s coming?
Who can withstand God’s appearance?
God is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
God will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
God will purify the Levites
and refine them like gold and silver.
They will belong to the Lord,
presenting a righteous offering.
The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi

It is that incarnational presence of God that can refine, clean us, purify us, and remind us that church may be as complacent today as the Temple people had become after return from exile. Malachi reminded the people that there was work to do to prepare for the Lord’s coming. The Impending Promise that is coming into the world should be reason enough for us to as if we are living as a church which has embraced God’s mission.

“The missional church believes it is God who is on mission and that we are to join him in it. As Bishop Leslie Newbigin says, “It seems to me to be of great importance to insist that mission is not first of all an action of ours. It is an action of God.”Our job, then, is to do what the Baptist thinker Henry Blackaby often suggests: find out what God is doing and join him in it.”[2]

The trouble is that just as it was uncomfortable for Malachi, John the Baptist, and many others to call people’s attention to where God would be incarnate it is uncomfortable for us to come to grips with that today. While they may nor wear camel hair, eat locusts or wild honey, those who are calling the church to mission do make some of us uncomfortable – that’s probably good news because God never promised that it was about our comfort — Right?  


[1] Reggie McNeal – Missional Renaissance – pg 24.

[2] Reggie McNeal – Missional Renaissance – pg 23