I also hope that we will give birth to a new mission start at least each year for the foreseeable future.
These are big dreams, and I name them up front not because I'm going to share here in this post the secret of how to make it happen, but simply to share with readers the vision I have in my heart and on my mind as I head to work each day.
The only problem with this dream, minor as it may sound, is that I hope this while simultaneously believing that God's love is made perfect through weakness, and that the foolishness of the gospel we proclaim makes us, the church, odd and vulnerable, and typically on the side of the downtrodden, weak, poor and lonely.
If we are going to invite a larger number of worshippers to our congregation, and if we are going to launch new mission starts that impact Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas and extend God's mission in the world, it makes all the difference in the world what precisely we are inviting people into, and that we are on God's mission rather than our own. So getting clear on what the weakness of God and the foolishness of the gospel entails is of central importance.
Churches that are growing often emphasize being relevant, or effecting life transformation. Transformed lives is a buzz word. So is impact. I'm not opposed to being relevant, transforming lives, or impact, but I do wonder, to what end?
So, for example, if we take discipleship to the crucified Nazarene, Jesus, as what relevance, life transformation, and impact looks like, then we need to keep in mind that discipleship entails extending Christ's God-given mission of of shalom (God's peaceful reign) into the world. Disciples of this Jesus can expect "the same kind of opposition Jesus faced, since the reconciling reign of God continues to cross boundaries and challenge the authorities of all who resist it" (Ira Brent Driggers, Jesus' Atoning Life in the Gospel of Mark, Lutheran Forum Winter 2010).
Perhaps the problem is that I am at risk as a pastor of confusing the dream (grow the church and launch mission starts) with participation in the reign (reconciliation, peace, health, life in Christ). We are only worthy of growing and launching missions when we are on and about Jesus' ministry of reconciliation, participating in Christ's faithfulness to God through our own faithfulness.
What this means, on a practical level, is that if our ministries flow too easily, and grow too quickly, with little resistance from the world--perhaps even without active opposition from it--then we should wonder whether we are truly living as disciples of the man Jesus whose whole public ministry was opposed by much of the world and governing authorities, and was eventually killed for his utter faithfulness to God's mission.
If we do grow, and we are successful, while at the same time causing holy trouble that brings about healing, reconciliation, love made perfect in weakness, then we can know it isn't because of our relevance, or our sweet strategic skills and winning personality, but because God has promised to enliven and empower us in the Spirit when we are about God's business in the world. And that again, that empowerment will be resisted even while it energizes.
I'm intrigued, as I begin ministry here in Arkansas, by how radically different an understanding of Christ's cross is implied by these thoughts. It seems that a dominant understanding of the cross in this (our) culture is that Jesus died on the cross to appease God's wrath. As if God needed Jesus to die, and God sent him there.
However, a more Lutheran, and actually more biblical, understanding of the atonement, will recognize that it was human beings who sent Jesus to the cross, not God. That being said, however, God did send Jesus on a mission that got him killed (Ira Brent Driggers, LF page 13). Jesus dies not to appease the wrath of God, but out of faithfulness to the mission on which he is sent.
The radicalness of this theological claim is that then the cross of Christ becomes something in which we participate as disciples, rather than as simply something done for us to make us right with God. That is no small difference, and it is precisely this difference, and the theology that attends it, that is the reason why I do think God has us on a mission to grow our church in size as well as new births, in order participate in God's weak and foolish reign in this world for the sake of the lost, the weak, and the lonely.