We recently had a brilliant weekend in our local community.
On a Saturday, nine different congregations worked together to put on a Family Fun Day on Streatham Common in South London. More than 2,000 people came.
Then, the next day, a joint “Messy Church” service was held on the same spot to which the whole community was invited. Lots of people who don’t normally come to church came along.
The whole thing was organized by Love Streatham (for which my wife works), which brings together the churches in Streatham to show God’s love to our community.
These events got me thinking about the importance of mission in the life of the church and reminded me of a seminar I went to a few years ago led by Mike Frost, an Australian missiologist, where he outlined four functions of church:
- Discipleship – learning and growing in following Jesus.
- Worship – praise and prayer to God, participating in the sacraments.
- Fellowship – building relationships within the church.
- Mission – going out to share the gospel in words and actions.
The seminar focused on the idea that one of these will always be “the controlling function.”
Frost argued that it is generally worship, via a Sunday morning service, which is the controlling function around which everything else has to work. When worship is in the lead role, each of the other three functions are organized around it.
Thus, discipleship is chiefly done via a sermon at the Sunday gathering while fellowship is done after the service over coffee. Mission primarily becomes the activity that seeks to draw people to the Sunday service.
Many Christians have become deeply disillusioned with this approach. Whether they are part of traditional churches or newer, charismatic congregations, the focus on the Sunday meeting easily becomes dissatisfying.
It’s because it leads to a very concentric form of church, focused in on itself as an institution. Instead of focusing outward, the church becomes focused on keeping its current members happy.
In turn, this increases denominationalism, deepens a sense of competition between congregations, entrenches disunity and, worst of all, neglects mission. The church becomes a club, which primarily looks after its members.
In contrast, Frost promoted the idea that mission should be the controlling function.
This was not because mission is more important than discipleship, worship or fellowship. As Mike Breen, a United Kingdom minister and author whose work focuses on missional church, has powerfully argued, without discipleship, mission will always fail.
The reason that mission should be the controlling function is because each of the other three functions are best served when the overall focus of church is missional and outward facing.
This utterly rings true to my experience. It has been true when I have engaged in mission, whether through short-term mission trips and events, long-term community projects, or through decisions about where I live or where I work that I have grown most in discipleship.
Also, my fellowship with other Christians has developed most through doing outward-focused work together. This has deepened my relationships with other Christians more than any amount of church attendance has.
And it is living out my faith in the real world that has most enriched my worship. The best way to deepen prayer and praise is through depending on God.
In the brilliant and highly recommended book, “Christianity Rediscovered,” Vincent Donovan said, “Mission is the meaning of the church. The church can exist only insofar as it is in mission, insofar as it participates in the act of Christ, which is mission. The church becomes the mission, the living outreach of God into the world.”
“The church exists only insofar as it carries Christ to the world,” Donovan continued. “The church is only part of the mission, the mission of God sending his son to the world. Without this mission, there would be no church. The idea of church without mission is an absurdity.”
His thinking is very similar to missiologist Lesslie Newbigin regarding the essentially missionary nature of the church.
We need to be reminded continually of this because, as a church, we are seriously addicted to buildings and meetings.
Mission is not a department of the church but its very nature, its very reason for being.
As Christopher Wright, biblical scholar and international ministries director of the Langham Partnership, has written: “God does not have a mission for his Church; He has a Church for His mission.”
Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. His Twitter feed is @jonkuhrt.