The Big Picture – the three ‘parties’
All mission engagement requires attention to three foundational factors that should shape mission responses. These three components are essential to be understood for existing churches but even more important in pioneering mission and planting fresh expressions of church.
First, there is the mission field, the context in which inherited churches are set and the sub-culture to which pioneers and fresh expressions have sensed a calling.
Second, there is the mission force. In inherited church this is the leadership and entire congregation. For pioneering and fresh expressions, a leader or leaders have to be identified and they have to share vision and recruit a team.
Lastly, there is the manner in which the mission force is motivated and mobilised to engage with the mission field. This is the evolving mission strategy. The goal is that this has natural ‘fit’, connecting resources to the field.
Mission “match making”
So careful attention must be paid to each of three quite distinct components or ‘parties’ to the mission enterprise. Each is important and needs looking at separately and in relation to one another, if we are to arrive at such a good ‘mission fit’.
Now in recovering a right priority on the mission imperative, we rightly emphasise that of utmost importance is attention to the context. But in fact, this vital discerning of the Mission Field is only one of three essential elements to be considered in gaining the big picture and enabling appropriate mission engagement to be taken forward.
Just as important is a thorough understanding of the church that is undertaking the mission. No one church is the same and there are all sorts of considerations to be taken into account in shaping mission responses. They will be unique to the particular faith community that makes up the Mission Force. And in the case of pioneering and fresh expressions there is the chance to identify and select the leader(s) and for them to recruit a team that has particular gifts and life situation suited to the mission task.
Then the third factor is how we discern that God, the Spirit of Mission, is already at work in the context. Then if we follow Him, He will lead to a “marrying up” of the mission resources to the mission context. This then evolves into an appropriate Mission Strategy which harnesses the other two parties to release Kingdom outcomes.
It is often said that “the context is everything”. And this rightly restores a corrective balance since in so much church life we almost exclusively think from within ourselves… so that church shapes everything! Most churches are typically weak at “reading” their context and the demography of the mission field.
In fact, all sorts of insights have now become available around the area of “Mission Audit”; Listening for Mission and “Discernment in Context”, that should help existing churches engagement and direct pioneers on their journey. And to match these insights there are resources to support these processes.
But also, churches are often poor at recognising issues within themselves which help or hinder mission. There are many factors to be considered here that contribute to church being released into mission. There are issues of church culture, of church polity and governance which may be less than fully enabling of mission even when the challenge is grasped. Then there are the gifts and passions of their members which are often not fully recognised and released. Similarly, pioneer teams may not pay attention to the gift mix and motivations of those making up the team.
And if we are honest, observation, research and statistics of church trends, shows that we are less than good at mission engagement strategy in the church at large. Often programs of mission we adopt are copied from others that seem to have born good fruit where they are… but are they appropriate for where we are with our resources? And this tendency can also be repeated in our pioneering initiatives of planting and fresh expressions.
The outcome of the incomplete mobilisation and integration of each of these is partial connection. Only weak mission engagement that is represented by the partially overlapping circles. If these circles are each of one of the three primary colours… blue, yellow and red… the resulting areas of overlap produce areas of green and orange.
Each “Party” fully integrated
This is the desired destination. It is not easy and in some senses, is always an ideal to be moving towards. But it needs to be kept in view. The goal of a) so understanding the context and culture, b) so releasing the church to be shaped for mission and to recognise the gifts and passions of pioneers and members within, that c) the “Missio dei” can be discerned and the resources follow His lead to generate a mission strategy appropriate to both context and church.
This matching or “marrying up” of the three ‘parties’ in an integrated, wholistic journey, is moving towards the model of Jesus in “Incarnational Mission Engagement”. In the third diagram here, it is represented by the three circles completely overlapping each other. And to stick to our analogy of coloured light… when the three primary colours of blue, yellow and red, are completely mixed, the result… is WHITE LIGHT!
Fresh expressions of church are a response to the inspiration of this pattern of Jesus in his self-emptying and identification with the context, only to challenge it to a transformational journey into the Kingdom and to become like Him.
Moving towards this mission ‘fit’ – Incarnational Mission!
So, let’s look more closely at some important factors in each of the three foundational components if we are to move towards a good mission fit and incarnational mission.
Again, we look first at the chosen mission field. It is easy to take for granted that our mission is the sum of the population around wherever we gather. However, whilst Jesus was called to be the saviour of the whole world, the strategy of his earthly mission and ministry involved a clear mission focus… “My calling is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel!” The principle is concentrating on the few to reach the many. In today’s very diverse society with many sub-cultures or milieus around, it is appropriate to prioritise a mission focus. And this is especially true for pioneering and planting fresh expressions of church.
Only when we are clear as to the particular field, can we engage with the process of listening and sensitive discovery. This involves all sorts of research and discernment to fully understand the culture … recognising the needs and aspirations. And then discovering the gospel connections.
Again, we next look at the component of the mission force. In inherited church we noted that this is the leadership and entire congregation. There will be present all sorts of gifts, passions and natural daily connections with parts of the mission field. For pioneering and fresh expressions, a leader or leaders have to be identified and sense a clear call. They may be from the culture of the mission field or otherwise will need the gifts and call of cross-cultural mission. Then in sharing the vision and recruiting a team, the connection to the context will similarly have to be worked out and training in cross-cultural mission may be required. Experience has shown that there are many other issues in team building, like the size of the team that is also important. Whilst a large team provides critical mass in engaging with the same culture, in cross-cultural mission a smaller team can more easily leave behind their culture and embrace that of the context.
It is also not enough to have enthusiastic and gifted team members. As well as issues of team building and dynamics, there may often be a challenge of a need for a change of lifestyle and pattern of commitments so that they dedicate significant time to engaging the context.
Lastly, there are all sorts of principles to be accessed around mission strategy. These range from responses to the listening and discernment with appropriate initiatives of community engagement. These then lead to contextual evangelism and discipleship. In summary, there needs to be the imagining of lovingly providing pathways for those in the context to discover and explore Jesus and the Kingdom through truth experienced in principles, stories, action, spirituality and community.
But again, if all three components are to ‘mary up’, then the strategies of engagement need to flow from the life of the team, be geared to their numbers, gifts and passions, and to their availability.
As with many church plants, fresh expressions are seeking to be examples of communities of faith encouraged to reflect the culture and values of their community and where not-yet-Christians are able to relate to and understand Jesus as one who meets them where they are in order to take them where he is.
This is incarnational mission, reflecting the incarnational example of Jesus. As ‘The Message’ paraphrases from the beginning of John:
The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood.
John 1.14 (The Message)
We should emphasise again that this is the biblical ideal that we are called to follow in our mission and pioneering. It should be the understanding that underlies and forms the foundation for all our subsequent exploration of other mission principles.