Culture Shock: Redefining the relationship between church and mission now that we've lost the home-field advantage

The day of the professional minister is over. The day of the missionary pastor has come.... The day of the churched culture is over. The day of the mission field has come.... The day of the local church is over. The day of the mission outpost has come.

So writes Kennon L. Callahan in his provocative book Effective Church Leadership (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990, pp. 3, 13, 22). His thesis follows a growing body of literature which recognizes that a fundamental shift is taking place within our culture: we are coming to view North America as a "mission field," a term we used to reserve for other continents. This shift is requiring churches to make substantial adjustments in both their self-understanding and their ministries.

The Changing Context

A variety of factors have contributed to this shift to mission-field status for North America. Three in particular stand out.

Because of our pluralism and our loss of confidence in finding rational solutions to the problems we face, people are beginning to label North American culture as postmodern.

In the postmodern context we are faced with (1) constant change introduced by new technologies, (2) an emphasis on surfaces and images, (3) a multiplication of personal choices with a fragmentation of meaning, and (4) the loss of any integrating center or grand narrative. In the midst of these developments, in a world characterized by diversity and fragmentation, the church is struggling to tell its story.

Because unchurched persons no longer speak our language or share our values, the context in which churches minister today is sometimes also described as post-Christian. The United States and Canada once described themselves as Christian nations. But secular culture and a host of new religious movements now make Christianity just one more voice in the midst of a growing diversity of truth claims. In this context, churches are struggling to redefine their self- understanding and their message.

Because of the loss of institutional loyalty and denominational identity among many church attenders, the church in North America is also coming to be labeled as postdenominational. Young people today pick a church that is able to meet their needs; the church's framework of theological beliefs is often of secondary importance.

This focus on the local church has resulted in a substantial loss of financial and institutional support for the work of denominational agencies. In response, churches are refocusing their efforts on local ministry in an effort to survive as they search for new ways to bond people together into meaningful congregations.

Loss of Home-Field Advantage

These changes are moving our churches onto a dramatically different playing field, one in which we have lost the home-field advantage. Our churches no longer experience preferred status in their communities or receive the preferential treatment from other institutions that they once enjoyed.

In addition, people no longer seek out the church as they once did. As a result, churches can no longer enjoy the luxury of spending most of their time on nurture, dealing with evangelism only as a specialized "add-on" for those who have the interest.

It's becoming increasingly evident that if churches are to be effective in reaching people, they now need to seek out the world. They must place as much emphasis on mission outreach as they used to place on nurture. To be effective, the local church must become missionary in its life and its character. That's what Callahan is calling for in his book. And that's the reality that is beginning to force us to redefine the relationship between the church and the world.

From Church-Shaped Mission To Mission-Shaped Church

For the most part, North American churches have developed their self-understanding in light of the themes of the Protestant Reformation, which gave primary attention to the orderly government of the church and to maintaining pure doctrine. The Reformers understood the church to be the center of God's focus and activity in the world. Within this view, mission became the specialized activity of the few who went to another part of the world or who were assigned to the mission committee. Church matters took precedence over outreach concerns.

In recent decades, however, this model of church-shaped mission has been challenged by an understanding of the missio dei, the triune God in mission to the world. This view presents a contrasting model, that of a mission-shaped church that views the world as the center of God's attention. The created world, though fallen, is the arena in which the Holy Spirit is working through the church as sign, foretaste, and instrument to bring the power of redemption and reconciliation to lost persons and a broken society. These images suggest that the starting point for understanding the church is missiological rather than eccle-siological.

As we come to understand North America as mission field, we are also beginning to realize our need to develop a mission-shaped church rather than a church-shaped mission. This is the shift that Callahan refers to when he contrasts the differences between the professional minister who works within a local church in a churched culture and the missionary pastor who serves within a mission outpost in a mission field. These differences are as follows:

Reactive Proactive
Passive Intentional
Organizational Relational
Institutional Missional

This shift in leadership, however, is just part of the change called for within a mission-shaped church. We must also address the ministry and programs of the church. In particular, we must address the critical role of worship from the perspective of this new mission-shaped model.

Developing an Understanding of Worship in the Mission-Shaped Church

Defining what worship means and deciding how to worship are crucial issues to resolve in shaping a response to the changes noted above. Worship serves as the church's central experience for shaping its self-understanding in a public and corporate way. And more than any other activity we engage in, worship defines the relationship of the church to the world. As a church seeks to give honor and praise to God in worship, it is openly declaring to the world that it serves a different master. A church's worship becomes a public statement that this body of people does not conform to the world's values and choices, and offers a bold invitation to others to join them in serving the living and true God. Worship, in this regard, is at the heart of shaping the church's missionary perspective.

It is this perspective that creates some tension for many people who feel that the primary purpose of worship is to bring honor to God by focusing only on believers. These people hold that worship is a public meeting between God and God's people, and that our worship, therefore, is "for God." But if, as we noted above, God's focus is on gathering from the world a people who will honor him, and if God is calling the church into mission to that world, then every aspect of a church's life and ministry must have a missionary character.

It is no longer possible to build the case that our worship is "for God" in the sense that it focuses only on believers. Worship that is exclusively "for God" may in reality be functioning as a Trojan horse for designing worship that is really only "for us." In light of a biblical understanding of missio dei, God is calling us to develop our worship from the perspective of the relationship of the church to the world.

Implications for Worship Planning Teams

Understanding church as community, not worship event.
Worship services developed by the mission-shaped church are seen as only one expression of life by a body of believers who function together as a community of God's people. Other biblical functions for ministry are given equal emphasis. The life and ministry of the community as a whole define the boundaries of what constitutes the church.

For too long we have tended to tie the identity of a church to its public worship event. Attendance at public worship is important, but it is not the essence of the mission-shaped church. People woven together in relationship-based community who make corporate choices to live in obedience to God, are the essence of the mission-shaped church.

Understanding the unchurched.
Worship services developed by the mission-shaped church are responsive to the needs of unchurched persons who live within its service area. Such a church actively engages in researching its community and in analyzing the lifestyles of unchurched persons. Its worship-planning team uses this information to design worship that is not only faithful to biblical guidelines and historic tradition, but also responsive to the needs and perspectives of unchurched persons.

The mission-shaped church often defines specific target groups within this unchurched population that it feels are most reachable in light of its own congregational history and identity.

Knowing the seeker.
Worship services developed by the mission-shaped church actively invite unchurched persons to come and discover the reality of the living God. Such a church carefully evaluates the interests and preferences of those unchurched persons who become active seekers. It develops services that are either "seeker-friendly" (allowing these persons to easily join in worship) or "seeker- driven" (planned specifically to reach these persons).

The technology for seeker-oriented services was developed by the Willow Creek Church in Chicago, Illinois, under the leadership of Bill Hybels. It has now been adapted by many local churches in a variety of denominations (see RW 24).

Offering choices.
The mission-shaped church finds ways to offer worship choices to those who are seekers within the target groups being served. Such a church recognizes that it is often difficult to provide worship experiences that blend all styles and preferences into one service format. So it offers a variety of worship services that may range from traditional to progressive to contemporary.

Such services are sometimes scheduled in alternative time slots (e.g., Friday or Saturday evenings in addition to Sunday mornings), with additional fellowship times to bring all of these groups together into one congregation.

Responding to different preferences and learning styles.
Worship services developed by the mission-shaped church use a wide variety of methods and media to express the relationship between God and God's people. The worship-planning team recognizes that both members and seekers have a variety of personal preferences and learning styles.

In this regard, music is probably the most important area. To relate to the diverse preferences of the congregation, the mission-shaped church offers many different types and styles of instrumentation and singing. In addition, recognizing that the visual is as important as the aural, it also uses a wide variety of other media, such as drama, lighting, overheads, and video.

Preaching life-relevant messages.
The mission-shaped church recognizes that the Word of God preached is still central to the worship experience. But it also recognizes that the preached word needs to place its emphasis on life-relevant messages that apply God's Word to everyday needs.

Such a church demonstrates that the teaching ministry of the church, where the fuller systematic understanding of the Bible can be conveyed, needs to be developed as a parallel ministry and program to public worship. This is usually done through small-group ministries and adult education programs.

Maintaining theological integrity and historical continuity.
Worship services developed by the mission-shaped church recognize that people want honest answers to life's questions and need to discover a sense of place in a rapidly changing world. These services do not give in to the trap of simply trying to meet people's felt needs, but rather work at challenging people to live obediently To do this, worship leaders need to use theological integrity when presenting God's truth and presence within worship.

The mission-shaped church does not give in to the latest fad in an effort to be popular, but rather seeks to offer the believer and seeker a relevant and responsive interpretation of the historic faith as it has received it. This church seeks to become relevant without being trivial, and to be responsive without being faddish.

What Do We Do Now?

What does all this mean for us, in our individual congregations and denominations? At the very least, it calls us to a new awareness. There's a changed landscape out there in North America. We are now ministering on a different playing field, and we've lost the home-field advantage. In order to survive, churches are finding it necessary to change.

In this context, the church has a critical opportunity to rethink its identity from a biblical perspective. The missio del, the triune God in mission to the world, is a theological perspective that calls the church to shift out of the model of a church-shaped mission, into the model of a mission-shaped church. The mission-shaped church must then retool its ministry and programs to conform to this new identity.

Central to this retooling is the development of worship that is focused on the world, seeker- sensitive, relationship-based, flexible in format and style, relevant with integrity, and responsive to need within historical continuity. In the mission-shaped church, it might be said that worship-planning teams are now serving on the mission frontier.

Craig Van Gelder was associate professor of domestic missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 27 © March 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.