I grew up in New York. I spent three years in North Carolina. I moved to Indiana when I was 15 or so. I’ve lived in Alaska longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Each of those states has a pretty unique culture surrounding it. Each place was different. There was a different way of speaking. Social norms were different. Music and art and entertainment (particularly before the wonderful world of the internet made the transmission of entertainment so easy). And in each place there is a “learning curve” in order to fit in which takes time. I think I can argue that three years in North Carolina wasn’t enough to move beyond the “you’re not from around here” stage…because…well, I wasn’t really from around there.
That one of the things that makes this whole missionary thing so problematic. You have to really live in a place, really reside there, really plant yourself in the soil in order to get to a place where the Gospel can be shared and lived out in a way that transmits the saving work of Christ.
If you find yourself called to a certain urban tribe, whoever they might be, then it is critical to take their culture—in effect, their meaning system—seriously. Go to movies with friends and talk about the themes. Read the books they are likely to read (good demographical information about lifestyle preferences and people groups abound in books). Browse magazine racks and blogs as to what people are talking about and interested in. If people see a movie more than once, make sure you see it and try to work out what they seemed to resonate with. Then you can get to see how the Good News relates to the issues.
A missionary is essentially a messenger obligated to deliver the message somehow in a way it can be received. This means we have to be able to speak meaningfully into a culture, but to do that, we have to examine a given culture seriously for clues to what God is doing among a people. One of the best ways to start this “listening process” is to go to your tribe. Standing where they stand and having explored the dynamics of their search, simply ask yourself this question: “What is good news for this people?” What is going to make them throw a party and invite their friends? This is exactly what Matthew did (Matt. 9:9–13). This will mean trying to delve into the existential issues a people or cultural group deals with. It means searching for signs of the quest for meaning and therefore for God. Just like Paul in Athens (Acts 17), it will also mean a study of the religion, art, and literature of the group.
And…this takes time. And, even after time we still need to be learners of the culture, seeing what is going on around us. After 20 or so years in Alaska I still feel like such a novice when it comes to the surrounding culture. I’m still learning. I’m still listening.
Austin Stone is a church that comes up on this blog every once in a while because they have been leading the way in many missional practices. And it’s clear that we can TEACH persons until we’re blue in the face. We can TELL them all about Jesus and read from the Bible to them. We can see if they BELIEVE certain basics of the Christian faith. But, really, those are not discipleship. Discipleship is following in the way of Jesus. It’s about practice.
At Austin Stone, the primary location for this is in Life Transformation Groups. Here’s how Todd Engstrom says it:
Obedience, for us, is being serious about obeying God’s word personally.
Going deeper happens with individual accountability to being a disciple. We tried a bunch of names for these kind of gatherings, but they all sound weird.
Finally, we just decided we’d stick with life transformation groups, or LTGs for short. Neil Cole just unpacked them for us, and to be honest, he got it right!
An LTG is a smaller group of two or three believers of the same gender that commit to meeting outside of the group meeting time. This is the place to study the Bible deeply and to be known deeply by another.
There are three primary elements to this kind of group:
First, we want to Hear and Obey – we want to read God’s word every day, and be held accountable to what we need to DO in response
Second, we want to Repent and Believe – we want to confess and repent of our sin and disobedience. Second, we’re going to remind one another to believe the good news of Christ’s perfect life, his atoning death, and his resurrection.
Third, we want to Consider and Pray – we want to consider opportunities we have to share the gospel, and then pray by name individual people, not just generic groups.
You will notice that there really isn’t a “missional” component to the LTGs as part as “going out.” But that third section, “Consider and Pray,” is the first step in being able to go out and take the gospel to folks. However, one could argue that each of these steps is necessary before anyone is “missional.” It is laying the foundation.
I am enthralled with this model, even in a small town. What might it look like if we had neighborhood expressions of our own church, each involved in mission? Are we so small that we’re already a neighborhood unto ourselves? Or do we have distinct areas?
Here’s what I found from City Parish:
Each parish is committed to living beyond Sunday services but moving to the heartbeat of the surrounding area, fully engaged with the neighborhood as a whole. With a local pastor living within the neighborhood, the parish is guided by local elders and a leadership team who provide spiritual direction and a specific missional vocation for the congregation. Each neighborhood community also has its own structures for pastoral care.
Permanence, proximity and priority in relationships are so elusive in city life but crucial to neighborhood transformation. For this reason, leaders establish their roots in their neighborhood near one another and encourage members of the church to do the same if they are able.
These neighborhood churches hold weekend worship gatherings, the purpose of which is to celebrate the signs of the kingdom of God breaking out across the neighborhood. Each community has the freedom to contextualize its worship to the culture of its neighborhood communities–meeting in areas with many families may cause a parish to focus on developing a thriving children’s ministry, while a gathering in a neighborhood full of artists may include interactive, creative elements in its worship.
I’m wondering where this might work here?
What that Church of Jesus Christ needs is people whose heart breaks for the neighborhoods that they serve and when the love of Jesus comes to the brokenness of world, the Kingdom of Heaven is unleashed, and we begin to see what God wants happening on Earth as it is in Heaven.
–John Tyson, Verge Disciplemaking Blueprint Course