The Relational/Missional Dilemma

I recently sat in a meeting where a congregation was thinking about their central mission focus for the coming year. The congregation had recognized that somewhere along the way it had become lax in reaching out and since their mission statement talked about the transformation of their community they recognized that they needed to identify specific areas of transformation, identifying two areas of concern from which to discern their focus.

The conversation was good as those present debated starting new programs versus plugging into existing ones. And yet, in the middle of it all, it was clear that several folks weren’t especially clear on how this conversation would grow the church. “Shouldn’t we focus on getting the people who’ve left our church to come back,” one asked. The looks on their faces suggested that they couldn’t envision how this conversation on mission had anything to do with relationships, which was (in their opinion) the central focus of the church.

I think this tension between mission and relationship is nothing new in the church. I remember a few years back visiting a church that had signs up all over the church announcing their theme for the year. “It’s all about relationships!” the signs proclaimed proudly, as if relationships were the end all/be all for Christian faith. And certainly, our narrative about God wanting to be in a relationship with humanity ties into the belief that many of us have at some level that Christianity as a whole is a relational thing. It’s reinforced by Paul’s insistence on the unity of the body, on the focus on love, grace, and forgiveness, heard in the “gifts of the spirit” of kindness, gentleness, patience — relational characteristics.

And yet, I wonder if we haven’t missed the boat entirely in making relationships the primary focus of the church.

What I am coming to see in my old age is that while Paul and the biblical authors are certainly concerned with unity and love, maintaining a positive relational space, the relationships are in the service of a broader mission. Love, both of God and neighbor, must be a part of our lives because it is love which points the world toward God. Yes, Jesus said, “The way the world will know about me, is through your love for one another, that is, through the quality of the relationships,” but the goal of all of that was to help the world know Christ. Relationships in and of themselves are connected to a broader mission, reaching beyond the relationship itself to lead the world to see God.

The problem with focusing solely on relationships in a congregation is that congregational life can quickly spiral into a twisted version of middle school, with the health of the church dependent on who’s happy and who isn’t and whether folks like one another or whether people are fighting. The lack of a broader mission means that the purpose of the congregation becomes making everyone get along with one another, with the pastor the center of a popularity contest. Church vitality becomes connected to the number of persons willing to join our club, a membership statistic driven social club that rises and falls on the politics of the moment.

Contrast that with a missionally focused congregation. It is likely that persons gathered around a similar mission have similar backgrounds, hopes and dreams, and that there is a likelihood that they will like one another and get along well. Yet, the relationships aren’t the only thing driving their being together, and their service to the broader mission means that people who struggle with one another will hang tight in their desire to service the mission. It’s easier to put petty differences aside when you are engaged in an epic struggle to change the world with others who are likewise engaged.

A year ago I gathered together with an odd group to work at defeating a proposed amendment to the Nashville charter that would limit government business to English only. To call it an odd group is a bit of an understatement, for it included Republicans AND Democrats, liberal social justice advocates AND pro-business members of the Chamber of Commerce, people from multiple economic classes and ethnicities. In normal times people in this group regularly disagree with one another and struggle to stay in the same room. However, we had been brought together to carry out a mission, a mission that led us to put aside the differences and get to work. We discovered in pursuing this mission that our differences weren’t as broad as we thought, and we found relationships forming that would have never had a chance to flourish in the past. It was the mission that formed relationships, not the other way around.

For many churches, like the one I mentioned earlier, the focus in the congregation has been on relationships at the expense of mission. These are the congregations that say things like “…our spiritual gifts are in nurture, not in service…”. While there may be some truth to these statements, my experience in churches suggests that it’s usually a cop out, for not very much intentional nurture is happening in these places either. Church has devolved from the “life saving station” it was created to be into social club, a fraternity/sorority without free beer and wild parties to draw folks in. When this happens, the politics takes over and eventually these congregations find themselves in decline, wondering what trick they can pull out of their sleeves to make people happy.

One person in the meeting last week said that she didn’t want to align her life with a church (by which she meant a location and a building) but rather she wanted to align her life with a mission. She’s not alone, and us pastoral types better recognize that the future of our congregations lies not in relationships but in helping our people become part of an epic story in which the world is really transformed.

8 thoughts on “The Relational/Missional Dilemma

  1. Jay – Maybe it’s an issue of the chicken or the egg. If you were to ask most people associated with Nashville for All of Us they would probably have a story to tell about someone they know, or a story they have heard, or a relationship that was/is affected by the motivating legislation. I wonder if your own involvement with Metro General Hospital evolved from a pure commitment to mission or has its roots in a relationship with someone who was deprived of adequate health care, or received excellent health care at Metro.

    We came to Malawi without knowing anyone, without relationships; but we came trusting the relationships of friends and colleagues who had already built relationships here. And we have learned very quickly that our mission will not go anywhere without developing relationships first. Thus, part of our rationale for extending our mission commitment.

    Jesus never allowed us to be comfortable with our current relationships. Jesus always challenges us to build relationships with those whom we never considered inviting to the table. And the mission – whether chosen intellectually, Spiritually or through relationship – will surely cause tension or even divides in some of the relationships we hold most dear.

    I don’t think I’ve said anything to disagree with you. Mission unites us and brings us into the kingdom-building work that so many of our churches avoid at all costs. But there is an important role that relationships play in the motivation and trust level with those for whom and with whom we are in mission.

    Thanks for this post!

  2. No, I don’t think we are disagreeing at all, and most certainly I would affirm that there is a symbiotic connection between relationship and mission. You’re right that it was relationships that led me toward the Metro General advocacy, while in the case of the English Only work I was drawn by the injustice of the legislation. And I am willing to fully admit that I’m making a bit of a generalization in this post to make a point. It’s based in seeing too many congregations in the U.S. who fail to be in mission (Read Dan Dick’s post at UMMethodeviations on the Sin of Nomission) and find themselves struggling in quicksand because they think that church is about friendships and not a calling to something much more. Relationships are very important and provide a means of knowing God at a deeper level. But they aren’t the only thing, and I see more congregations than not flailing about, locked in popularity battles for power, due in part to their inability to identify something beyond themselves that God is calling them to.

  3. While I agree with much of this, my concern is that for some church leaders rather than helping develop and build ownership of the mission they become task oriented and dismiss all relationships as collateral damage. Vision is clearly needed – where there is no Vision the people perish – however I think if clearly defined and articulated a gifted leader can benefit from existing relationships in building ownership and inviting others to join – not assuming that because they have done it another way they are not open to change – I believe that well developed relationships are the means to moving forward, not the roadblocks. It is not about making everyone feel happy it is about having everyone respected and provided with as much information as possible. I think if we use that leadership model we can move forward, and those left behind will have made the choice – not we making it for them and wondering why they are so hurt.

    1. Marilyn, please here me when I say that I recognize the importance of relationships, and agree completely that any dismissal of the importance of relationships by church leaders in the pursuit of “productivity” (my word, not yours) misses the boat. And I don’t believe that a missional focus can be imposed from the top down, but rather works best when arising from the relationships that exist within the congregation. My fear comes when relationships become the only focus, when everything a congregation is doing is inwardly directed, with little concern about what happens outside the walls. When that happens I think that this gathering of people moves from being the active body of Christ in the world to being something very different.

  4. I believe that as Christians we are called to keep 2 commandments which are 1)To love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul and strength 2)To love your neighbor as yourself. To keep these 2 commandments we must be in relationship with God, those in our congregations and those outside our congregations. We must build a relationship with God first and know Him. Those in the ministry must help those in our congregations do the same. It is then that we can address and go after our mission as the body of Christ helping those in need out of our great love for Christ. I agree that we cannot be inwardly focused only taking care of ourselves but being in ministry requires us to help others in our congregations understand that we need to keep the 2 commandments above all things. By doing this our missions will be accomplished for the tranformation of the world. Now I have heard it said that by allowing our congregations to go into the mission field, wherever that may be, and putting them to work wherever the need may be, this allows them to enter into and grow in relationship with God and each other. This is quite possible but relationship needs to be included in the mission equation.

  5. Yes, maybe church is not about “making people happy.” But I don’t see anything wrong with churches helping people pursue a deep and lasting happiness by entering into deep and lasting relationships, with oneself, with one another, with God.

    So much in popular culture right now, I think, is looking at Why are we happy? How can we help one another attain happiness? I happen to be reading the book The Happiness Project so I can see a lot of research and a lot of appeal in this direction.

    One overwhelming direction in the pursuit of happiness is that we find happiness in connection to others. And we do, we must, connect with and to people beyond our usual social milieu in our churches. Like you, Jay, connected beyond your comfort zone to help defeat the English Only legislation. Which is commendable.

    Any way, my opinion? it’s more important to help each other be happy, feel loved, ask the big questions, be deep, live with brothers and sisters than to be right. Being right doesn’t make you happy. Yet, I think, in our churches we have valued being right over being loving.

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