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.