Recently, a leader from one of our “church plants” came to our gathering at Life on the Vine Christian Community to give us a report about what God is doing in this new place they’ve been inhabiting for the Kingdom. It’s been almost two years. We sent them out to inhabit and cultivate a way of life that would witness the gospel. They are the verge now of taking new steps in terms of a presence in their community. He got up in front of the gathering and gave the following account of what is happening in his own life. I post these words because I think they are telling as to what is possible in the seeding of missional communities in the neighborhood. I believe all kinds of churches – large or small – can do this. At the end of this post, I also offer some comments as to what I think is revealed here. I’ve edited Jon’s words to exclude parts that won’t make sense to a wider readership. Some words I have changed to make it more readable (shown by italics). Here goes.
… This is only the third time I’ve come to talk at LOV (Life on the Vine) about what is happening in Westmont (the place where they moved). The first two times have inspired me to write down exactly what I want to say … the last time I spoke ended, according to Geoff, with his dear visiting mother whispering in his ear, “They don’t know what they’re doing, do they?”
We didn’t. And in many ways we still don’t. In January of this year we were attempting to network together local churches to save a food pantry … that we were involved in. The leadership of the pantry and a local church got into a spat and the church was shutting it down. It made front page news. I met several local pastors over breakfast trying to find solutions, and one asked me, “So what is your church plant’s strategy? What is your plan?”
To which I said, “We don’t really have one.” We moved to Westmont to pursue a way of life together. To love each other, to love our neighbors and our neighborhood, to care for the poor and suffering, to embody and proclaim God’s renewal of all things in and through Jesus Christ. We planned to listen to the Spirit and figure out what to do.
This is both beautiful and confusing in practice. Some days I think we are really on to something, that God is doing really incredible things in our midst. Some days I think we don’t have the time or energy or passion to make this work and we’re just kidding ourselves. I can say with complete honesty that our life together in Westmont is the richest season of my life by far. Yet after two years we’ve only grown by 4 adults and 4 kids and still worship in a living room, and it’s easy for me to feel embarrassed by that.
I thought people in church plants should be really focused on planting a church, which I guess means evangelism. I’ve been surprised how much time it takes to love each other. Everyone either works full time or is a full time home-maker. When someone’s job starts requiring 60-70 hours weeks—which has happened to 4 of us in the past year—everyone feels it. When a family among us , who already had a 4 and 2 year old, had twins this summer, everyone was involved in that for 3 months. We live with conflict, depression, doubt, apathy. It’s slow.
What I didn’t expect is how the hard work of loving each other, which I thought would be easy, helps us love our neighbors. Watching each other’s kids makes it easy to care for single moms, or tell a young women considering an abortion that we will take the baby. Sharing homes with others who are financially strapped makes it feel natural to have an open bed or a meal for someone who needs it. We’re being shaped in a way of life full of love, peace-making, sacrifice, and hope.
These are moments where the Kingdom breaks in: when God’s peace, God’s shalom—the world made right, is visible. Two of our community’s members are going to briefly share two stories of this. And I’d love to talk more over lunch.
I would just conclude by saying two things:
First, please pray for us. We’ve recently been given stewardship of a church building… We’re discerning what a church of 20 adults should do with a building built to hold 200. We want it to become a nerve center in our community for those who are in need and are suffering, and we’re working on partnerships and planning to that end. It’s a daunting task, but we can’t deny God’s leading in it.
Second, let me encourage and challenge you: you can do this. You can orient your entire life—where you live, who you live with, how you spend your time and with whom you spend your time—around the coming Kingdom of God. We’re just ordinary folks. Gather together in your neighborhood where you live. Move to a neighborhood together… We don’t have it all figured out by half, but I know in my bones this is the deepest, richest, most formative, most fruitful way to live I have ever experienced. Don’t miss it.
From Jon’s words, I notice two things:
Community comes before public presence. I’ve become more convinced that a missional commuinity must inhabit a place for a protracted period of time before any form of political presence is possible. By “political presence” I mean becoming known as a “corporate” entity engaging the community. It is BTW from such a political presence that a missional witness can be extended and one might expect a wider exposure in the community. Yet before any such presence can happen, I think a community must be nurtured with real life in the Kingdom. Get to know the community, Get to know and experience God and His Kingdom in Christ in this place. In these initial months of “inhabiting” we learn to love each other so we can love others genuinely, not out of some agenda, but out of who we are in the Kingdom (and what God is already doing in and around us).
Planting Missional Communities is about Learning a Way of Life/Rhythm of Life in which we live in and among the community God has placed us. This may be a repeat of my first comment, but what I’d like to emphasize here is that the community’s life extends into the community during this “inhabiting” phase. It is from within this “way of life” that manifold opportunities come to proclaim the gospel. Yet even here, gospel proclamation comes first from participating first in the Gospel. When the Kingdom becomes manifest among us, we then have something to give witness to naturally, not out of an agenda to plant a church.
All in all, what I learn from Jon (just one of many things) is that learning a “way of life” is step one in planting a missional community. I am convinced this is the way of future mission in N America. This is the way by which the church can cross boundaries and enter into the new post Christendom cultures for God’s mission. What say you?