Are you a church yet? If you are a missional person, you are not supposed to ask this question. It is presumptuous, assuming what you’re doing is not already church. Meeting in your house, eating together, serving in your neighborhood, studying the Scriptures, praying for each other and your neighbors – what could be more church than that? In addition, this question sometimes assumes you must first be a “self- sustaining congregation” of sufficient size that meets regularly in a building of some sort and can pay a pastor a full time salary in order to be a church. For many of us these assumptions are an anathema to the missional cause. Indeed many of us renounce the idea of a full time salary as the foundation for a church. We see no reason why a community is not sustainable from day one.
Yet is there some validity in this question
Yet I suggest there is still something in this question that might be worth a second look. If we define the church as mission, then a community only acquires the status of God’s church when it is in fact inhabiting God’s mission. The question “are you a church yet?” then forces us to ask about the community’s participation in God’s mission. And this I suggest is a good thing.
I’ve noticed that there are times in every church plant when we are tempted to enjoy community as an end in itself. I have seen it happen: people start gathering locally in a house community enjoying kingdom living. Kingdom living is rich. The relationships are incredible. The realness of seeking Christ can be a high for those used to programed church. We have been dying for this kind of community. And so we turn inward. And we lose the sense of our identity as God’s mission, that God is doing something in us only as it is part of something much larger that God is doing in the whole world. So it is good to ask “are we a church yet?” if we mean are we participating in God’s Mission?
How might we tell? The Necessity of the Community’s Political Manifestation
How might we tell we are a church on this sense? Well, we could examine our lives in mission. We train ourselves, as members of a missional community, to pay attention to the rhythms of each others’ lives, to pay attention to what God is doing, to ask “what is God doing, saying? How will we respond?” We pay attention to the patterns of our week noting what God’s is doing as we are intentionally inhabiting – the coffee shop, the PADS center, the McDonald’s, the bar, the community center, the park. We establish a presence in the neighborhood out of the lives God has already given us in this community. We can certainly then check in on how well we’re doing in these practices.
And yet even here at this point I don’t think this community has developed to the point where I’d call it a church in the way we are defining it?
I’m convinced a second stage is necessary. This is where the community develops a political presence in the neighborhood or town. It establishes its public face, an identity as a political entity. This political manifestation is the manner in which our way of life is identified, made visible to those outside the gospel. When someone sees us engaging (as individuals) the homeless, or resisting the corporate takeover of the local school or ministering prayer to the hurting person at the local funeral home, they are able to understand what is going on as more than one person’s thing via that person being a part of a local visible social presence – the church community. It helps the person outside the church community make sense of why we do what we do. It is the social witness of the gospel.
Such a social presence builds credibility and wherewithal to engage injustice. With such a public presence, we can sponsor and participate in community events, resist corporate evil, muster financial assistance when needed. I suggest whether it’s a web site, a “church” name or an open meeting – this public face makes possible an incursion into the neighborhood not possible otherwise. I suggest such a political manifestation is essential to what it means to be church in the world whatever that might look like. (I know it’s different for every context – but even in Communist China – eventually the underground church has to have a way to make itself politically present in order to offer resistance to the powers).
If we take Acts 2:42-47 as a model of community formation we notice how much of the beginnings was about the formation of the community. And yet something about the words “and they enjoyed the favor of all the people” reveals they became known corporately in the community. Strangely, this early community took on the name “The Way” to identify itself, a name that sounds so cool that a current hipster church might have just as easily come up with. (Acts 18:26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).
What do you think? What makes up for you the dynamic that establishes the political manifestation of your missional community? Is it OK to ask this question“are you a church yet?” in these terms? Is a political manifestation necessary for each community to truly engage the local neighborhoods for mission? How does your church, your missional community take on a political manifestation in your social context?