Archdeacon Rick Jones, Diocese of Niagara

The days of the Church building being the tallest spire in the town and the central moral or political force has long passed. The challenge Lorne Mead in The Once and Future Church puts forward is, “How do we reinvent ourselves from a church on the sidelines, somewhat irrelevant to the culture, and struggling with the pluralism of post modernity to a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a new era?”

This challenge is renewed by Diana Butler Bass and her excellent analysis of post modern culture and the role of the Christian Church. Those of us on this journey have sometimes looked to the big “successful” churches and have wondered how we could possibly translate that corporate church culture into our family or pastoral-sized churches.

Our facilities and church culture are very different and those who have tried to incorporate the ideas of large “program style” churches into worship services, or alternative services have only had mixed success. There are few program sized churches in our diocese that have the staff and resources to provide the range of program offerings to meet the needs of a very pluralistic society.

The majority of us attend small to medium sized churches (less than 200 in worship) and run the risk of volunteer burnout and sacrifices in quality if we try to mimic the large program style. There is a place for being big church, but the notion that we can invite people into a church that will meet their needs and then incorporate them into our church community is simply an extension of the patterns of the past—the notion that the role of the church is to invite people in.

There is another approach, however, that has serious appeal to those of us in churches with limited staff and financial resources. It is more an ideological shift than a new church movement. It is based on the idea that the primary purpose of the church is not to invite people in to meet their needs, but to send people out to meet other people’s needs!

This is an ideology driving the missional church and emergent church movements but that also has its roots in Apostolic Christianity and in the ministry of Jesus. The early disciples modeled God’s unconditional love by embracing those who were hurting in society. One of Paul’s clear rebukes to the Corinthian Church was that they were moving away from this focus on the poor and following leaders who appeared to be more successful in the eyes of the Roman society. This was the church of pre-Christendom, a church as Butler Bass would say that is, “on the edge.”

The focus of missional churches is not on developing new programmes to attract people, but to look at where God is already at work in the world and to join in. Jesus still walks with the poor, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the refugee, the sick and the lonely. Jesus still joins people in pubs, and clubs, in hospitals, and shelters, in coffee shops, and community halls. The question is, “Are we following Him there?”

In our diocese we are seeing missional experiments of following Jesus in different models of ministry. Congregations are reaching out in their local context, asking the question, “Where is God at work and how can we help?”

I know of breakfast programmes, coffeehouse and coffee shop ministries, church in a pub services, messy church ministries for young families, and other creative responses to the real needs of people in our communities.

Small groups of dedicated disciples of Jesus are making these experiments happen. We can learn from one another and discover what missional church might look like in. We may discover that what is critical is not the size of our resources but the focus of our ministry.

Our relationships with one another and those we serve may be the most important gift we share, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20 NRSV)

Archdeacon Rick Jones is rector of St. Paul’s Westdale in Hamilton, Ontario. He consulted in the Diocese of New Westminster to help create the Ministry Assessment Process (the “MAP”). This article first appeared in the Niagara Anglican.