Thinking Out Loud

May 3, 2012

Focusing Outward

Ever been to a sod turning?

A sod turning ceremony is what happens when members of a church that is about to move to new property go en masse to the new site where someone with a shiny shovel digs into the ground to symbolically represent the machinery which will then soon come to start moving earth to begin construction of the new facility.

Usually the members gather in a circle — perhaps even joining hands — to watch and then a prayer of dedication for the land. (The building dedication happens when the place is complete.)

Anyway, I heard a story recently about a church where, as it came to the gathering in a circle part, when it was time to pray, instead of facing inward, they formed the circle with everyone facing out, in recognition of the larger community they intend to serve.  Personally, I think they got it, and that’s the kind of faith family I would want to join.

I thought of that this morning when Zach at Vitamin Z reposted this piece from Thom Rainer.  (Yeah, the LifeWay guy… see, we can be open minded.) Click the link on the title to read the full introduction.

The 10 Warning Signs of an Inwardly Obsessed Church

  1. Worship wars. One or more factions in the church want the music just the way they like it. Any deviation is met with anger and demands for change. The order of service must remain constant. Certain instrumentation is required while others are prohibited.
  2. Prolonged minutia meetings. The church spends an inordinate amount of time in different meetings. Most of the meetings deal with the most inconsequential items, while the Great Commission and Great Commandment are rarely the topics of discussion.
  3. Facility focus. The church facilities develop iconic status. One of the highest priorities in the church is the protection and preservation of rooms, furniture, and other visible parts of the church’s buildings and grounds.
  4. Program driven. Every church has programs even if they don’t admit it. When we start doing a ministry a certain way, it takes on programmatic status. The problem is not with programs. The problem develops when the program becomes an end instead of a means to greater ministry.
  5. Inwardly focused budget. A disproportionate share of the budget is used to meet the needs and comforts of the members instead of reaching beyond the walls of the church.
  6. Inordinate demands for pastoral care. All church members deserve care and concern, especially in times of need and crisis. Problems develop, however, when church members have unreasonable expectations for even minor matters. Some members expect the pastoral staff to visit them regularly merely because they have membership status.
  7. Attitudes of entitlement. This issue could be a catch-all for many of the points named here. The overarching attitude is one of demanding and having a sense of deserving special treatment.
  8. Greater concern about change than the gospel. Almost any noticeable changes in the church evoke the ire of many; but those same passions are not evident about participating in the work of the gospel to change lives.
  9. Anger and hostility. Members are consistently angry. They regularly express hostility toward the church staff and other members.
  10. Evangelistic apathy. Very few members share their faith on a regular basis. More are concerned about their own needs rather than the greatest eternal needs of the world and community in which they live.

~Thom Rainer

What Thom doesn’t list here of course is the opposite, the ten signs of an outwardly obsessed church.  That, of course, would be a description of the whole Missional Church movement, and its characteristics wouldn’t be the opposite of these ten, but would instead would be indicators of apostolic, incarnational ministry.

Here’s a piece from Rev. Dr. Ronald Carlson with six characteristics of a Missional church. It’s a lengthy 2007 American Baptist Churches document that was only available as a .pdf file, so I’ve greatly edited and freely paraphrased it here.  But in the interest of equal time:

Six characteristics of a Missional Church

  1. Considers its context to be a changing mission field.  The church allows itself to enter into situations where the beliefs, culture, language and social needs are greatly different from its own.
  2. Is active in, and supportive of missions. The church frees up its members to be involved in longer term projects, according to individuals gifts and abilities.
  3. Gives recognition to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  In other words, the mandate to make disciples and the mandate to go out and be ‘love in action’ are not mutually exclusive but are one and the same.  You can’t have one without the other, and if you over-emphasize one you are under-emphasizing the other.
  4. Recognizes that all people are both the subject and object of mission. We exist not to be served but to serve, but also need to be reminded that Jesus received the service of others offered to him. Again, there is a balance.
  5. Engages in transforming persons, systems, cultures, and communities.  This includes transforming the church itself by creating new structures but know when to discontinue others.  This is best accomplished through a partial assimilation into the broader culture; something we often tend to want to avoid.
  6. Multiplies churches, disciples, mission. This is done not through cloning the original, but by constantly creating new teams and projects which spring from the original and its purpose but may take different forms to accomplish different purposes.

Michael Frost’s Five Characteristics of a Missional Community is also worth remembering:

  1. Bless. We will bless at least one other member of our community every day.
  2. Eat. We will east with other members of our community at least three times a week.
  3. Listen. We will commit ourselves weekly to listening to the promptings of God in our lives.
  4. Learn. We will read from the Gospels each week and remain diligent in learning more about Jesus.
  5. Sent. We will see our daily life as an expression of our sent-ness by God into this world.

Okay, my sod turning picture turned out to be for a sports club.  I was going to change it — and did once already –  but it best captured what I was going for, though I doubt they closed in prayer. Of course because I tagged it “church sod turning,”  now it will turn up in image searches perpetuating the error; another reason why you can’t believe anything you see on the internet.


I also meant to say here that articles like Rainer’s as good as they are, a dime a dozen in the Christian blogosphere.  It’s so easy — and I fall into this trap, also — to simply offer criticism and point out errors and negative traits present in many of our churches. That’s why I made this piece rather lengthy by finding a couple of examples of the opposite in order to give balance; but it is also why the missional church model is somewhat foreign to many people, perhaps even some of you reading this.  I encourage you to look into Michael Frost’s books if you want to uncover more.

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