In his Purpose-Driven Church Rick Warren offers the analogy of church life as running the bases on a baseball diamond. Getting to first base is Knowing God and becoming part of a Christian fellowship. Second is learning about and Growing in Christ. Third is Serving God through ministry to others.
Getting to the fourth base (home) is what I am focusing on here. This is Sharing Christ in mission to others. Base-running means Knowing, then Growing, then Serving, and finally scoring the run by Sharing. The purpose of Christian churches is to be in the mission sharing the Gospel in Christ. That purpose puts the rest of church life in perspective. Many theologians argue that any understanding not focused on reaching out to share Christ is inadequate for a biblically based Christian church.
Almost all churches do reasonably well at the first base of Knowing Christ. Mainline churches with classical theology heritage don’t do well on the second base of Growing. That heritage emphasized being faithful more than becoming closer to God through the sanctification of more Christ-like living. Most churches understand the third base of serving others, at least in theory if not much in reality. The fourth, home base may be honored as a symbol but typically generates little energy.
Disputed today is whether a project is a true mission without directly proclaiming the Gospel. Otherwise, it remains a service project. My answer is to be sure the Gospel gets presented somewhere in the process. I have participated in eyeglass clinics in other countries through MOST Ministries. The last stage for all in line is presentation of a simplified Gospel. We have helped Lutheran churches in Haiti build out their campuses through physical labor as well as administering funding. Those congregations have a pastor and do several worship services a week.
Less clear is sending church teams to do house repairs in a county in the foothills of Appalachia. This is clearly service. But it is done under the sponsorship of a Christian welfare service with staff who do share their Gospel motivation. My congregation works with a distinction between service within the congregation, and mission beyond the congregation. We explain and leave behind a special grace and mercy coin that allows a quick three-phrases summary of the Gospel. It is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I teach that the purpose for doing mission projects through a church is two-fold. Half is to serve and evangelize those we are reaching out to. The other half is to provide opportunity for church participants to experience mission and get them engaged in other mission efforts. We do an annual Garage Sale that increases mission awareness and generates funds to cover the travel expenses of the next mission trip by participants.
Our mission planning team is evolving a strategy for identifying new mission opportunities. We want to support a mission that is within a short airplane trip so that our people can be involved. This means, for us, the Dominican Republic, Haiti. Again, the purpose is to get our people and their friends out and engaged.
The second base of Growing in Christ and the third base of Serving can in reality be interchanged. Getting people involved in service can be the springboard for Growing in Christ, which otherwise takes special motivation. To serve others comes easily for most Christians. It does not take special skills, and the motivation is not complicated. This makes it a good starting point.
Verbally sharing the Gospel is a daunting challenge for most ordinary church people. Getting to home base is beyond their reach, and so mission stays on the fringes of their church life. The leadership challenge is to make the next step of personal growth in Christ as easy as possible. One way is to surround participants with mission outreach efforts. Feature missionaries beyond the congregation and present opportunities to support them. For congregations in a denominational structure, move beyond supporting their mission in general to sponsoring individual men and women out in the mission field.
I once visited a large Evangelical church that featured a display of about twenty missionaries they were supporting. That message alone conveys a congregation that knows why it exists. It probably also has an exciting church life.
How much emphasis does your church put on getting its people out in mission to others?