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The Bible and the Mission of God
Reimagining How Go About Planting Innovative Churches in North America
“Mission Alive equips leaders to develop innovative communities of faith focused on transforming marginalized communities.” This vision statement, which is stated on the website, is why I am proud to work with Mission Alive. I believe that Christianity in North America must do more to equip leaders who can plant innovative churches that bring transformation among the many marginalized communities within this continent we inhabit.
My first encounter with Mission Alive goes back to Memphis, Tennessee, somewhere around 2005, inside a diner. My wife and I were blessed to have breakfast with Dr. Gailyn VanRheenen and his wife, Becky. It was there where the VanRheenens shared their vision for church planting through what became Mission Alive. Several years later, I helped with a church planting team that Mission Alive was helping, and eight years ago, I participated in the Mission Alive cohort for leading church renewal.
Although I serve as a pastor with a nearly seventy-year-old church, I believe there is a need for planting new churches. Likewise, I also think there is a need for equipping leaders who will help local churches live on mission with God among marginalized communities. That’s why I’m helping Mission Alive. It’s about the mission, particularly our participation in the mission of God.
We must never forget that when we speak of mission, we are talking about God's mission—not ours. As Christopher J. H. Wright has said, “it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world." ”
Recognizing that it is the mission of God rather than our mission raises some questions. What does it mean to participate in the mission of God? How do local churches participate in the mission of God? How does participating in God's mission shape the church planting task? How does participating in the mission of God shape the job of leading? You probably have a few other questions too. One thing for sure is that there are not any easy answers to the questions before us.
As most people know, the landscape of North American culture has and continues to shift in significant ways. We can’t even speak of one culture because a diversity of sub-cultures differ from city to city, region to region. Even within any given metropolitan area, there are many sub-cultures. So we can forget any one-size-fits-all approach to our participation in the mission of God. Rather than embracing a homogeneous system, I believe the answer to our questions begins with the Bible, particularly the hermeneutics of how we read the Bible.
When we read the Bible, we’re reading a story. In short, the story gives us an account of how God is redeeming and restoring the life he has created with a past, present, and future. We learn of what God has accomplished in the past to understand how that bears upon the present and will come to complete fulfillment in the future.
Although every aspect of the story is important, the plot draws our attention to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. The Bible, then, offers us a Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented narrative (or Christologically-Centered and Eschatologically-Oriented). Reading the story as people who are part of the story serves to form us as followers of Jesus living under the reign of God. Herein is the key to our participation in the mission of God: We are learning to live as a coherent reflection of the life Jesus lived and the incoming kingdom of God he proclaimed as good news (cf. Mk 1:14-15).
So as I like to remind people, we are the Bible that people will first read. What story will they read? Our calling is to live the gospel story in such a manner that when words become necessary, they merely offer an explanation of what is already seen. In other words, the churches we plant and lead and our own lives as church leaders must embody the gospel. We must underscore embodying the gospel because one of the unfortunate obstacles between the gospel and culture is the reality of too many church scandals depicting a failure to embody the gospel.
However, as crucial as faithfully embodying the gospel, the plethora of different cultures in the North American landscape also requires innovation. If we ignore the culture we live among, we may faithfully embody the gospel but do so in a manner that talks past the local community.
To some Christians, the word innovation raises concerns. Are we just deciding to make it up as we go along, doing whatever is trendy and even edgy? The answer to that is a big “No!”
What I mean by innovation involves what actors and musicians call improvisation. With the Bible as our story, we become actors within the story.Except the script for our particular scene telling us how we are to embody the gospel within our local context is missing. Thus, we must improvise, but improvising does not mean just doing anything we want. However, improvising involves freely doing some things differently so long as they make sense within the script. Doing everything the same as it was previously done becomes meaningless and boring as the contextual circumstances of our scene change from previous scenes. Instead of repetitive sameness, we need to improvise in a manner that makes sense for our scene but also remains coherent with the plot of the story told within scripture.
It’s like playing in a jazz band. The story of the Bible provides us with the key, tempo, time signature, and even the chord structure. If the musicians start playing in a different key, tempo, time, and chord changes, the music suddenly sounds terrible and turns away the listeners. So the musicians play within the structure given. On the other hand, if the musicians play the same seven or eight notes repeatedly in the same pattern and emotion, then the song loses meaning and loses the listeners' interest. But as the musicians improvise, they play freely but coherently within the music structure and thus play in a manner that makes sense at every bar in the music.
What I have described as playing in a jazz band is an analogy for how we can participate in the mission of God. We follow Jesus Christ as witnesses of Jesus and thereby witnesses of God’s kingdom by taking our baptism seriously in that we now live in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:38). Yet living as witnesses to the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God—requires both faithfulness to and contextualization of the gospel we read about in the biblical story. That is how we participate with God.
If this interests you, please go to the Mission Alive website in the first paragraph and contact us. Whether you’re interested in planting a church, you’re wondering how your current church can help plant churches, or you want to learn more about Mission Alive, we want to hear from you.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura, and together they have three children.
Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 62.
N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, New York: Harper One, 2011, 140.