First Mennonite Church
May 22, 2016
Developing a Culture for Missions
Text: John 20:19-23
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Last Sunday I said there are four basic questions we need to answer as we look into the topic of congregational revitalization and outreach. These questions are:
- Why do we need to share the gospel? Why should we get involved in mission work?
- How should we engage mission work? How do we share the gospel?
- Does our theology, doctrines, and biblical interpretation affect the way we share the gospel and also define the result of our outreach? What should be central when we do outreach?
- What is needed, in terms of personal empowerment and congregational culture and environment to be effective in outreach?
In order to address questions 2 and 3, we need to address question number 4: What is needed, in terms of personal empowerment and congregational culture to be effective in outreach?
The quip: “I cannot give you what I do not have” is a familiar one in various contexts. We hear it when local governments are forced to furlough some of their employees. Children hear it when their wants go beyond their parents financial possibilities.
We simply cannot give what we do not have. The truth behind this statement is also true in the context of the church’s mission. A kernel of corn in the ground germinates because the seed is alive. In the natural world, the rule of thumb is that life can only come from living organisms. In other words: only a living organism can produce and sustain life. Besides other characteristics, the church is a living organism too. It is also true that every living organism has its own ecology. In the case of humans, we call that ecology “culture.”
There is a direct link between a congregation’s culture and its ability and readiness to share its faith. Every Christian congregation has a culture. Edgar Schein defines organizational culture in congregations as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problem of external adaptation and internal integration.” Let me illustrate what Schein means with this. On occasions people call or email to me before they come to worship with us for the first time. And there is a couple of questions they ask:
Is there a particular way I have to dress for church?
What is the makeup of your congregation?
How long is your church service?
Is the majority of your members Hispanic?
Do you sing hymns or praise songs only?
What type of services your congregation provides to the community?
These questions remind us that the outside community knows churches have idiosyncrasies of their own. Yes, every congregation has a peculiar characteristic. When someone visits us for the first time, the moment she or he steps into our doors, she or he could easily notice some characteristics, which we might not be aware of. It is like when you go to a foreign country and you notice how “different” the people there live. For the people in that country nothing is different to them. They see themselves as only living a normal life. So, what does a wise tourist do before he or she travels? She gets informed. It is for this very reason of being informed that people call to ask these questions before they come to visit us. They want to blend in and not look like an oddity. They do not want to interrupt the way we conduct ourselves as a congregation. So once again, we as a congregation have a cultural identity of our own. And every guest we have perceives our cultural characteristics, whether we like it or not.
The second implication about us having a culture is that everyone who decides to join us will learn our culture. Babies are born without a culture. As children grow they learn from their parents, teachers, and the society they grow up in how to adjust their lives to their social environment. New believers do not have a church culture at the time of their conversion. But they will surely learn it from those who surround and nourish them in the faith. Through this process of leaning they learn to adapt to a life together with the least of frictions. Just as in society at large, we learn to live peaceably because we follow the rules of life—that is, we get acculturated. We also get acculturated in a congregational setting. Maybe, without notice we adapted to some patterns of behavior which allow us to stay together without much friction.
Culture changes. Culture evolves as it interacts with the various influences around it. The church culture is bound to change as well. The culture of a Christian congregation can be vibrant and faithful to Christ or it can be influenced by its surrounding culture thus become stagnant and decline in its faithfulness to Christ. The culture of a Christian church can be prophetic or it can assimilate the values of its surrounding. Therefore the question: How can our church culture be vibrant, faithful and prophetic?
First we must admit that there is an existing culture already. Yet, there are individuals and events that sustain or transform the culture. That is also true in congregations. It is most likely that the leaders in a congregation are not its founders. For instance, I came here to FMC after more than a century of its foundation. The leaders we have in our congregation are second or third generation of the founders of this church. So, we are not the ones who created the original culture of this congregation. Nonetheless, the leaders today not only participate in FMC’s cultural identity, but also have the responsibility to foster a vibrant, faithful and prophetic culture in the congregation. In that sense, church leaders are managers of a congregation’s culture. Church leaders can foster a culture of missions, or contribute to its assimilation to the surrounding culture which will lead stagnation. Church leaders can become catalyst for missional vibrancy, or for cultural assimilation, which will lead the congregation to lose its mission and purpose.
In this case, those of us who are leaders play an important role in the cultural formation of our congregation. Our call is to lead towards a culture of missional engagement. But how do leader do that? History has taught us that change and innovation has come from leaders with great conviction and commitment.
This is where our text for today comes into focus. The passage for today is of Jesus’ post Easter encounter with his fearful disciples. The crucifixion of Jesus had shattered the dreams of his disciples of a restored kingship in Israel. The crucifixion of Jesus engulfed the disciples with a paralyzing fear as to what could happen to them as well. So, they shut themselves behind closed doors. But while they were hiding and under the grip of fear, Jesus came to them. The disciples heard Jesus’ voice once again in the solemn greeting: Peace be with you! And he showed them his hands and his side and they rejoiced when they saw Jesus alive. Yet, Jesus was not there only to dispel their fear. Jesus came to give them convincing evidence that he is alive and also to commission them with a high call. He said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then Jesus breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Today, roughly after 2000 years, we are here because John, Peter, and Matthew and their trembling friends witnessed the presence of the glorious resurrected Christ. They were transformed into bold witnesses. Today, we are the spiritual descendants of those who were empowered by the Spirit of God to proclaim the gospel, come persecution, imprisonment or death. The world was transformed by their message. But first, they needed to have that firsthand experience of seeing the risen Savior. Yes, the disciples were able to change the course of history because they were convinced of what they were proclaiming.
Once Helen Keller was asked what could be worse than being blind. She responded, “To have sight and have no vision.” Helen lost her ability to see and to hear when she was only nineteen months old. But because of the dedication of her parents in finding help for her, Helen flourished in life. Helen became a prolific author, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and a strong advocate for other social causes. Helen was a visionary, even when she could not see.
In the book of Proverbs, we read: Where there is no vision, the people perish (29:18 KJV). A congregation with a culture of mission is led by leaders who have vision. But in order for leaders to have a Christ-centered vision, they must first have a personal encounter with the resurrected Christ and sustain a personal relationship with him. You see, in every congregation a leader is someone who models what it is like to be committed to Christ. That is because a leader is first and foremost disciple of Jesus and one who promotes discipleship in the congregation. Collectively, church leaders are those who guide and sustain a vibrant, faithful and prophetic culture of mission in the congregation.
This model of church leadership in turn causes the congregation to overflow in its discipleship effort, which leads to evangelism. In the Matthew 28, verses 19 and 20, Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The commission is to make disciples. That is why church leaders must be models of discipleship and who lead the congregation to become learners of Jesus. A congregation can make disciples when each of its members is also a disciple of Jesus. In this case the congregation will not only proclaims the good news to the world, but will become the good news to the world through its ministries. A congregation with a strong sense of discipleship will not only talk or forecast the kingdom of God, but it will also embody signs and characteristics of the kingdom of God now. That is, the congregation not only announce the reconciling act of God through Jesus, but is also seeks to heal and restore its internal fractures and divisions. We can only give what we have, which means, we cannot give what we do not have. We can only share convincingly what we have experienced. The gospel is power of God for salvation and the best way to prove that is through our very lives that witness God’s redeeming grace.
A congregational culture for mission is born out of being committed disciples of Jesus. A vision to make disciples of all nations is born out of the very desire to learn from Jesus and to follow him. But again, we as church leaders have the call to model to those under our charge what discipleship looks like. And in so doing we will create an environment where disciple-making will overflow naturally. Such type of leadership is born out of a personal and ongoing relationship with Jesus, the risen Lord. Amen!
 Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985), 18.