“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Thus the writer of the Gospel of John records how God became incarnate, that is he took on human form, as Jesus Christ, and began a ministry of reconciliation between God and man. Jesus, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, explained that his purpose was “to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” The incarnation and ministry of Jesus is perhaps the ultimate example of missional community.
The examples of the early church and the church today
Alan Hirsch asks the question, how did the church grow from as few as 25,000 Christians in AD100 to nearly 20 million only two centuries later? This was despite Christianity being an “illegal religion,” and not having “any church buildings as we know them,” nor the Scriptures in their finalised form and without the institutions and methods that are present in the church today.  To counter a claim that this may have been an historical aberration, Hirsch further illustrates the point by drawing parallels with the present day church in China. Despite the efforts of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution with the explicit aim “to obliterate Christianity (and all religion) from China,” Christianity actually “flourished beyond all imagination,” growing from an estimated two million believers at the start of the purges to over 60 million and counting when the “Bamboo Curtain” was raised in the eighties.
Hirsch explains that the common theme between these movements, and others, such as the spread of Methodism in the eighteenth-century and Pentecostalism in the twentieth-century, is that “persecution forced them away from … reliance on any form of centralized religious institution and caused them to live closer to … their primal message, namely the gospel.” In other words, the primary focus of each of these Christian communities was mission; fulfilling the Great Commission as Jesus had instructed his disciples at the end of his ministry. The Rutba House, a missional community in the USA, describe how throughout church history, new monastic movements have risen up to form community in “the abandoned places of society.” It is in these abandoned places that numerous expressions of missional community have been established over the last few decades.
Hirsch claims the origins of the terms “missional and missional church” are “in the work of a group of North American practitioners, missiologists, and theorists called the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN), who came together to try and work out some of the implications of the work of … Leslie Newbigin.” However, an alternative claim is made by Mike Breen, of 3D Ministries, who formed missional communities out of St Thomas’ Church in Sheffield during the nineties, which have spread throughout the UK and Europe.
The presence of God, Hirsch writes, identifies with the people Jesus came to save, and it also calls those people to “respond in repentance and faith.” He says that God “initiates the gospel invitation, which is active to this very day.” Charles Mellis argues that “for a truly Christian community, the only authentic foundation is personal commitment to Jesus Christ.” He calls this commitment an “indispensable foundation.” The distinguishing mark of a missional community is that it shares the good news of Jesus Christ to the people it serves.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the young church leader Timothy, urges that, “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people … This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Scott Bessenecker calls mission “looking outside ourselves.”
Hirsch outlines the problem with what he calls “the contemporary church growth model” that is subscribed to by the majority of evangelical churches. This model uses contemporary forms of worship with “seeker-friendly language and middle-of-the-road music forms.” It appeals to a mainly middle class section of society and market research in Australia has shown that the model attracts only about 12 percent of the population. The main problem with this approach is that although these churches are very successful in “reaching non-Christian people fitting the same demographic description,” they do not have the same success in reaching across cultural barriers to the “vast majority of the population (in Australia’s case, 85 percent; in the United States, about 65 percent) [who] report alienation from precisely that form of church.”
Hirsch was the leader of a church in Melbourne, Australia. He discerned the need to “engage [with] our culture on its own turf (missional), rather than expecting them to come to ours (attractional).” He reached this conclusion by asking these two questions: “What is good news for this people group?” and “what would the church look and feel like among this people group?” Hirsch describes a missional church as “a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organises its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world.” He says the church is mission and not just the product of mission and it is “obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible.”
The ministry of presence
Bessenecker writes that “Church leaders and missionaries lose touch when their realities differ greatly from the people they serve.” He quotes Ash Barker, a missionary working in Thailand, who found that “few foreign Christian workers in Bangkok today live in the same neighbourhoods as those they are serving, never mind learning and seeking transformation from within the community.” Incarnational living means becoming like the people you serve. As Jesus lived among those he came to save, so too a missional community needs to live in and around the people they serve.
The Apostle Paul calls on the early church to be imitators of Christ in order to be an example to those around them. Paul, writing to the church at Philippi, explains how although Jesus Christ “was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” He also writes to Timothy about the incarnation by reminding him “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He calls on Timothy to “set the believers an example” in his behaviour. Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul commends them because they “became imitators of us and of the Lord” when they “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
A contemporary example of a missional community is provided by Thomas Rausch. The community of Taizé in the Burgundy region of France was founded by Roger Schutz in the closing years of the Second World War. Under German occupation, Brother Roger cared for refugees, including many Jews, who were fleeing the Nazis. After the war, he and the other brothers of the community ministered to the German prisoners of war. The community outgrew the small church in the village of Taizé and so the larger Church of Reconciliation was built in 1962. The community lead a simple monastic life described in the Rule of Taizé.
It has continued to grow and attracts many thousands of, mainly young, people throughout the year, who make a pilgrimage to spend a week sharing in the life of the community. There are now over a hundred brothers from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds who live in the community. Brother Roger was killed at evening prayer in 2005 and Brother Alois became the new prior.
Rausch notes that not all the brothers live in Taizé. He writes that “part of the community lives in small groups, known as ‘fraternities,’ in places such as the northeast of Brazil, Kenya, Korea, and Bangladesh.” One of the fraternities is located in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York – a largely Hispanic neighbourhood in central Manhattan. The fraternities work with those at the margins of society. These are the people that Bessenecker says are too “peripheral to mainstream church life.” He continues that “most of the historic mission orders found themselves bound to people at the margins: desperately poor, the ‘uncivilised,’ plague victims, lepers, slaves, outcasts – people whom nobody else really want to be around.”
Hirsch comments that in “the study of the history of missions, one can even be formulaic about asserting that all great missionary movements begin at the fringes of the church, among the poor and marginalised, and seldom, if ever, at the centre.” It was for these captives and oppressed that Jesus came to proclaim liberty. However, Hirsch adds, “in becoming ‘one of us’, God takes the form of a servant and not that of someone who rules over us.” Jesus did not rule as an earthly king, instead he grew up in the home of a carpenter, far from royal cities or palaces. Hirsch explains that “in acting thus he shuns all normal notions of coercive power and demonstrates for us how love and humility (powerlessness) reflect the true nature of God and of the key means to transform human society.”
The Apostle Paul urges the church to be a transforming power for the people they serve. They should do this by being a fragrance or aroma. He writes to the Corinthian church: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” Liberation is not brought from a position of worldly power, but of seemingly powerlessness. Bessenecker argues that the Genesis command to subjugate the earth finds its meaning when men and women “oppose evil and all the works of God’s enemy.” He adds that “Paul says that God’s people have power to destroy strongholds and ‘every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God’ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). His kingdom is one of righteousness and justice, and that is always a double edge sword. It is good news to some and bad news to others. It means bending our world back into the shape God intends, and involves both demolition and construction.”
Rausch has provided another contemporary example. The Canadian Jean Vanier founded the l’Arche community in 1964, when he “invited two mentally handicapped men to live with him in a small house in Trosly-Breuil,” a village north of Paris. Rausch explains the name l’Arche is the French word for the Ark, and the house was intended to be a place of refuge like Noah’s ark. The community attracted young men and women and has continued to grow rapidly. As of June 2010, there are 137 l’Arche communities in 40 countries around the world caring for men and women with mental health and physical disabilities. Rausch describes how Vanier had been “deeply moved by the dismal life of the handicapped people he encountered.” He continues by adding that “life at l’Arche is centred around prayer and the Eucharist.” In these communities, some of the more vulnerable people in society are given “the common human need to be loved and cherished,” and, although held captives by their bodies, are given liberty.
Hirsch concludes, “If God’s central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational.” A missional community reaches out to the fringes of society, which the rest of the world has ignored. It has to inhabit the same neighbourhoods and identify with the people it wants to reach. Finally, it will preach the gospel in order to fulfil the Isaiah 61 prophecy of proclaiming liberty to captives.
3D Ministries, ‘About’, http://www.3dministries.com/, November 2010.
Bessenecker, Scott A., The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
Claiborne, Shane, The Irresistible Revolution, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).
Hayes, John B., Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World, (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2006).
Hirsch, Alan, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006).
Mellis, Charles J., Committed Communities: Fresh Streams for World Missions, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1976).
Rausch, Thomas P., Radical Christian Communities, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002).
Rutba House, The, School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, (New Monastic Library: Resources for Radical Discipleship; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2005).
Taizé Community, The, ‘About Taizé’, http://www.taize.fr/, November 2010.
Wikipedia, ‘L’Arche’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L’Arche, November 2010.