Our Turf, Their Turf

One of the biggest areas of discussion between emerging/missional leaders and modern/pragmatic leaders is the issue of turf: on whose home territory should the church's primary ministry happen? Up to this point, the conversation has remained largely either/or. In my first ministry-related seminary course at TEDS, my professor, Dr. Sell, gave an overview of the three predominant ministry models currently being employed in the U.S.: traditional, contemporary, and missional. And what he presented has been established by a proliferation of works on the topic over the last decade or so. Both the traditional and contemporary paradigms emphasized ministry on "our turf", which he described as the "come and see" approach. The missional approach was characterized as "go and seek". Am I surprising anyone here?

During the course, students were asked to choose from a variety of combinations of these three models and decide which model we most envisioned pursuing in our future ministry contexts. I chose "missional-contemporary", primarily on the basis of the turf discussion. I'm not ready yet to throw the baby out with the bath water on this. Many missional leaders claim that we have to choose between "come and see" and "go and seek", but I enthusiastically disagree... The very nature of the Church, as I see it plainly in Scripture, is that it might be a light to the nations, a reflection of the magnificent glory of Almighty God. The church does indeed have an all-consuming mission: to glorify God for all to see and enjoy!

But glorifying God does not happen in the Church unless its local manifestations have the incarnate presence of Christ that comes through Christian community. Real, tangible, messy, devoted community is a non-negotiable, a piece of the foundation of what it means to be the Church. Without it, we have no church.

To break this down to practical terms, my vision for local churches is that they be groups of believers committed to loving God, one another, and the world around them, who live in close enough proximity to one another that they interact in the daily flow of life together, and whose embodied love and unity communicate to their neighbors that God is infinitely glorious and infinitely valuable.

So the mission of the church involves dwelling in places where non-Christians live and involving themselves in their lives. But before this, it involves being a community of love, spirit, and truth that, in itself, is a beacon of the light of Christ to the world around them. "Let your light shine before men," Christ tells us. And, "By this they will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another".

Now I would like to address the specific intent of this post, though what has preceded was necessary groundwork. The idea that compelled me to write this is that, to some extent, I believe the "contemporary" folks were on to something that we missional folks have too quickly abandoned. The primary difference between traditional and pragmatic leaders leaders is that the former tend to see methods as static and sacred, and yet expected people to come to them in spite of their irrelevance, whereas the latter attempt to adapt methods and expressions contextually (though one could argue that they often times fail) in order to communicate the gospel in comprehensible ways to those in a post-Christian context. Emerging leaders then came along in response to the excesses of pragmatically-oriented ministry and said, "No matter what we do, they are not going to come to us. You're fighting a losing battle." And they proposed relationship evangelism as the alternative.

The question I have been confronted with recently is, Now that we've had time to observe the fruits of each model, which one works? And if both work to an extent, which one works better? Finally, if both do work, then why not capitalize on the strengths of both? No doubt most of you read my recent post on postmodern evangelism, in which I shared my frustrations with one-on-one evangelism. But my frustrations do not stop at field-trip/crusade evangelism. Relationship evangelism in general has proved exceedingly evasive for me. I have made every effort to let my conversation be "full of grace, seasoned with salt," as Paul admonished the Colossian church to do. I have spoken of Christ frequently to my neighbors, gotten involved in our neighborhood association and local community initiatives, spent considerable time on "their turf". And you know what I found? They didn't want to talk about spirituality in the course of their daily activities, at community events, at parties. The one opportunity that did stimulate searching within a friend of mine, and a deep spiritual conversation between us, was... hold your breath... an EVENT at my church.

Now I'm not going to base an entire ministry philosophy simply off of my own personal experience, but I would be willing to bet that many have had parallel experiences, and in fact, I've seen it played out dramatically in our most recent church home. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there is great need within local churches for contextualizing their corporate worship experiences and for coordinating evangelistically-focused events--in addition to, and only after, meeting the criteria mentioned above, and provided that they are actually contextually meaningful.

I've come to wonder if many 'emerging' leaders advocate relationship evangelism as a smokescreen for abandoning it altogether. But I'm absolutely certain that many more than just emergents shy from it, even if we value it in principle. I would maintain that this phenomenon speaks volumes about the uncertainties thrust upon us by an emerging post-Christian culture. I wish I could give a thorough analysis of the effect I believe public discourse is having on the dynamics of evangelism, but I'm out of time, and it's really a topic all of its own. I will leave the following to chew on and hopefully will revisit it in greater depth:

We are not in a completely post-Christian society. No longer is American wholly 'Christianized', but it still is predominantly Christianized. The church has been experiencing the pains of losing its grip on influencing society, and this is causing us to plead victimization. It is also causing us to assert ourselves more concertedly in the public arena, stimulating a sort of "culture war" on the battlefield of mass media. This phenomenon, without a doubt, plays an inestimable role in the anxiousness of the evangelistic climate, causing non-Christians to be on their guard against we fanatical proselytes. When we attempt to step out onto their turf, rather than feeling honored, they feel threatened. When we move into their neighborhood and start investing in the things they are concerned about, then we are laying a foundation on which relationships can be built. But it's still a source of tension when all of a sudden you start probing into their spiritual lives. It doesn't take long for someone to close up.

Once they do start to open up, it's necessary that they have a place to "check us out" from a relatively safe distance to see if we're really as weird and fanatical as we have been charicatured. In a sense, the worshipping community then becomes a type of "mediator" between the Christian and his friend, through which the friend can safely explore faith without the face-threatening context of personal confrontation. Again, not that we should shy away from sharing our faith. But sharing our faith is much more about infusing our conversations with praise of Christ and what he's done than it is trying to turn the conversation around so that we can lead them down a pre-orchestrated path.

So those are my thoughts in a nutshell. I've said a lot, and I'm certain that much of it was jumbled, but hopefully you were able to glean something meaningful from it. Give me some feedback and force me to develop my ideas more fully, alright? ;-) God bless you all.

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