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The Local Church in Mission: Confessions of a Recovering Mission Snob

by Don Everts

Watching mission blossom here at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church has challenged many of my assumptions about mission and the local church

(Editor’s note: In this issue we start a new column where we hear from those in local churches do­ing mission in fresh and often fear­less ways. Our hope is that we will learn and be inspired by what these churches are contributing to God’s kingdom.)

For five years, I’ve been watching my suburban church fall in love with mission. That process has been, for me, beautiful and instructive and… well, pretty surprising. Watching mission blossom here at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church has challenged many of my assumptions about mission and the local church because (I’ll just be honest) I’m something of a recovering mission snob.

You see, for fourteen years I served as a campus missionary with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and spent a great deal of that time training and equipping young missionaries—missionaries of the radical, sacrificial, and incarnational variety. Young missionaries whom we proudly sent into the inner cities of the U.S. and megacities of the developing world. This, I knew, was true mission. And it had little to do with the comfortable, entitled, immobile suburban church.  

But then God called me to serve her. His suburban church, that is.

In specific, God called me to help folks here in the suburbs of St. Louis, members of a 197-year-old Presbyterian church, to get caught up in God’s work in this world. This task (part midwife, part coach, part trainer, part cheerleader) has changed how I view God’s mission in this world and the local church’s place in that mission. Watching people with minivans and mortgages get swept off their feet into God’s mission has taught me several important lessons.   

Lesson #1: Diving in with Bulky Shoes
As someone who had often laughed (and sometimes cried) at the occasional, self-serving mission spasms that many suburban churches seemed to go through around spring break time, I came to Bonhomme committed to serious, careful, incarnational mission involvement.  

I began to pass around wonderful books like When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. If it were up to me, no one from Bonhomme would go traipsing around the city with their big, awkward suburban shoes on, making cultural faux pas and violating biblical mission principles with an innocent, well-meaning smile on his or her face.

But then I had coffee with a ministry partner in the city. I was expressing my desire to carefully train everyone at Bonhomme in cross-cultural skills and incarnational mission habits. No way were we going to add to the mass of cliché white Christians who mean well but actually do more harm than good! I thought this would meet with approval from my urban mission friend, but it didn’t.

Instead, he cautioned me: “Don’t raise the bar too high. If you do, no one will ever take the first step. Just have people dive in… then the training begins.” When I protested that we needed to first rid ourselves of our big, awkward suburban “shoes”, my friend just smiled and sipped his coffee. “Brother,” he said, “you’ll always have those shoes. Come and minister with us, and we’ll have grace with you, as we learn together.”  

I began to wonder if never taking the first step into mission is worse than studying forever and never diving in. There’s something beautiful about simple, teachable obedience. One small group at Bonhomme has been showing me this over the last year.   

This is a small group of couples in their 50s. They’ve been a small group together for years, studying the Bible, sharing about their lives—normal small group stuff. But an interesting thing happened about eighteen months ago: they grew bored with each other. At least that’s how they describe it.  

Their journey began simply enough: as a church, we were doing a Lenten small group series that was somewhat missional in theme. At the end of one of their small group times, one member challenged the rest of the group: “You know, we’ve been together for years. I know all your stories. And you know mine. But are we ever going to go out there and just do something about all this?” And just like that the group dove in.  

They had heard of Oasis Ministries, a ministry among refugees in St. Louis, and so they called and asked how they could help. At first, they helped organize a “lamp drive” for Oasis—collecting dozens of lamps from folks at Bonhomme so that newly-placed refugees could have light in their apartments. But that was only the beginning; they’ve gone on to become intimately and regularly involved as a small group in the lives of refugees in the city. And as they are all going, our partners at Oasis are training and equipping them for wise and gracious cross-cultural ministry.  

Is this dive-in first approach messy? Oh yeah. I didn’t even hear about what this small group was doing until months after they had started! (After all, aren’t you supposed to ask your minister of outreach for permission—and training—before going into the city?) Messy, but beautiful.    

Lesson #2: The Need to Train
That being said, we’ve also been realizing the need to increase our cultural and missional IQ as a body. It turns out vacationing in Cancun isn’t great preparation for how to enter into other cultures with grace and humility. And being successful in business (as many at Bonhomme have been) doesn’t exactly equate to understanding successful mission partnerships.  

And so we need to train and equip all these folks that are getting caught up in God’s work. As pastors and teachers, we are called to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” as Paul tells us in Ephesians. And training isn’t easy work. There’s no reason that folks at Bonhomme would implicitly know how to engage postmodern non-Christians, or develop a healthy cross-cultural partnership, or understand the complexities of community development. And so we need to train.

For example, our church has a healthy, thriving Alpha ministry that draws many non-Christians to the table to hear about Jesus. But not all of our Alpha volunteers understand how to help a distrustful postmodern non-Christian take a step closer to Jesus. So we train them on postmodernity and evangelism.

Our church has a blossoming partnership with a small orphanage in Honduras. But not all of those initially involved understood the dangers of dependency and so chartered some unhealthy courses for our partnership. So we began to train them on the principles of healthy international partnerships and how to pursue sustainability.

And here’s the trick about training that I’ve been learning: if God is at work all around us, then this means folks from Bonhomme could get caught up in all sorts of mission, from family healing to relational evangelism to urban mercy to global partnerships. This is inherently much messier than a top-down, more focused approach to mission. And this means (here’s the tricky part) we need to be prepared to equip and train people in various kinds of mission work.  

This is how I wound up writing a book that could provide a biblical undergirding for our diverse mission, as well as lay the ground work for basic missional training in different areas. Go & Do: Becoming a Missional Christian has provided us a sort of Missional 101 training on-ramp to help keep our growing mission stream flowing along wise, biblical, strategic channels.  

Lesson #3: The Beauty of Generations
For years, Bonhomme has been in partnership with the Comfort Foundation, a Christian ministry in the Vologda Oblast of Russia. We send teams to help staff strategic camps for children living in government orphanages. During my first year at Bonhomme, I was invited to go on one of these trips—my first short-term trip with a generationally diverse team.    

During team training, I began to realize that my years on campus had subliminally made me equate short-term mission work with young adults. But our team flying over to Russia was truly multigenerational: we had a couple teenagers, a young adult, a few of us “middle-aged” folks, and a few folks in their 60s and 70s.  

It didn’t take long for me to realize the beauty of such a team. Having experienced travelers among us was calming; having retired professionals among us turned out to be quite strategic and helpful to our Russian partners; and having youth among us helped us connect naturally with the Russian children. I experienced firsthand the brilliance and simplicity of generations serving together in mission.    

But tapping into this generational beauty isn’t always simple or easy. Upon my return from Russia, I began to see the retired members of Bonhomme with new eyes: here was a group of experienced, educated Christians who had time on their hands. I was sitting on a potential missions gold mine! But over time, I’ve found that some mission partners assume, and even prefer, youth and energy over age and experience. One friend with an NGO in Kenya confessed to me that they had developed all their plans and logistics assuming youth and energy. His agency, he realized, had to come to terms with their “ageism”.  

Our conversation was gracious and enlightening, and hasn’t been the last one I’ve had trying to handle the beautiful complexities that come when God moves people of all ages (from 5 to 105) into mission. Now obviously not every ministry is suited for children or for the elderly. We have to use wisdom and discernment in mobilizing folks—and we always need to take our cues from our mission partners. But also I’ve been so struck by the sheer beauty—and strategy—of generations laboring side by side in mission. This is one of the strengths, I now think, that the local church brings to mission.        

Lesson #4: The Strategy of Stories
During my first year at Bonhomme, I began to meet mission heroes all over the church: the couple in their 90s who had been visiting prisoners for years, the carpenter who had brought dozens of non-Christians to Alpha over the years, the young businessman who had found a way to provide steak dinners to the homeless. I was truly inspired by the mission heroes in this church.

But then I would meet with church leaders who would lament the fact that “hardly anyone” cares about missions at Bonhomme. Initially I was confused, but eventually I realized that we had a story problem at Bonhomme. We needed to get better at telling our stories of mission. Not only would this give us opportunities to praise God for his work, but it would also help inspire others to take their own next step in missions. Stories, we’ve found, create culture.  

Before starting to tell our stories in a more purposeful way, mission was perceived as a far-away specialty for professionals. For years, Bonhomme held an annual “Missions Sunday”, but hardly anyone would come to the missions fair after worship, and many people, we found out, were actually skipping worship that week because they assumed it had nothing to do with them. That was our culture of mission before.

So we’re trying to get better at telling our Bonhomme mission stories: we’ve created a mission display, we have testimonies during worship, and we get regular tweets from our mission teams. We definitely haven’t arrived, but through simple, God-honoring stories, we’re seeing mission move from the periphery of our life as a congregation to the center. It’s no longer just a program; it’s becoming a way of life.  

And perhaps that’s what best summarizes what I’ve learned about mission and the local church: mission is inextricably bound up in what it means to be a Christian—no matter where you live.  Mission, as the great Scottish preacher James S. Stewart put it, “…is the distinctive mark of being a Christian. To accept Christ is to enlist under a missionary banner.”

Even Christians here in suburbia, here in the local church, have enlisted under a missionary banner.  And that, I’m finding out, is a beautiful thing. 

….

Don Everts, a long-time campus missionary, currently serves as minister of outreach at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church, a 197-year-old church in the suburbs of St Louis. His most recent book is Go & Do: Becoming a Missional Christian (InterVarsity Press, 2012).

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 102-106. Copyright  © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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