Engaging the Church in God's Redemption Mission

Reggie McNeal, Ph.D., is missional leadership specialist for Leadership Network, Dallas, Texas. For over a decade McNeal was a denominational executive, leadership development coach, and has been the founding pastor of a church.

by Reggie McNeal

McNeal has contributed to denominational publications and church leadership journals. His books include: Revolution in Leadership (Ministry for the Third Millennium; A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders; The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church; Practicing Greatness: Seven Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders; and Get a Life: It Is All About You. His latest book, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard of the Church, details the three shifts church leaders must make to engage the missional movement and offers suggestions, tips, and scorecards to reflect missional ministry.

Rick Knoth, managing editor, Enrichment journal, visited with McNeal to discuss insights from The Present Future and Missional Renaissance as they relate to church revitalization and transformation.

You state that church leaders are asking the wrong questions to solve today’s church problems. What should they be asking?

McNeal: Church leaders are asking: How can we get our church to grow? How can we get people to come to church? How can we create better church members? To me the most important questions are: What is God up to in the world? How can we join God’s work in our community? How can we turn members into missionaries so we can deploy them rather than simply assimilate them? How can we create better followers of Jesus rather than thinking about simply creating better churches? How can we have better communities rather than simply creating better churches?

These questions move us away from a church-centric view of what we think God is up to in the world into a more Kingdom-centric view. This carries us into the world that Jesus talked about when He met with the religious leaders and Nicodemus. God so loved the world, not God so loved the church. If the world is still on God’s heart, we need to figure out what is going on there.

We have much more of a crisis in the North American church. Worldwide, we are seeing Pentecost every hour. Tens of thousands of new believers come to Christ in China and in India every day. Recently I was with Steve Douglas, head of Campus Crusade for Christ International. He told me that their research indicates that India is approaching 10 percent Christian. That is up eight percentage points in the last decade. Translated into real people, that is 80 million new followers of Jesus in India. That is the kind of thing we are seeing around the world, while in the United States we contrast this with the amount of effort it takes to crank out another worship widget. Compared to this, in the United States we are in the backwaters of the Christian movement. We are no longer in God’s zip code like many people think we are.

In the past 25 years, what has been the No. 1 failure of the church?

McNeal: To create genuine followers of Jesus. We have been good at creating church members. We have been good at creating conversions into church culture and church lifestyle templates. But Jesus invites people to be His followers. This means we need to find out where He is going. To clamor after Him does not mean I must set aside my beliefs. Following Jesus is more than teaching people what to believe and how to participate in and support the church. I measure following Jesus by how closely I am following Him. This takes me into the streets.

What happens when a church’s behaviors and resources become disconnected from its missional values?

McNeal: I go to places that say they want to be missional, yet their behaviors do not support that. We keep having more and more church activities for a dwindling number or the same number of people, and we are wearing people out. Leaders are exhausted. The people who are trying to live out their faith by being good church members are exhausted. They are wondering when this abundant life kicks in. So you have a tired, burned out, unattractive, busy group of people.

What does it mean to be a missional church?

McNeal: The missional church is the people of God partnering with Him in His redemptive mission in the world. God is the One who decided that out of all humanity He would create us as His partners. Our job is to partner in God’s mission — not ours. His redemptive mission is always in the world, and He invites us to partner with Him.

In the New Testament, Paul uses the word spouse to describe our relationship with Christ. If we claim to be God’s people, but the things that capture Him do not capture us, then we need to wonder about the state of our marriage. The notion of a redemptive mission goes beyond who’s in and who’s out.

Jesus said the Kingdom is near. Those were code words to people in the first century. When John the Baptist was in prison he sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the One? Let’s go over this one more time.”

Jesus replied: “Tell John the lame are walking, the blind are seeing.”

People expected to see these things when the Kingdom showed up. So part of the redemptive mission of God — Kingdom work — is our responsibility for social justice, mercy, and compassion in people’s lives now, not just their eternal destination.

In The Present Future, you state, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.” Explain.

McNeal: I need to follow this statement with something even more provocative to make sure we do not miss the point. It seems we created a pattern of pulling people back to places of spiritual birth instead of releasing them — as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus — to live in spiritual adulthood by impacting the world around them. I am not saying the gathered church is irrelevant or should not happen. But we have made the gathering the point. The gathering was not supposed to be the point. The gathering was supposed to celebrate how God was showing up in our lives away from church.

Instead, we have shrink-wrapped our notion of what God is doing in the world by assessing the health of the gathering. Did the worship go well? How many showed up? Did the choir get their stuff done? Did the band do well? Was the PowerPoint good? Was the sermon good? We act as if these things have an impact on the health of the Kingdom and God’s activity in the world.

We have done this for so long it feels normal. There are many people who want to live out their faith. They do not want to simply keep checking in and beating their chest and rehearsing, “Yes, we believe this.” They want to make a difference in the world. They are bored and uninterested in doing the same thing over and over. Somehow the church has disconnected these people’s religious experiences from the lives they want to live by impacting the people around them for Jesus.

In The Present Future, you also state that the North American culture is not spiritual enough to reach our culture. Explain.

McNeal: Since I wrote The Present Future, the Pew Charitable Trustconducteda study that presentedthe most comprehensive look at how Americans affiliate. In May 2008, the Pew Charitable Trust study stated that the fastest-growing religious affiliation in our country is the unaffiliated. That is one in six Americans — 17 percent. The unaffiliated also includes one in five men and one in four adults under the age of 30.

Unaffiliated does not mean lack of belief or nonspirituality. In fact, this same group reports overwhelmingly that religion — spirituality — plays a very important role in their lives. Some of them have never been to church, but many of them have. They have a spiritual hunger that is much more profound in its search than the answers or the spiritual landscape they are discovering when they come to church.

People who come to church from our culture are not looking for a church experience; they are looking for God. They are disappointed when they find religious activity absent of Him.

How, then, does church leadership regain its influence on those it is trying to reach?

McNeal: The right question is how do we be church better? Get out of the church. Turn inside out and go serve the people God has called us to love. We have swallowed a lie in North American Christianity. We believe that if we look successful, if our churches are fabulous, if we look like we are not dead, people will show up. But people are unimpressed. What is impressive is a church that serves the poor and connects with people who are struggling. The Early Church adopted poor babies who people had abandoned. The Early Church stayed behind in cities when diseases came and people left. That is how the Early Church grew. This is how we are going to reestablish ourselves in this culture as people of God who care for people. We are not in the church business, but in the people business.

What is the process of leading people to be missional minded?

McNeal: Becoming missional minded will not happen by majority vote. If you put being missional minded up for a vote, the church will vote to go back to Egypt. We always vote for the problems we know over the unintended problem of the new course of action. That is human nature.

When I deal with church leaders today about becoming missional, I tell them there are a few things to do. First, they need to look for people who are susceptible to this missional virus. These people may not be the core leadership in the church. They may be those in the balcony, who in our minds are second- and third-tier committed church members who do not attend church very often. When we survey people, we often find that people who are not at the church very often are profoundly engaged in the community. Pastors have assigned them to noncommitted church status when they may be the most active Kingdom-viral agents in the church. As a leader, you need to reattenuate your search for who is susceptible to the missional virus. Ask people to come and discuss community needs, then watch who shows up.

Create venues where people can behave like people of God. This may mean taking a weekend of community service to get started, or even cancel Sunday worship service to have a service of worship. Or maybe do something on a Saturday if using Sunday is too bold a move. Then on Sunday celebrate what you did on Saturday. Have a day to bless the neighborhood. Make sure every Sunday School class has an external ministry or every worship team has an external gig. Recently I was in a church in Chicago where the leadership team in the early service serves as a mentoring group for the department of juvenile justice. Because they have this external ministry, their capacity to lead people in worship is exponentially higher than simply being a performing group.

We need to create venues where people can act out being the people of God. Tell the story of how people are being used. We tend to tell stories of how people have done really well at church stuff. We focus on people who have fixed food for us or have been on a missions trip. But when we tell the story of someone who lived out his faith in the neighborhood, in the office, or in school, we begin to celebrate what is happening away from church.

What cultural trends or forces are setting up for what you are calling the missional renaissance? How can the church respond?

McNeal: I see three trends. In terms of creating the right environment for a new church to emerge, I deliberately use the word renaissance. Renaissance emerged when several things converged and cross-disciplinary thinking began to take place. During renaissance, different cultural domains began to contribute with each other and things became profoundly different. When you take mathematics and apply it to art, you move from medieval iconic imagery to art that has perspective. Perspective provides a dimensional look in paintings. Once you see perspective in a painting, you never miss it again. Once you move from a Ptolemaic view of the universe to a more heliocentric, Copernican solar system view, you can never think of the universe the same way again. In post-renaissance you do not think the same way you did in pre-renaissance.

Things are converging. One is the rise of the altruism economy that is rampant in our culture. Altruism is everywhere, from Bill Gates, Bono, or Warren Buffet giving away billions to a Girl Scout troop or a business that gives 1 percent of their proceeds to dig wells and provide fresh water in overseas countries. Every sports figure has a charity foundation. Every rock group does a concert to raise money. This is a part of what they do. As this altruism economy grows, even with the economic downturn, Americans are giving more than $300 billion a year to charity. With a third of that probably coming to the church, what could we do with $100 billion?

The rise of the altruism economy means there is a good in our culture we can engage with. When you partner with people for good, it greases up the conversation toward God. All good is from God. God is good. So this is simply a pathway He has laid. If we will get out of the church and move toward an external focus in our ministry, we will as a church be able to call the party rather than being the last float in the parade.

The second shift is the move from program-driven to people-development. This is in response to a cultural trend where people want to move past affiliation, association, or activity into personal growth. Many in America want to grow and develop, and they want to know they are growing. The evidence of this is everywhere: cable television do-it-yourself programs, adult education and community courses in colleges, people starting third careers, and people never retiring but repositioning. The church that gets this will be in the people-development business.

The third force that is creating this missional renaissance is a rising spirituality. People are going to church, but that is not a reflection or gauge of spirituality. Only 4 percent of Americans are atheists or agnostic. Of that 4 percent, over half of them say that prayer and spirituality play an important role in their daily lives. They are playing it both ways.

We are in a profoundly spiritual, God-intoxicated culture. This paves the way for the church to engage with people. People do not need to attend church to have God conversation. As a matter of fact, churches are having church conversations, but people in the culture want God conversations. You can have God conversations in the street, at work, in your clubs, or where you have recreation or play golf. Americans are thirsting for God. These three cultural trends pave the way if the church can read those into a new focus of ministry and a renewed sense of who we are as a people of God.

If the church is altruistic as you have described with its benevolence and the billions of dollars it provides, why is the church taking such a bad rap?

McNeal: Because people see that we are spending most of that money on us instead of investing it in the community. Everywhere the church begins to serve people, the conversation about a particular congregation or church takes an upward turn. It takes away negative attitudes that people have been chronicling for years.

Why do you say churches are part of this change?

McNeal: As long as we are celebrating a church-centric view of God’s work in the world by recording how many, how often, how much goes on at the church, we are going to keep getting the kind of behaviors that celebrate church and those kind of activities. People will do the things we reward. The scorecard has to shift to reward different things. So we need to begin celebrating and scorecarding in a much more dimensional depth: How much money did we give away? How many people outside our church do we have on our prayer list? How many leaders in our community do we have on our prayer list? How many organizations use our facilities?

Most churches have a policy manual on how to keep the community out of their facilities. In one church, their scorecard states that their church effort is that there will be no hungry child left in the county. This is a different metric than how many kids showed up at vacation Bible school or sang in the junior choir. Does Jesus care about hungry children? Do we understand the connection between hunger and literacy? Do we understand that if a child cannot read at a third-grade level by the end of third grade, every other life indicator goes south from there?

We need to pretend that Jesus was telling the truth when He talked about the abundant life. If God is interested in people, then why should not our message reflect this? We simply measure program health. We ask: How many people participated in our program? But how about asking: How many marriages are better in our church this year than last year? How many of you are in better shape with your spouse? How many of you have a better relationship with your kids? How many of you feel better and are growing in your relationship with God? How many of you feel better about your outlook on life? How many of you are neighboring better? Those questions get at the heart of what it is to be a follower of Jesus.

In what ways are you encouraged by the changes you are seeing in the church world today?

McNeal: When I wrote The Present Future in 2002, I was struggling to get church leaders even to understand the difference between the church and the Kingdom. It was a struggle to get them to understand that instead of just getting better churches we needed to imagine our communities looking better. Fast forward to today. No one is arguing that we are in great shape or just need a little tweak here and there. There is this sense of urgency. My question has shifted now to: How can we do this? as opposed to wanting to argue with me about whether we should.

What’s the best way to get started?

McNeal: I am going to express this on two levels. First, whatever you think the church needs to do, do it. As leaders, we can no longer simply have positional authority. We need to have personal authority for personal leadership. So if you think the church needs to be engaged in the community, do it. If you need to get out of the office, or if you need to begin to serve in your community, do it and model it.

Second, for too long we have been trying to get the community to come to us. As a result, we do not know how to connect to the community. I have found in all my consulting and coaching that the best way to connect to a community is for a congregation to adopt a public school. Whatever is going on in the community is going on in the school. Adopt a classroom.

One of the churches I am working with in San Francisco approached a school and the school administrators were afraid the church had an alternative agenda. But the church simply loved and served by doing things, dropping off food for teachers, writing prayer notes for faculty, painting the school, fixing the playground, and upgrading the landscaping. It took them less than a year to turn around the entire school administration. I was with them recently, and every 3 months the school superintendent sends the church a list of things they need. The key was to serve. Practice saying in the mirror, “How can we help?” Once you can say that without stumbling or hesitation, you are ready to visit with the guidance counselor, principal, or school superintendent, and ask, “How can we help?”

As we close, share a final thought with our readers.

McNeal: I have a word for pastors. My heart goes out to them because I served in congregational leadership for over 20 years. I am with pastors every week. Pastors entered ministry with the idea they wanted to change the world, and then discovered they are project managing. They are customer service reps for club members who are demanding. Pastors do not want to spend the rest of their lives doing that. The thought of doing this for the rest of their lives brings a sigh to their spirit. God is calling leaders together to engage in His mission in the world, even beyond His people.

I do not know a pastor who is missionally engaged with the community beyond their congregational issues, who is ready to quit. On the other hand, every week I run into pastors who are being consumed by an all-church agenda. Their ministry is not nurturing their souls because that does not reflect the heart of God.