It was hard to admit but after several weeks of conversations with congregants, Grace Church was forced to acknowledge that their mission as a church was maintenance. They discovered that their entire purpose boiled down to keeping the church running and paying the bills.
Now there are people who get excited about maintenance, auto mechanics come to mind. In fact, your car likely includes a manual with a maintenance schedule to keep it running smoothly. But a mission of maintenance doesn’t do much more for the people in the pews other than drain them of energy, even joy.
Still, many churches choose it. Some don’t want to rock the boat with winds of change. Some admirably think they are honoring those who have come before them. Most don’t realize that choosing or defaulting to mission of maintenance eventually leads to irrelevance and decline.
What would Grace Church do? Would they stay on the path of maintenance or chose the exciting but challenging path of a new mission? In order to answer that question, they needed to answer another: What is the mission of the local church?
We begin answering that question by defining the word “mission?” Ask anyone on the street, especially fans of the Mission Impossible movie series, and you will discover that people understand a mission to be that primary objective you set out to accomplish. Those on a mission understand that—if they choose to accept it—they are being sent to complete a particular assignment. A mission, then, has two essential parts, first, being sent or authorized or commissioned and second, a particular assignment or objective.
But now we revert to “What is the mission of the local church?” For an in-depth answer to that question I encourage you to check out What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. Here and now I offer a basic summary, one I settled on after years of wrestling with the question. Those efforts landed me on the Great Commission, Jesus’ final words on earth, spoken just after his resurrection and prior to his ascension. We find some form of the Great Commission in each of the four Gospels (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 13:10 & 14:9, Luke 24:44-49, John 20:19-23) and at the beginning of the book of Acts (1:8). I believe we may conclude that the inspired authors of the Gospels and the Book of Acts understood Jesus’ final words as significant.
Let’s look at the most famous version of the Great Commission version, that recorded by Matthew: Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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” (28:16-20).
That form of the Great Commission is instructive on several levels. Notice that it includes but one command: make disciples. The imperative implies intentionality, effort and action. It suggests that some people are not disciples and need to be made disciples; they need to be invited into a life of discipleship with other disciples.
Next, notice the word “disciple.” Disciples differ from admirers, students, seekers, and scholars. Disciples are like piano students who attach themselves to their instructor. They go to the home of the instructor, sit at the feet of the instructor, follow the teaching of the instructor, practice as directed by the instructor, and perform in a manner remarkably similar to the style and substance of the instructor. In the same way, disciples follow Christ—they don’t just believe in him or affirm the orthodox doctrines about him.
Finally, notice the means by which the apostles were to make disciples. They were to go, baptize and teach. Like a three-legged stool, fulfilling the Great Commission required each of those three actions. They were to go—rather than sit back and wait. They were to take initiative. They were to baptize. In other words, they were to lead them to faith and incorporate them into the church. Finally, they were to teach them to obey the teachings of Jesus. The implication seems clear: a disciple not only believes in Jesus but follows him—and encourages others to do the same.
So, what does this mean for Grace Church? In order to leave the path of maintenance for a new mission, they must first embrace the mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ. They may choose to describe that mission in a different way like, “Following Christ and inviting others to do the same” or “Leading Others into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.” Whatever words they choose, they must decide to make disciples by going, baptizing and teaching.
But that’s the easy part, easy because the Scriptures are clear and direct. Now Grace Church must seek wisdom and understanding so that they can answer this question: To whom shall we go? Since we are physically unable to make disciples of everyone in our community or region, what group of people shall we target? For Paul it was Gentiles living in communities with synagogues. For Grace, in the early year of its existence, it was children and youth coming to church with their parents. Who will Grace Church target now?
One way to come to a definitive answer to that question is to look at who the Lord has brought into your fellowship during the last several years. What type of people has God been leading into your congregation? Why did they affiliate with your congregation? What can we learn from them?
A second way is to focus on people with whom your congregation already has relationships. Your members already intersect with others where they live, where they work, and where they play. We may choose to encourage and resource our members so they may reach out to those they live with, work with, and play with, prioritizing those who live in close proximity to the church. Then we will ask our members how the church can help them witness to those they live with, work with, and play with.
Another way is to analyze your community through a demographic study and thereby discover a group in your neighborhood with whom you would like to share the Good News. Traditionally, congregations have focused on couples with children, but should that be your target audience? Do you have a college in your community? A retirement home? A military base? An over 55 community? Single adults? Choose one and get to work.
Grace Church opted for the last option. They analyzed their congregation and its community. They discovered that both were aging. They also noticed that the community did not include dedicated services or space for Seniors. In response, they decided to target an oft overlooked group: the over 55 crowd in town. This decision mobilized them for ministry (as I will discuss in the next chapter).
Of course, making that decision led to other conversations about going, baptizing and teaching but they were encouraged by the promise Jesus attached to his Great Commission: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” This promise affirmed the one made previously to the apostles in the Upper Room on the night Jesus was betrayed: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth (John 14:16). These promises strengthened and encouraged the Apostles for the mission before them.
And they do the same for us. Without the Spirit, we will not make one disciple, but with the Spirit we cannot fail to make disciples.
Sam Hamstra, Jr. is the author of several publications including the Pastor Search Team Guidebook (2020) and the forthcoming Questions to Ask BEFORE Searching for Your Next Pastor (2020).