For a long time, many evangelical churches focused on serving believers within the church and reaching the nations abroad. Occasional revival meetings were meant to revive the faith of nominal Christians in the neighborhood. But reaching the community was not a major focus. However, iHhdf n the last three decades, there has been a long overdue movement to reach our communities. Most of the recent books I have read about the Church focus on how to reach your community and grow your church.
Many of these books begin with the Great Commission as stated in Matthew 28:19-20. Working from the New International Version, they suggest that the “heart” of the Great Commission is to “make disciples” and they apply this to reaching your community. What is often missing in these books is discipling “all nations.” Cross-cultural missions is taken for granted, off the radar screen of the book, frequently limited to a passing mention in a page or a paragraph or a sermon. Not too long ago I proposed “The Great Commission-Driven Church” as a workshop title. One pastor said to me, “I’ve studied the Great Commission Church and taught on it and I was hoping for something more global.” It seems that the Great Commission is now commonly thought of primarily as local outreach by many church leaders.
Pastors and church leaders seem to be looking primarily to mega-church models for how to do church. These model churches usually have a missions program, sometimes an outstanding missions ministry, but it has not been a major feature of their books and conferences. One person involved in missions told me about returning with a van of church leaders from a mega-church conference. One of the leaders said to the other, "Why are we putting so much money into missions? Did you hear them talk about missions?" This needs to be changed. We need to pour ourselves into the world.
New church plants are nearly all focused on reaching their unchurched community as you might expect. They are often slow getting started in missions. Several years ago I asked the receptionist of a young church plant, “What are you doing in missions?” “We are a mission,” she replied. In a recent book about effective church ministry the authors reported putting their teenagers to work “on the mission field” on Sunday morning. He was referring to having them work in the church programs. Recently one young church planter was asked what his church was doing in missions. “We have a miscellaneous budget line item for that kind of stuff, “he responded. Another young seeker church of more than 1200 people reported a missions budget of 1% in 2004.
Doing church in a culturally relevant manner is increasingly expensive. It is difficult for churches to maintain the percentage they used to give for missions. Large churches with large budgets have huge internal expenses. Churches of more than one thousand in attendance rarely give more than 20% of their regular income to missions. Younger large churches not infrequently have missions budgets of 5% or less. A large church in the Chicago suburbs has designated 80% of their missions budget for expanding their multi-campus sites. Traditional churches with large missions budgets are spending more on staff and facilities. Becoming more seeker-oriented means spending increasing dollars on facilities and accouterments for a more hospitable and pleasing place for secular people. Almost all churches are facing these pressures in order to be acceptable, if not competitive.
The non-negotiables are changing. At one time the missions budget was sacrosanct in many churches. Now, as one worship pastor told me, “We have two media projectors in the worship service. Each projector has two bulbs. Each bulb costs seventeen hundred dollars. And if one blows, you gotta’ replace it.” A volunteer technical assistant in a church of six hundred told me, “In five minutes I could write down two million dollars worth of sound equipment we need.” Many younger churches desire to do more missions, but missions must wait on higher priorities.
Twenty-five years ago, church purpose statements frequently specified "reaching the world.” Current purpose statements are shorter and less specific. The world is not clearly stated. As someone said, "a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew." Missions is treated as a program rather than part of the church’s purpose. There is a huge difference. One missions pastor told me, “In our church, missions is one of 125 ministries and it must compete with all the others for pulpit time, resources, and volunteers.” In highly professional, time-delineated worship services, time is not available for missionaries to tell their stories. Brief interviews or video clips must suffice to let church people know they are involved in missions. Many churches are reducing the number of missionaries they support so they won’t be overloaded in trying to keep themselves and their people informed.
The effort to reach our communities deserves to be supported and applauded. How to retain and build a focus on reaching the rest of the nations at the same time is the challenge.