In my travels to preach the gospel in almost every major city across the country, I have witnessed a pattern—a missional mishap. Over and over again, I have observed a tendency to plan, strategize and process ministry contexts from a comfortable distance. When this occurs, missional strategies are based on superficial factors (i.e. social behaviors) observed from afar, generalizations derived from socioeconomic categories, or perceptions of a community’s status as viewed by the dominant culture. When we strategize from a distance and based on generalizations, it almost always leads us to over-contextualize and/or under-contextualize our approach to ministry.
We are especially prone to over- or under-contextualize when we launch a new ministry or plant a new church in an area we consider particularly broken. Unsurprisingly, communities populated by the poor, the unemployed, immigrants, or other downtrodden people seem to attract this label of “broken” most naturally. We are quick to forget that all communities are marred by sin, and when we don’t question the assumptions that follow when we label a community broken, we dishonor the image of God in its people and miss the beauty of what he has already been doing there.
Why are assumptions mishaps waiting to happen? Our misperceptions about certain communities skew our vision and conceal the beauty of serving the hurting and the wronged. Yes! There is a distinct beauty in every community, and when we take the time to learn more than just demographic and socioeconomic categories, we can have a powerful encounter with God.
Jesus leaned in and focused on the least, the last and the lost when he ministered to the tax collector, the woman caught in adultery, the leper and the blind man. These examples reflect intentionality and missional focus, but even more important, they are a window into God’s imagination of the beauty that can be found among “sinners” and the marginalized. Jesus’s focus was always on the person beneath the outward manifestation of brokenness.
Terms like “unchurched” and “unreached” are softer labels than “broken,” but they mask the same kinds of misperceptions. They are still generalizations, and with generalizations come assumptions made from a distance. Again, Jesus gives us the perfect framework for making fruitful impact. Some have called his example “prophetic proximity.” Jesus entered the intimate space of the suffering. He began at the center of people’s suffering, not at a distance. Only after he drew close did he speak into their lives or address their needs. To follow Jesus’s example, we must learn to meet a community at the heart of its void and take a posture of humility, learning without labeling or leaning on generic demographic categories.
TERMS LIKE “UNCHURCHED” AND “UNREACHED” ARE SOFTER LABELS THAN “BROKEN,” BUT THEY MASK THE SAME KINDS OF MISPERCEPTIONS. ONLY AFTER JESUS DREW CLOSE TO PEOPLE DID HE SPEAK INTO THEIR LIVES OR ADDRESS THEIR NEEDS.
The culture of a community is more than data. Missional mishaps that lead with assumptions about entire people groups have contributed to the polarized world we live in today. The scriptures all point to the transformative work of the gospel taking place in intimate proximity, face to face, person to person. It’s only in that proximity that we can learn the depth, beauty and darkness of any culture. It’s then that transformation can happen through the beloved community, liberty can infect and kill slavery, and communities can be overwhelmed by the power of the risen Son.
The missional church planter must be willing to enter and engage the intimate space of the other. Here are some helpful indicators that you are coming with this costly but essential posture:
You don’t trust the data, stats or the social characteristics of a community as your primary source.
You learn the language of the indigenous by listening to their lament in intimate proximity. Discomfort will creep in to dissuade you, but we have been called to die to self daily.
You engage with humility. Christ’s strength is evident in your visible weakness.
You empathize. You sit with the people of the community in their spaces. Nothing speaks more to authentic community than someone who is willing to experience life with you. You wipe away their tears. You find that you, too, are being transformed by the power of the gospel.
Church planter, I challenge you to get close enough to listen, to learn from the other, and to engage the culture and contextualize the gospel in intimate and prophetic proximity. You may ask, ”How will I know if I am successful?” Regardless of your failed attempts or feeble successes, Jesus will be the Hero. Him Crucified, Him Resurrected, Him Glorified, and Him Coming Again.