Cabramatta Vineyard Church

Renovate? Or knock down/rebuild?

Our house doesn’t work. We bought it when we moved to Cabramatta to plant a church. Ten years on, we have two growing boys and the house is too small and poorly designed for our purposes. It just doesn’t work.

First, we planned to renovate. Plans for a two-storey addition were approved. Then our builder bailed out. No other builder would take on the job. The cost was prohibitive. And the idea of living in a house under construction just to add some new rooms to an outdated poorly designed house was unappealing.

So, we moved out. We are knocking it down and building a new one. Owner-builder. Scary.

Funny how family life parallels church life. A few years ago I realized that church wasn’t working.

I started to renovate. Then I realized that the old design is hard to renovate. The model of church I was using was designed for a different world. It doesn’t work in our context. Better to demolish and build something new.

Church not working

I followed the Vineyard template. Did the five-year plan: Gather a team. Start a meeting – intimate worship, good bible teaching and powerful ministry times. Reach out into the community. Start serving the poor (lots of them around). Grow small groups. Add staff…

It is a good plan. It has served the movement well around the world.

But it wasn’t working.

It looked okay on the outside. Christians who came church-shopping were always impressed (‘If only you didn’t meet in Cabramatta!’). But we were not impacting our community in any appreciable way.

I tidied up the house. Put everything in its right place. Excellent worship team. Good kids program. Great expository preaching. A strong sense of the presence and power of God. Our own cosy venue, right in the heart of town. Everyone in a small group.

Every Sunday morning, we put on a show to entertain the saints. It’s not what I intended to do. I meant to make disciples who hear and do what Jesus said. But in reality, many in my congregation came to church for what they got out of it – great worship, clear expository bible teaching, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, time to hang with their friends.

Alan Roxburgh says that Western culture has formed the church into a vendor of religious goods and services. People shop around until they find a brand that suits their needs. If the pastor starts to take the book seriously and call his people to radical obedience, he might lose some of his customers (sorry, church members).

We were reasonably successful using Sunday morning worship meetings/ midweek small groups to challenge people to become disciples of Jesus who hear and do. We were pretty good at equipping people with ministry skills. But suburban people are very busy. Even committed religious shoppers will only give the church 2-3 goes each week – a few hours on Sunday; a few hours one night midweek; maybe one other time. I spent nearly all of this time forming them into followers of Jesus and equipping them with ministry skills (which they then used to service the ‘needs’ of those who still see the church as a vendor of religious goods and services). There was no time left over for the mission.

Problems for a ministry-focussed church

Looking back, I see a number of problems with this way of doing church.

Firstly, God’s mission, the main task that Jesus left with his church, is usually not on the radar screen. If it is, it tends to be seen as something that happens overseas, done by small teams on a two-week trip or by trained professionals who are much more dedicated than ordinary Christians. There may be a ‘missions’ department, but their task is usually raising money and awareness to support the professionals.

Mission has been outsourced. Most Christians don’t realise that God’s mission is connected to their real lives and he invites them to join him in it. In fact, the reason Jesus saved them is so that they can join him on his mission.

Secondly, pastors and leaders tend to get trapped in the machine. Their task is serving the needs of the congregation – providing the religious goods and services that attract new customers and retain existing ones. Of course, most pastors hold hopes of turning some of their customers into real disciples, but this is a challenging task – what you attract people with, you attract them to. The ministry-focussed church tends to breed consumer Christians who come to get their needs met.

Third, pastors, leaders and key people are too busy to engage personally in mission. If I want my congregation to be a missional community, I have to become a missional leader. That means devoting a big chunk of my time to missional engagement in my local community. Two problems here: I’m on the church payroll, so I no longer have much contact with unsaved people (I could talk to my neighbours, but I’m too busy); and I have all these congregational expectations about being a provider of religious goods and services to my clients.

But if I’m not doing mission myself, why should I expect that my people will do it?

Fourth, the people of God are busy going to meetings, thinking that this is what God requires of them. They’ve heard that if they put their trust in Jesus, their sins will be forgiven and they’ll go to heaven when they die. And they do. But what happens for the rest of life? Dallas Willard says this makes the church into a warehouse for saints who are waiting around till they die and go to heaven. Churches provide the entertainment while they wait.

And this brings us to the most serious problem of all.

Most Western people who aren’t Christians are not interested in the religious goods and services we provide. Fewer and fewer people are attracted by our meetings and programs.

Now, some churches, mostly large Pentecostal churches like Hillsong, Paradise and Gateway, are quite effective at attracting new people, especially young people. However, even these churches only attract from a portion of their communities, probably less that twenty percent. All of the churches in a given area compete for this shrinking portion.

Meanwhile, a growing percentage of the population will not be attracted by anything we do – they are beyond the reach of a ‘come to us’ church.

Is there another way to do church? Can the Western church reach the growing number of unchurched people who will never come to our meetings?

The Mission-shaped Church

You may have guessed that I’m no fan of the ‘come to us’ approach to church. This is partly pragmatic – it doesn’t work in my incredibly diverse context – and partly theological. The ‘come to us’ approach is simply not what the book tells us to do.

The New Testament is quite clear that the mandate of the church begins with the imperative, “Go!” You may also notice that the promise of God’s presence and power is also connected to the command to go (Matthew 28.20; Acts 1.8).

Somehow, we have to reverse the direction of ministry from ‘Come’ to ‘Go’.

A missional church recognises that the people of God are a ‘sent people’. We have been commissioned to join the mission that Jesus began and then entrusted to his disciples, and through them, to us.

“Mission is not merely an activity of the church. It is the very heartbeat and work of God … The missional church … is a sent church. It is a going church, a movement of God through his people, sent to bring healing to a broken world”, write Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch.

Which came first, the mission or the church?

Many Christians may be surprised to discover that mission precedes church. Christ commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples. Mission comes first. Jesus called his first disciples and trained them to do his mission.

Our understanding and practice of church (the technical term is ecclesiology) should grow out of our practice of mission, which is grounded in Christology. In other words, the order is:

Christ — Mission — Church

We begin with Christ and his commission (“Go! Make disciples of all nations”). The task is not ‘plant churches’, but ‘make disciples’. The method is mission. The church is formed out of the mission for the mission.

Faithful followers of Jesus enter a community with the good news of God. When people receive the good news, a believing community is formed. Mission produces the church. The church is the product and result of the mission.

The church is also intended to be the main agent of the mission. Mission is the main business of the church. Jesus saves us so that we can join him on his mission.

However, for most of us, this is not how we encounter or perceive mission. Most of us were saved into an existing church and conclude from our experience that church has priority – mission is a subset of church.

In fact, within Christendom, it is possible to be a ‘Christian’ for a lifetime and never engage in mission. Many Christians lose significant contact with non-Christians after a few of years. Their lives revolve around church.

The Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, hardly ever refer to mission because they believed the Great Commission had been completed. They lived in ‘Christian societies’.

Such is no longer the case.

Yesterday, I opened a letter from the senior pastor of a large, prosperous church in another city inviting me to attend their annual conference. He writes, “I have a passion for the church in Australia to grow, multiply, reproduce [all good so far!] and take its place as the most influential body in every town, city and state across our land…” [Warning! Warning Will Robinson!]. Sounds like a church trying to maintain its place at the centre of society – Christendom. It’s a hopeless quest. And unnecessary.

How should the church influence a town, city or state? Jesus used two metaphors – salt, light. He operated from the margins of society, not the centre. As we follow him, we should be content to do the same.

Organising around mission

Before we demolished our house, I spent a few weeks salvaging stuff from the wreck of the old house – windows, doors, hot-water system, guttering, hardwood beams and rafters. Some will be re-used in our new place. Others I gave away to friends and neighbours.

A lot of stuff went straight to the tip.

What about church? If we knockdown and rebuild, what should be salvaged and reused and what should go to the tip?

Missional churches organise around mission. Alan Hirsch suggested this to me. He said, ‘Make mission your organising principle for discipleship, not ministry.’

So we gave it a go. At Cabramatta, we rebuilt church around the practice of mission. When deciding which things to recycle and which things to throw away, the question we asked is, ‘Does this add to or take away from mission?’

We have run this rule over all of church life. Over three years, we examined every facet of church life and modified it or demolished it according to its usefulness in making disciples who participate in the mission of Jesus in Cabramatta and the world.

In The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch argue that the transition from ministry-focussed to mission-focussed church involves correcting three key mistakes made by Christendom-mode churches, which are attractional, dualistic and hierarchical.

The missional church is incarnational, rather than attractional. “It will leave its own religious zones and live comfortably with non-churchgoers, seeping into the host culture like salt and light.”

The missional church will not divide life between sacred and secular (this is called duality). Rather, it embraces a messianic spirituality, looking for the ways in which God is already at work within the host culture and joining him in it.

The missional church will shun hierarchical, top-down methods of leadership, weighted towards the pastor/teacher, in favour of a flatter, apostolic mode of leadership that unleashes the people of God into his mission.

An Emerging Missional Australian Vineyard

Several months ago, the AVCA board released a statement that God is calling us to become ‘an emerging, missional, Australian Vineyard’. What will this look like?

Does it mean you should knockdown your house and build a new one the way I did? Of course not. That would be foolish. You should obey what Jesus tells you to do. But this will include doing justice to the ‘Go, make disciples’ bit.

Different churches will respond in unique ways.

Here are some possibilities.

If your house works fine, why knock it down? Have you found a reliable way of reproducing disciples of Jesus who follow him into his mission, doing the things that he did? If so, keep doing what you are doing.

However, like me, you may have found cracks in the foundations of the house that you built. Maybe it doesn’t work so well anymore. You feel like a shopkeeper. What to do?

If it’s a large house (we don’t have many in the Australian Vineyard) proceed with caution. We transitioned a small church, starting with about seventy people, who were already familiar with the missional paradigm. It’s been hard work. I don’t know if you could do it with a larger group without lots of casualties.

Ask yourself, ‘Is my journey a personal one or a corporate one?

In other words, is Jesus leading you into a new way of doing church but not the people you lead? If so, leave gracefully and find a new block to build on.

Or is he calling you to lead the whole church through into a new land? If so, move slowly. Start reading about change management. Talk to someone who has done it. Think about getting yourself a good coach. Did I say move slowly?

Another possibility is an ‘extension’. Add some rooms for a missional experiment. Find two or three people who are attracted to the missional approach. Train them in mission and the missional paradigm then let them give it a try.

Don’t make a big fuss. Begin in the harvest. See if you can win some people to Jesus, but instead of extracting them from their group and adding them to your existing congregation (where you teach them to be consumer Christians), plant the gospel seed in the group where you found them and let it take root. Cultivate the plant that grows.

If you lead a small church or church plant or you’re thinking of starting something new, the missional track is the way to go. My guess is that lots of churches in your area already do the attractional thing. Ask Jesus how to target the eighty per cent or more who aren’t interested in coming to your meetings or programs.

Knockdown the attractional thing that you have. It consumes too many resources. Move into the harvest. Rebuild around mission.

Make mission your organising principle for discipleship.

It worked okay for Jesus.