Focus on the Frontline

Suppose on Sunday you were to ask ten people, “Who serves at the frontline in our church?”

Chances are that several would say the frontline people are the pastor and those in on the elder board or leadership group. If you heard that response, would you catch the hidden assumption behind it—that the frontline lies within the gathered church? No, says Neil Hudson, in Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples. He sees the church’s frontlines in those locations into which it scatters.

Your Frontline: Where You Live

He explains, “By the term ‘frontline’, we mean the place where we realize God’s calling to engage with non-Christians in mission. Of course, we are called to be missional in all of life, and called to grow in godliness wherever we are, but usually there’s a particular place or group of people that we sense God is guiding us to bless and reach out to. They are often in the place where we spend most of our time—school, work, neighbourhood, a gym, a club.”

While “frontline” shows up repeatedly in his book, Hudson uses the term “whole-life” even more. Most often whole-life modifies disciples or discipleship. Hudson says, “Whole-life discipleship intends to mean what it says: there is no area of a Christian’s life that Jesus does not have ownership of, and there is no part of their life that he does not want to use for his glory.”

The Imagine Project

Hudson serves on the Imagine Project with The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC). In that role, he led a three-year project involving 17 churches in a study of “how church communities might learn to engage in the central task of whole-life disciple-making.” The project involved hundreds of Christians and church leaders. In his book, Hudson aims to show how a church can be transformed into one that produces whole-life disciples—people equipped to carry out Jesus’s mission in whatever setting they scatter into on weekdays.

But he notes, “whole-life disciple-making churches are in fact rather rare.”

Shifting Paradigms

In Chapter One, Hudson admits how difficult he himself had found the challenge to move toward whole-life discipling. As a pastor, he heard LICC’s Mark Greene argue for abolishing the sacred-secular dualism that has thwarted the church’s mission for so long. Greene’s urging to make whole-life disciples left Hudson feeling “indignant. I wanted to defend my past sixteen years in church leadership” But deeper down, he knew Greene had spoken truth.

Hudson went home and tested what he had heard in a church-wide prayer meeting. He asked three Christians to tell what they were going through regarding work. One was unemployed, one enjoyed his work, and one had just begun a job. Hudson asked them to explain what God was teaching each of them about him and themselves. He had posted four signs in the meeting room: “I love my job,” “I’d like a new job,” I wish I still worked,” and “I need to know what to do next.” Each one present in the meeting gathered around the sign that best fit their situation. Then those in the four groups discussed their circumstances and prayed for each other.

That prayer meeting, Hudson says, “triggered something in me.” Fast-forward to the three-year project. In his book, Hudson includes reports from pastors whose churches had taken part in it. For example, this pastor described the transformation that took place in his own church culture:

“What’s changed? Everything has changed, and the biggest change has been in me. I’ve had to change the most. For many years we have been an ‘attractional’ church. The central focus was on getting people into the church building. And over the years we’d done this well, filling the church building and putting on great services. But gradually we began to realize there was a disconnect between what was happening in the building on a Sunday and what was happening in people’s lives during the week. It was as though once we left the building, the really important business was over. I needed to be reminded that for the church members, it was just beginning.”

Five Challenges

Hudson knows transforming a church’s culture to one of whole-life disciple-making is not easy. He names five challenges:

1. “The challenge of people recognizing that this is what being a Christian means. . . . Many have little imagination to embrace the possibility that God would be able to use them in their everyday life for his purposes, or that God would engage in shaping their lives through mundane activities.”

2. “The challenge of the inward pull of the gathered church. . . . People easily begin to feel that the important spiritual activities take place in the midst of the gathered congregation, and that to be caught up in activities away from this community is to be dominated by ‘secular’ concerns which are, by definition, things that are outside the orbit of God’s dynamic interest.”

3. “The challenge to the role of leaders. . . . A primary component of the role of leaders is to help equip the people of God for their ministry. . . . Success will be marked by the number of people who have embraced their own frontlines as their arenas for ministry and are living fruitfully there.”

4. “The challenge of sustaining change. . . . It’s one thing to begin to address an issue; it’s another to keep going until whole-life thinking becomes a natural and self-sustaining response. . . . You must ensure that the vision of the Lordship of Christ over the universe and the church is presented continuously, so that people never unwittingly retreat to a personalized therapeutic form of Christianity.”

5. “The challenge of spiritual resistance. . . . A desire to release the people of God to serve him well will attract the attention of the enemy. . . . Os Guinness’s warning about our activities being privately engaging but publicly irrelevant would seem to be the perfect solution to the enemy of God’s people.”

Asking Some Bold Questions

In light of these challenges, Hudson recommends making “one-degree shifts.” As the well-worn proverb has it, “Rome was not built in a day.” But making long-term changes in the culture of a church to one of whole-life disciple-making should include asking some uncomfortable “why” questions. For example:

“Why do we sing so much?”
“Why does one person get to speak uninterruptedly for twenty to thirty minutes?”
“Why do we hear so little about everyday life in church?”
“Why do the songs we sing seem so disconnected from our time and place?”
“Why do people who are under stress in their everyday lives feel as though there’s nowhere they can talk about it in church circles?”

Jesus sends his followers into the world as light, salt, and seed. Every metaphor points to something that must be scattered to carry out its purpose. Only as we prepare whole-life disciples for their dispersed roles as 24-7 agents King Jesus will they glow in the dark, retard decay, and produce fruit that lets the world taste samples of the Kingdom yet to come.

Would Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples make a first-rate Christmas gift for the leaders in your church?

Seeing the Church in Both Its Modes

The benediction ended minutes ago. The last car has just pulled out of the parking lot. At this point, where is the church? Thirty minutes ago, most could have said exactly where the church was: they were in it. But now, this family heads home, that salesperson drives to the airport, and a twenty-something clocks in at Starbucks. Where is the church now? Does the Body of Christ go into suspended animation until next Sunday?

Where is the Church Between Sundays?

Neil Hudson, Imagine Project Director, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

Unfortunately, our vocabulary fogs the answers to these questions. Centuries of tradition have trained us to apply the word church to a building. It is to the building that we drive or walk to “go to church.” Once inside, we are “in church.” But such terms do not clarify what happens to the church when we disperse. Since we are no longer together in the church building, are we then out of the church?

The experience of the Church in Acts 8 offers a word that can help us think all this through. Persecution ignited by the stoning of Stephen slammed against the Jerusalem church. As a result, “all except the apostles were scattered. . . . Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4). So, the church, once gathered, had now scattered. Still the same people (minus the apostles). Still, therefore, the same church. Still doing the work of the church. But now, telescoping outward, operating in its extended form.

So, the church functions in two modes: gathered and scattered. If your weekend meeting typically runs 75 to 90 minutes, the church appears in that gathered mode less than one percent of the 10,080-minute week. Even if you add in, say, another two hours per week for participation in small groups, gathering still accounts for only two percent of the time. So, between 98 and 99 percent of the time, the church lives and works in its scattered mode.

We are Kingdom Seeds

Scattered, in Acts 8, translates a word related to the Greek diaspora. It means to sow, as in scattering seed across a field. In one of Jesus’s parables, the seed means God’s word. But in another parable, the seed stands for God’s people. Jesus reveals that he sows the “people of the kingdom,” as “good seed,” throughout the world-field (Matt. 13:37, 38, NLT).

In the Old Testament diaspora (dispersion), God scattered Daniel and his friends into a workplace right inside the idolatrous core of the Babylonian government. In that pagan context, they sprouted, took root, grew, and bore fruit for God. Today, in addition to knowing ourselves as priests, we Christians need to see ourselves as seeds—life-carrying cells flung into the soil of the world to carry out God’s agenda where we live, work, and play. God has so arranged life in his Church that it does most of its work not in its gathered but in its scattered form.

Literal seeds, like Christians, need to be both gathered and scattered. After harvest, corn or wheat grains go to a seed company. There, the gathered seeds may be fortified to make each one more productive when it is scattered. For example, some seeds get treated with a fungicide to protect them from damping off or root rot. Bathing seeds in insecticides can safeguard them from harmful pests. Others may be coated with fertilizer to spur growth once they sprout in the ground. These seeds need this together-time. But the real reason for the gathering is to prepare the seeds to produce fruit when scattered.

Seed Preparation

In a similar way, the tiny fraction of time spent in our gatherings as Christians should prepare us for the far larger amount of time we will spend as the church in its scattered mode. In gathered-church meetings, we need to hear from those gifted and qualified to preach and teach. But we must also hear from those who can tell how they are seeing God act in every phase of scattered-church life. In most cases, a pastor serving full time on a church payroll has little or no experience with what confronts people in, say, the ethical dilemmas of a contemporary workplace. This lack of work-world contact poses no problem if the meeting format of the gathered church provides opportunities for others to voice reports from the scattered church. How has God been moving in this spiritually dark workplace, that conflict-torn neighborhood, or those alienated families?

Sadly, church life in the gathered mode can become addictive. The camaraderie and closeness, fellowship and friendship we experience when together feels far safer than the abrasive, dog-eat-dog world we often face in scattered-church mode. Yes, assembling together is vital. But danger develops when we begin to act as if gathered-church is the goal, the only form of church that matters.

Why Gather?

To counter that notion, we need to keep asking ourselves: Why do we gather? According to the New Testament, we do so to encourage, spur on, build up, equip, and strengthen each other for the mission of God outside the meeting place. In boot camp, NASA astronauts spend time together in training. But everything they do in this gathered mode aims at equipping them for their mission “out there.” The hands-on experience of those who have actually lived in space becomes an important part of preparing other astronauts for what they will face in zero-gravity conditions.

The scattered church not only has a mission, it is itself a mission. During their time in the gathered church, Christians who will spend most of their week “out there” need to benefit from hearing reports from others who have “been there, done that.” In our roles as scattered seeds, the world’s soil will confront us with spiritual counterparts of pests, fungi, viruses, and weeds. Over and again, we must hear others tell fresh stories of how God came to their rescue when these forces threatened to make them unproductive.

The small fraction of time we spend in the gathered church is precious. For the sake of God’s mission in the world, let’s make the best use of that time.