Missional Church encouraged church leaders and authors to find new expressions of Christianity in North American congregations. As these expressions evolved they continued to aid Christian churches to engage community and culture. When Agape Church of Christ was planted, in downtown Portland, OR, the desire for a fresh expression of Christian community was influenced by the developing missional and incarnational theologies discussed at conferences, in publications, and through ministry with our community. After ten years we have found that missional/incarnational ministry offers shalom, formed through community partnerships and social justice among marginalized populations. This “missional theology” offers hope for congregations seeking to influence their cities with a message of Jesus. The missional theology I propose calls churches to (1) partner with local agencies, (2) empower disciples to serve the marginalized in their communities, and (3) reexamine current socio-cultural challenges using a biblical lens.
Following the publication of Darrell Guder’s Missional Church, church growth studies, publications, and teachings have found a new expression in North American Christianity. This book suggests that North American congregations should reevaluate their role in the community, culture, and mission. Missional Church provided a platform for discussions relating to the cultural worldviews shifting from modern to postmodern. Guder, George R. Hunsberger, Craig Van Gelder, Lois Barrett, Alan J. Roxburgh, and others spawned a renewed interest in ecclesial studies that continued with Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come, a book whose authors began to adopt incarnational/missional language. Frost continued to develop a practical model of an incarnational approach with congregations and leaders. Hirsch expanded his application through an “apostolic” leadership paradigm. For many of us in ministry discussing these books, Missional Church called for a new paradigm of church growth by emphasizing congregational involvement in the mission and ministry of God. Guder wrote:
We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. “Mission” means “sending,” and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God’s action in human history. . . . God’s mission continued then in the sending of the Spirit to call forth and empower the church as the witness to God’s good news in Jesus Christ. It continues today in the worldwide witness of churches in every culture to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it moves toward the promised consummation of God’s salvation in the eschaton.
According to Guder the church facing (and now experiencing) the twenty-first century needed to adopt a new view of people, culture, and evangelism. Christians were being called to engage in relationships with those outside the congregation rather than simply trying to “save them.” In Practicing Witness, Benjamin Conner defines Guder’s and Husberger’s foundational stones of missional theology as: (1) theological convictions regarding the missionary nature and initiative of God, (2) a belief that God’s call to the church is to participate in mission, and (3) the development of a missional theology as a way of thinking that animates every aspect of the church’s life.
Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs also suggest newer paradigms to ministry through their discussions of mega churches and emerging/emergent churches. North American congregations must address the realities of their struggle for preservation through the rapid loss of younger people and a feeling of driving toward possible “extinction.” While Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church movement reawakened ministry to reach those outside the local congregants, mega churches continued to grow through the charismatic and visionary leadership of men like Bill Hybels, Nelson Searcy, Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer, and others. As in the movie Jurassic Park, life finds a way to survive. One expression of this “survival” can be understood in how missional theology has been expressed in many nontraditional settings. Some churches in North America have found a way to survive through fresh expressions, a constant mission to engage their culture, and a desire to read the biblical text in new and robust ways.
Exile and Missional Theology
With the continued “decline” of North American church attendance, authors and speakers suggested that congregations were experiencing a “post-Christian” culture. As Dwight Friesen states, “The post-Christendom shift can, if we are wise, usher the church into a season of refocusing our energies on the primary mission that Jesus gave his followers: to form disciples of Christ.” Lee Beach writes that the North American Church is in exile and should reconnect with the biblical exilic texts to find direction and hope among both the congregation and the culture. Frost also suggests that exile should become an important model for missional congregations, as it provides a map to navigate the changing worldviews of those we have been called to reach: “The Christian movement must be the living, breathing promise to society that it is possible to live out the values of Christ—that is, to be a radical, troubling alternative to the power imbalances in the empire. In a world of greed and consumerism, the church ought to be a community of generosity and selflessness. In a host empire that is committed to marginalizing the poor, resisting the place of women, causing suffering to the disenfranchised, the Christian community must be generous to a fault, pursuant of justice, flushed with mercy.”
After twenty years of preaching/ministry in established congregations (rural and urban), my wife and I felt called to plant a new congregation in downtown Portland. As an adjunct instructor at both a seminary and Church of Christ Christian college, I had been reading much of the newer material on missional theology and the issues that those of us in ministry were facing with evangelism, a changing culture, and an exodus of young adults. I was beginning to “detox” from the traditional church growth teaching I received in graduate school. Preaching in a large congregation was a constant reminder that we were experiencing and pandering to what John Drane labels a McDonalization of Christianity. I was also aware that Christians in both leadership and congregations were failing to engage their culture. While it did seem as if many Christians felt that they were in a modern Babylon or Persia, it was even more clear that there was little being done to connect with their communities or offer a fresh view of Jesus. It seemed that we who were following Jesus were reacting to change rather than affecting it. As Miroslav Volf writes:
In the course of Christianity’s long history—full of remarkable achievements by its saints and thinkers, artist and builders, reformers and ordinary folks—the Christian faith has sometimes failed to live up to its own standards as a prophetic religion. Too often it neither mends the world nor helps human beings thrive. To the contrary, it seems to shatter things into pieces, to choke up what is new and beautiful before it has a chance to take root, to trample underfoot what is good and true. When this happens, faith is no longer a spring of fresh water helping good life to grow lushly, but a poisoned well, more harmful to those who drink its waters than any single vice could possibly be.
In many ways, as a minister and instructor, I realized Christians felt they were in a type of “exile.” While our exile may not have been as violent as the Babylonian captivity, we were a people striving to practice our faith in a culture that many times seemed foreign and hostile to Christianity. Having moved from rural Missouri to Portland in 1998, I had experienced a cultural shift as both a minister and member of my community. Even more, I witnessed the church’s struggles to connect with this difficult culture.
Jeremiah and Exile
One Biblical text supporting a missional theology is Jeremiah 29:4–14. In this text Yahweh’s prophet, Jeremiah, spoke to the Judeans in Babylon and encouraged them to settle in the city and serve the good of their host nation. “Build houses, dwell/settle, plant gardens, and eat the fruit. . . . Seek the shalom of the city where I have taken you into exile. Pray to Yahweh there, because if they have shalom, you have shalom.” Those in exile found hope through Yahweh’s command. The North American congregations experiencing feelings of exile can also find hope in exile through these prophetic words.
First, the text reminds those in exile that they have been placed within their community by Yahweh. While Yahweh did guide foreign armies to enact punishment and the divine will upon all ethnicities (especially the nations of Israel and Judah), God accepted responsibility by claiming to have “taken them to exile.” Although the nation as a whole had sinned, they struggled to accept this punishment. Current followers of Jesus may accept that they are living in a time in which we suffer for the sins of our fathers or our political leaders, yet Jeremiah 29:4–14 indicates that God was and is still in control.
Second, the text reminds the captives that the shalom (peace, justice, safety) of their communities also depends on them. They are not to live in opposition to all humans in exile but are to model loyalty, faithfulness, and peace in a world vastly different from their homeland. Likewise, as Beech suggests, modern exiles must view the shifting environment in North America as an opportunity to bring shalom through ministry, justice, vocation, and being good neighbors. As Beach writes:
It is almost universally agreed on that the church in the Western world is in decline. After having played a central role in the development of Western culture, the church now finds itself on the sidelines, wondering how it can make a valid contribution to society. My own perspective on this is rooted in my experience as a Christian and a church leader in Canada. While Canada has a distinct story in terms of its move into post-Christendom, and the Canadian church has its own story of marginalization as a result, the experience of responding to this reality may prove informative to Christians in other contexts, in particular the United States, who are “behind” Canada in terms of their cultural experience of exile but who are clearly moving in that direction.
Third, shalom means more than peace. It indicates God’s righteousness, peace, and wholeness. It involves social justice, freedom from oppression, peace, safety, and a sacred space. Shalom was practiced among the followers of Yahweh wherever they lived, and it extended outwardly toward Judah’s neighbors.
This verse is often used among the missional/incarnational/emerging/emergent/exilic church as a way to encourage members to engage their communities and bless, rather than curse, those who need to know Jesus. The missional understanding of Jeremiah 29:4–14 suggests that God continues to be active in our culture/communities and that Christians have a mission, like the incarnation of Jesus, to connect with and love our neighborhoods, cities, and country. We are called to be good, loyal, and loving citizens rather than those who withdraw and curse our communities.
While in exile, Judah retold the stories of heroes who developed relationships with political leaders while displaying faithfulness to Yahweh. The prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah continued to influence the people of God while maintaining relationships with leaders from their host country. Esther maintained her faith while being married to a pagan king. Ezra and Nehemiah served their king and were offered special rights in order to guide the Judean nation to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were not only men who stood loyal to Yahweh and their dietary and spiritual practices but also were active in the court and community. Even Daniel was able to have honest, blunt conversations with a king.
In exile God’s people rose up not only to uphold their faith but also to bless their pagan communities. Jeremiah 29:4–14 was both a promise spoken by a prophet and a mission to be embraced by faithful people. “When the stakes are high, as they are for captives on foreign soil, exiles will fall back on their most potent memories. These are the elemental stories that galvanize a people to action, that fill them with courage and provide them a framework for dealing with the issues of captivity.” This text has become an important mantra for the missional church as well as those of us at Agape Church of Christ.
Missional Theology, Exile, and Incarnational Ministry
A key component of missional theology involves congregations and Christian leaders living out and practicing mission in their communities. “North American Christian churches are increasingly marginalized, so much so that in our urban areas they represent a minority movement. It is by now a truism to speak of North America as a mission field. Our concern is the way that the Christian churches are responding to this challenge.” The Judeans in Babylonian exile were faced with the decision to either be loyal to Yahweh’s covenant or assimilate to a foreign culture by abandoning the faith of their fathers. The mission of Yahweh required followers to be a light to their new home and prepare for the return from captivity and inclusion of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God (Isa 60:1–5; Ezek 39:21–24).
A second component of missional theology is expressed through an incarnational approach to mission. Mission is not simply a program or ministry that supports foreign missionaries; it reflects the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus was God’s presence among those seeking relationship with the Father. In Jesus God lived, dwelt, and associated with those on the margins of life. Likewise God’s exiled people lived intentionally among people of “foreign lips” (1 Cor 14:21; Isa 28:11, 12).
Finally, missional theology included prophets offering the hope of a better future and shalom even in a pagan climate. The prophetic voice was not only the reflection of a suffering people, but the hope of those living on the margins of the empire. Prophets and priests led the restoration of the nation through a new hope, a vision for God’s restored people, and a renewed relationship with Yahweh and each other. Rather than withdrawing from our communities, the prophetic nature of exilic mission requires that we offer hope and a new reality that provides justice and love to a hurting world.
Practicing Missional Theology in Portland
As a minister who moved from the Midwest to Portland (in 1998), I spent eight years working with a large congregation. As we struggled to keep our focus on reaching out to marginalized populations, I found that the Northwest was much less receptive to Christianity, to me as a minister, and to the idea of attending or becoming part of a congregation. However, many of those we reached were, as were those in the Midwest, people who needed community, acceptance, and opportunity to transform their lives in an accepting and caring environment. Yet it was difficult trying to lead our established church to focus outwardly rather than upon themselves and upon their fears of our changing communities. It became clear to me that a new congregation, with a different focus, and a fresh perspective of the Gospel, would be necessary to develop relationships with a culture that was suspicious of organized practices of faith.
As Agape launched in 2007, we were faced with tremendous opportunities as well as hindrances to this new congregation and mission. The research from church planters in downtown Portland indicated that ninety percent of the church plants in the inner city either failed or moved. While this was the highest “unchurched” location in the city, new congregations had a hard time surviving. Furthermore, Portland, and the rest of the Northwest, has been traditionally known as a climate that is unchurched and critical of organized Christianity.
Finally, in 2007 Portland experienced the financial crisis along with the rest of the country, which increased housing costs. This left many individuals in debt or houseless. It also contributed to a rise in houselessness, poverty, and teen homelessness in Portland and the surrounding areas. For a new church needing financial support, leadership, and people, these socioeconomic changes made the first years of our new ministry especially challenging. We knew that in order to survive we needed help from our community. We also knew that our struggles as a church were similar to what our community faced.
Theological Praxis, Incarnation, and Prophetic Vision
After launching Agape, we became intimately involved with local agencies through our work with houseless individuals, with those living in transitional housing and camps, with those in prostitution/sex industry, with addiction support groups, with survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), with college students, with millennials, and with married couples. By developing relational communities, Agape’s home groups became public gathering spaces for people from various locations in Portland. These home groups enabled others to develop relationships and offer services to their own community through spiritual gatherings and inclusive communities. This comunitas (a community that gathers in the context of a shared ordeal or mission that lies beyond themselves) for captives became a pattern with Agape people serving their neighbors.
Communitas, Violence, and Agape
During 2007–2010 our home groups and ministry fueled the development of a theology that addresses power, agape love, social justice, and the incarnation. The permanent reality/worldview that Jesus offers is agape/love. Agape, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians, is the mature and complete manifestation of love that needed to be cultivated within congregations and extended to the poor, vulnerable, and those needing relationship. Likewise, this love is needed in the American/consumeristic empire. North American culture often promotes a violent masculinity and oppression toward vulnerable others. However, the empire of Jesus demonstrates mature love where masculinity is viewed through the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than through power and control. The Greek word agape in the Christian Scriptures implies spiritual maturity, and, when this mature love is practiced within a community, it has the ability to guide people toward emotional and spiritual health. Providing acceptance, transformation, and healing is a witness that expresses agape/spiritual maturity to the community.
During our first few years at Agape, interns were trained by county IPV agencies and began to serve on committees, to hold leadership positions within organizations, and to partner with service providers. We also became a resource for local, county, state, and national agencies by developing a faith-based model to address IPV and other forms of violence. Since 1998 we have had over 3,000 individuals attend our IPV trainings with only 1–3% being clergy. We are hired by local, county, and state agencies to train their advocates, and most of our work is embraced by non-clergy or non-faith-based advocates. In this work we have had to confront the faith community’s lack of involvement and, in some cases, oppression or abuse of others within their congregations. We have also continued to expand the definition of “misogyny” (a major emphasis from feminism) from only male/female relationships to intra-male, gendered violence, and houselessness.
Captives, Marginalized People, and the God of Second Chances
In 2011–2016 Agape began to plant new congregations by practicing incarnational ministry among those on the margins of our community. We experienced similarities between exile, displacement, trauma, and houselessness through our ministry in Portland. Agape members, many having experienced homelessness and various addictions, expressed emotional and physical connections to the Judean exile. My work with the Society of Biblical Literature Psychology and Bible section also found connections between trauma studies, exilic communities, and forced migrations. At Agape we continued to bridge this work with the academic community and our ministry experiences. This provided connections through the Biblical text, psychology of trauma and exile, and our current ministry. The need for hope, shalom, and restoration resonated through the text, my colleagues, and those seeking healing in our community.
We also, unexpectedly, had to address deep sin issues with core team couples and call for healing. After three couples left we continued to address sexual sin within the congregation. Additionally, we began two new congregations and sent another couple to serve a local struggling congregation as ministers. One of the church plants has celebrated their fifth year as a congregation. The church is growing and has a thriving Celebrate Recovery ministry. Even though we sent many families during this time, Agape continued to grow.
Later we expanded “marginalized” from geographical captives to socially marginalized individuals. The intersection of the themes of social justice, of “feminizing” those on the margins, of cultural masculinity, and of missional/incarnational theology were discussed within the academic sessions of the SBL/AAR and within community agencies. Agape has continued not only to hold a place at the community table for social justice, activism, and anti-oppression but also to be a place of inclusion for various individuals. We have men and women who are activists, houseless, and abuse survivors who hold volunteer leadership positions in Portland, offer acceptance and relationship at various levels in the community, and meet with and train law enforcement. We have also trained ministers, graduate and doctoral dissertation students, and church planters to engage the community by helping with recovery from IPV, misogyny, and addiction.
Our relationships with those marginalized in Portland have become theologically driven. Understanding Jesus as homeless, Paul as a trauma survivor, and the exilic captives as living through Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and assault offers exciting opportunities to engage people who live on the margins of our community. Those who have felt excluded by many of our churches/congregations due to income, trauma, or addictions have also found opportunities to read the biblical text through the lens of trauma and suffering. Likewise my students and our people at Agape feel empowered to use the biblical narrative with those needing hope and support.
New Expressions of Missional Theology in Portland
Providing ministry to Portland and our community continues to challenge us to evolve. By redefining masculinity, misogyny, houselessness and poverty, racism, social justice, and incarnational ministry we have found an interesting niche in our community. This ministry allows us not only to partner with our community but also to lead others in reframing their view of faith practices and social justice. First, redefining these issues through a theological lens offers multiple connections with community advocates, most of whom are frustrated with “organized religion.” Our beginning work with PUAH (Portland United Against Hate) has indicated that some of the group members perceive those who profess Christianity as the authors of many hate crimes and attacks on the LGBTQ community. Law enforcement, houseless advocates, and community trafficking/prostitution agencies strongly believe that faith communities need to partner with them in addressing social justice, but they indicate to us that they are concerned our presence will further add to the problems of providing safety and support for victims and accountability for male offenders. As many of my colleagues in our Regional SBL/AAR struggle between academy and the congregation, my role to bridge these two worlds continues to require a blending of text and practice. We believe that we are called to develop relationships with those in our local agencies through our ministry and expressing agape love, while restoring a positive view of Christians and the God of the Bible. Missional theology provides opportunities to heal open wounds from those hurt by people of faith. It also offers resources to those seeking to send their faith-based clients to a safe and sacred community. In addition to this, we have the opportunity to guide other faith-based groups to better serve those in their congregations and community. We have also been able to work with anti-trafficking agencies and anti-prostitution groups by addressing cultural masculinity and its role in the sex industry and in the oppression of women, children, males, and transgendered youth. The God of mission continues to call Agape to partner with our community as leaders and with other leaders to offer a vision of hope, justice, and shalom.
Second, the missional/incarnational emphasis at Agape offers shalom/agape as an alternative to a culture of power, consumerism, and competition. This, according to Paul, provides hope for a reality that is permanent (agape) as opposed to that which is temporary and promises much but delivers little. In a consumeristic culture this missional/incarnational view of reality challenges the Church to pursue mission rather than targeting people groups alone. Even though many may leave our congregations, missional theology requires that we continue to focus on the mission of Christ, whether or not that is attractive to those in the community. Our partnership with The Village Coalition, a group of service providers and formerly houseless individuals seeking to provide shelter for those on the streets, continues to develop homeless communities and provide pastoral care, outreach, and support to those camping on the streets as well as the neighbors surrounding them. We have also begun to work with the Coalition to mentor those in the houseless communities to become community leaders and begin new homeless camps.
Finally, as we transition to 2018, the tensions between Jesus and idols or between faith and fear are becoming a reality. Jesus continues to intervene in a world that struggles to worship idols rather than God. I have found that fear and anxiety continue to be a major issue in our culture and among many of the individuals we reach. There seems to be a strong correlation between idolatry and fear/anxiety. However, God calls for faith and love in an intimate relationship with the Creator and within the community. Our continued work with socially marginalized individuals and communities not only drives us back to the text to seek support and healing, but it offers a safe space to engage those who have felt abandoned by God/Jesus or their congregations. As a congregation, we embrace the opportunity to partner with local and state agencies by proclaiming peace in communities struggling with fear and anxiety.
Agape Church of Christ was planted with a missional view of ministry, and we are now celebrating our ten year anniversary. Over time we, along with many other congregations, have tried to redefine mission as incarnational, emerging within culture, and exilic in nature. The gospel of Jesus is powerful when developing and growing among people and when confronting empires lacking in agape love. This agape provides healing, empowerment, and transformation to those seeking to follow Jesus. Mission can evolve in a healthier manner when churches partner with local agencies, empower members to serve and lead within their communities, and redefine cultural issues, justice, and wholeness. As this missional theology continues to evolve, we eagerly move forward, excited to witness the work of Jesus and his empire through congregations and within community agencies in the decades to come.
Ron Clark is the minister for the Agape Church of Christ in Portland. Agape is a church, planted through the Kairos network, that reaches marginalized populations and collaborates with abuse, homeless, and trafficking agencies to offer safety and healing for survivors. Ron received his DMin and MDiv from Harding School of Theology and has been in ministry for over 30 years. He has recently written Jesus Unleashed and The Spirit of Jesus Unleashed on the Church (Wipf & Stock, 2016). He is an adjunct instructor and dissertation advisor at Portland Seminary, and is co-chair of the Pacific Northwest SBL’s New Testament section. Ron has served on agencies such as the Oregon’s Sexual Assault Task Force, Village Coalition, and Portland United Against Hate. He and his wife Lori have been married 30 years and have 3 sons.