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Youth Outreach and Missional Ecclesiology: Listening to Those at the Church’s Boundaries

Author: Steven Hovater
Published: Summer–Fall 2017

MD 8.2

Article Type: Conference Article

The practice of listening to people with whom the church is missionally engaged is a valuable missional practice. This article presents a case study of such listening in the context of the church of Christ at Cedar Lane in Tullahoma, Tennessee, outlining findings of a set of interviews with teenagers involved in the church’s outreach program to children and youth. The article interprets these findings through a lens of missional theology.

A Young Theologian

Danielle, a church member at Cedar Lane, told a story about Amanda, a participant in the church’s youth outreach program. Amanda came into the office where Danielle works, talking with a friend. Danielle overheard Amanda say, “You should come to my church—Cedar Lane.” It is the kind of thing you expect a twelve-year old to flippantly say to a friend. But I have often wondered about that story. What exactly does Amanda mean when she calls Cedar Lane her church? This is a girl who, despite being an “outsider,” has a way of thinking about the nature of the church, its mission, and her own relationship to a particular church. She has an ecclesiology.

Christians commonly understand their own experiences as a source of theological reflection. In this paper, I explore how the experiences of outsiders,1 specifically a group of young people, can also contribute to the church’s ecclesiology, providing insight we would not have access to without their perspective. The assumption of the congregation is that Amanda and her friends need to be taught by the church, and this is true—but it is not the only truth. The church also needs to be taught, and these young outsiders provide a unique opportunity for the church’s formation. This paper explores what these young people might have to teach the church by presenting findings of a study in which seventeen of the youth participated in semi-structured interviews about their understanding of the church and their experiences with it.

A Missional Turn and the Emergence of a Youth Outreach Ministry

Cedar Lane is a medium-sized church in Tullahoma, Tennessee.2 Like many rural communities, Tullahoma is comprised of two economic worlds with the poorer class of the city largely unseen by the professional class, who live on the other side of a social and economic gulf. This gulf has been reflected in the church—at least in the case of Cedar Lane. While performing acts of service, the church remained disconnected from its poor neighbors relationally. In the opening decade of this century, the church set out on a course toward bridging that divide.

Via a series of experiences and through the influence of missionally minded persons, Cedar Lane leaned toward a new trajectory informed by, if not conforming to, missional theology. Missional language began to show up in church classes, in conversations among the leadership, in the sorts of books members read. Disciples sought out missional practices. Cedar Lane took a missional turn—we were beginning to think and speak in the language of mission. That theological vocabulary found expression in an outreach ministry to children.

In the fall of 2009, an elementary teacher began bringing a few of her students to church on Wednesday nights. The kids began showing up with their friends, and soon the number swelled from under ten to over fifty. The ministry became an expression of the church’s evolving understanding of its mission. However, it also brought new challenges. The ministry’s rapid growth surprised church leaders and strained ministry structures.

Deeper questions and challenges also began to emerge. Assumptions about order and structure were challenged. The church wrestled with how its ministries prioritized internal constituents and had to explore structures and processes that benefited outsiders.3 The boundaries that marked the church’s own self-understanding began to appear more ambiguous than before, as children perceived as outsiders continued to be present over months and then years. The church has largely approached questions about its processes and practices internally, evaluating its own experience with tools it was familiar with: long-held theological values, deeply-felt experiences of members, and well-worn interpretations of Scripture. Missional theology has provided a useful framework for wrestling with these questions. In this next section, I will sketch the framework of missional theology with which I approached the current study.

Missional Theology

Since the publication of Missional Church in 1998, missional language has been appropriated for a range of approaches to ecclesiology.4 One contributor to that seminal work, Craig Van Gelder, later writing with Dwight Zscheile, warns: “Those seeking to draw on this language should be aware of how this lack of precision and integration may impact their use of the language as well as their choices and actions.”5 Cedar Lane has increasingly used the term “missional” over the past decade, but as Van Gelder and Zscheile note, what “missional” means in this congregational context must be defined. To that end, I contend “missional” denotes the convergence of a theological shift, a sociological recognition, and an evolution of ecclesial practices.

At the core of missional theology is a shift in thinking about God, the Church, and mission. Although there is a constellation of ideas involved in this theological shift, I will confine the summary here to two emphases: the agency of God in mission and the reign of God. In response to a perception of missionary work as an activity the church carried out, the missional church has pivoted toward a “theocentric” understanding of mission: “We have come to see that mission is not primarily an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”6 Thus, God is always at work bringing about God’s mission and sometimes in ways located outside the church’s activity or awareness. This suggests that the church might recognize God’s activity outside of itself but also elicits the great theological question: What is the mission of God?

In response, missional theologians commonly employ the language of the “reign of God” to describe God’s intent for creation and to connect it with the gospel of Jesus, a greater narrative arc within Scripture, and the identity of the church. The church is sent into the world as the servant and messenger for the kingdom of God and embodies the reign of God—though it is not the only embodiment as the God’s reign is manifest in surprising ways.7 The Church is both a foretaste of God’s kingdom and an agent of that community.8 Thus, mission is not simply an activity of the Church, but mission is a feature of its very nature.9 Mission is not confined to the pursuit of (distant) proselytes but is realized as life aligns with God’s will.

A second broad feature of the missional movement grows from an analysis of the social situation of the church in Western contexts, particularly in North America. The first paragraph of Missional Church signals this trajectory: “While modern missions have led to an expansion of world Christianity, Christianity in North America has moved (or been moved) away from its position of dominance as it has experienced the loss not only of numbers but of power and influence within society.”10 Various writers approach this claim with different emphases, often developing two themes: the loss of Christianity’s privileged status within society and a critique of the church’s engagement with the culture during Christendom.11

Third, missional writers propose a variety of ecclesial practices that embody their theology.12 Evaluating all of them is beyond the scope of this paper, however it will be helpful to consider a pair of these practices to demonstrate Cedar Lane’s relationship to the missional movement: incarnational ministry and hospitality.

An incarnational ministry is hinted at, though undeveloped, in Missional Church.13 This impulse found fuller expression in other works when paired with a foil, the attractional model of church, which brings outsiders into the church (or more accurately, into the church’s property) to receive ministry. Rather, an incarnational mode of ministry takes believers into the communities they serve and to which they bear witness. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw write: “As opposed to the attractional model of the modern church in America, where a church puts on worship services and expects people to come, the incarnational model challenges us to be a people who inhabit neighborhoods, go where the people are, live among them and listen to them. . . . From this incarnational perspective, we are called to minister and proclaim the gospel while following the Spirit in specific circumstances.”14 Perhaps in tension with the incarnational impulse, the missional movement also values hospitality, the practice of making space for strangers.15 The missional church practices hospitality at every level, from the home table to the Eucharist.16 Missional disciples value the one to whom hospitality is extended, not simply as a potential convert but as someone who offers a blessing of understanding to the church—someone whose experiences and insights may help shape the church’s own understandings.17 The stranger is received as someone in whom the church may see Christ.18 Hospitality is thus not simply a fruit of discipleship but a means of its furtherance.19

A missional understanding of hospitality also emphasizes receiving hospitality as well as extending it. The church welcome strangers into its midst, but missional disciples also look for opportunities to accept hospitality from the stranger.20 This vulnerable act of receiving hospitality “changes the missionary encounter” and creates the circumstance by which “the stranger and the church are mutually transformed in the engagement.”21

These missional nuances to the Christian practice of hospitality share the common thread of reciprocity. This is in part because of the missional church’s theological orientation, which both allows for the possibility of God’s activity in the neighbor and necessitates respect in accord with the trajectory of the justice of God’s kingdom, in which each person is recognized as an image-bearer of God. Reciprocity, in hospitality and in other practices, ensures theological formation not only flows from the center of the church toward the margins, but from the margins toward the center as well.22

Research Methodology and Findings

Given this threefold description of missionality, how can Cedar Lane further develop along such a trajectory, embracing an understanding of God as missional, learning to live in this new sociological reality, and embracing practices that lead to fuller engagement with God’s mission? I have asserted that one source of theological learning is from people such as those involved in Cedar Lane’s youth outreach ministry. To explore how they might provide insight into the nature of the church and further its missional trajectory, a study was undertaken in which seventeen students were invited to participate in a series of semi-structured interviews regarding their ecclesiology.23 Analysis revealed multiple themes among their perspectives, such as the importance of hospitality and a sense of belonging, the church’s role in the community, and insights into the way the church’s staff and volunteer structures worked. Here, I will focus on one, the identification of “Learning about God” as the primary purpose of the church.24

Nearly all participants shared the perspective expressed starkly by P525: “[God] put the church on the world so people could go and learn more about him.”26 Initially, I interpreted this as immature religious cliché and thought they were saying what they thought I would want to hear. However, my presumptions were overcome as participants leaned further into this perspective, expressing frustration with disruptions in teaching moments and their preferences for environments in which learning was taken seriously.27 The perspective was highlighted by participants in the way they used “learning” language and in the way they expressed their faith to others. For example, P4 relayed this as a part of his exchange with a friend: “Well, I heard from a friend that church is bad because all they do is go there and you just hear the other person talk about whatever, then I said, “No, man, that’s wrong because you should go to church and learn about God because God wants to be in your heart. He loves you no matter what.” As this theme emerged, I probed further by asking interviewees about the specific content they had learned and what had made a difference to their lives. Some participants struggled to describe the connection between what they were learning at church and the rest of their lives, while others described how their faith filled their thoughts and shaped the way they lived.

P11 and P13 both expressed finding a life of prayer, and P14 described remembering a song from church while at school and having a sense of peace. Others described moments of loss and grief where they gained peace from their knowledge of God, while some described how their ethical lives were being shaped by the things they learned, such as taking responsibility for their actions and persistently trying to do the right thing. These teens expressed a belief that their theology was having a transformative role in their lives.

Other participants voiced a sense of separation similar to that voiced by P12: “Well sometimes, whenever you go on a youth trip or something, you have an all-church world, and then when you come back to your town, then you come back to the normal world. Where there’s not that much church, and there’s a couple days during the week when you go.” P9 described this sense of separation in even starker terms: “Well, I’m going to have to be honest. Whenever it comes to being outside of church, I don’t really think about what God would do, about what God would say.” Such descriptions were painful for me to hear as a pastor. While Cedar Lane’s youth are absorbing information about God, a significant number of them struggle to connect their theology to the rest of their lives.

Interpretation and Implications

These insights from the margins of the church have the capacity to further develop Cedar Lane’s missional trajectory. As described above, the core of the missional movement is a theological shift, a sociological recognition, and an evolution of ecclesial practices. Even confining the implications to the primary finding of the interviews regarding theological education, we can see several implications from the inquiry.

A Theological Shift

The missional movement has had at its core the connection between theology and praxis. How we understand God matters for how we live out our faith in God, and how we understand God’s mission shapes our participation in that mission. This is consistent with understanding among participants in this study that the church is a place where people “learn about God.” This simple language of “learning” that I heard from participants has caused me to reflect on the church’s role in theological education; the church is indeed given as a means by which people learn about God. While that conviction requires nuance to mature into a fuller ecclesiology, it may have too easily been nuanced away. Why is that? Why do we prefer to think about the church in terms other than as a community of theological education? Perhaps we have lost a vision of the role of theology in transforming people. Indeed, one of the more troublesome parts of the interviews was the frequency with which participants struggled to connect what they learned about God and the rest of their lives. The church must teach a transformative theology connected to the whole of life.

A Sociological Recognition

These conversations also create new possibilities for the church’s changing cultural situation—the missional sociological recognition. Alan Roxburgh describes the church’s new situation as liminal, as the church has entered a new transitional place in the world and has been relocated nearer the margin of society.28 Accordingly, the adolescents I interviewed are important conversation partners for Cedar Lane not despite their liminality but because of it. Their experiences of marginalization—even those experiences which have lamentably occurred within the church—can provide a church which may find itself as increasingly marginalized with resources for what it means to live faithful on the boundaries of society. Roxburgh sees such listening to those on the margins as a vital path for churches who perceive their influence to be waning: “The only meaningful way forward lies in understanding and embracing our liminal existence. . . . The continued assumption of cultural symbols of power and success will only produce an inauthentic church with little gospel, much religion, and no mission. Liminality requires listening again to the voices emanating from below or outside the perceived mainstream.”29

This suggests the possibility that learning from those at the margins will help the church live at the margins, a possibility that strikes at an important piece of Christian spirituality: humility. Consider how Luke’s gospel treats pride and humility.30 Luke depicts humility as the virtue of vulnerable people on the margins, in contrast to the powerful. Jesus responds with the rhetoric of reversal and invites the powerful and vulnerable alike to participate in God’s community—although the proud are often unwilling to do so. The church must ask if a previous social position of power infected it with a similar prideful presumption of privilege. In contrast, the practice of mutual learning with those at the margins both demonstrates and cultivates humility.31 The prideful presumption that learning only flows one way must yield to the reality that even the most mature believers have something to learn, and it might be at the hand of those who have been too easily relegated to outsider status. Practices of mutual learning and solidarity with these marginalized members of our community can help the church learn and embrace the sort of humility required for the church in its decentered post-Christendom status.

Ecclesial Practices

The final facet of the missional movement described above was a particular set of ecclesial practices—specifically, incarnational ministry and hospitality. One valid critique of Cedar Lane’s outreach ministry has been its attractional model—drawing teens and children out of their communities “to the church.” The situation has shifted; there is now a set of disciples embedded within the neighborhood. However, that incarnational presence has taken an astonishing form—adolescent disciples of Jesus, seeking how to make sense of God in their context. The church is present in these disciples—not merely in the longer established church members who have relationships with them. The challenge is helping these students faithfully embody the reign of God.

Regarding hospitality, the church’s intentions have been to extend a welcome to these children, and advocates have often invoked the story of Jesus welcoming little children. However, we might note that Jesus not only teaches his disciples to welcome the children so that the children might be blessed but implores the disciples themselves to become like the children. Disciples have long mused over what quality of children Jesus is lauding in the story. But perhaps the story invites us to enter into conversation not only about children, but with them. Perhaps the church can take a posture of readiness to learn from the children that it has previously been satisfied to teach. Valuable learning may move both ways.

In a similar way, the presence of outsiders may not only reflect a movement in the mission of God in the direction from the church to the community. Rather, the movement may indeed move both directions. It may be that at those points where the church engages people at its boundaries, God works to shape the church through its community, so that the church may more fully embody the kingdom of God. In honoring this possibility, the distinction between outsiders and insiders begins to lose its divisive potency.

These young disciples do indeed offer the church insight by their presence and shared perspectives. Relationships continue to emerge as the church shares life together—young and old, those formerly known as outsiders and insiders together. As the church embraces the validity of each perspective and learns to listen in a spirit of mutuality, such relationships provoke the church to greater faithfulness and refine its trajectory. Such relationships create the space in which “missional” is less a set of ambiguous ideas and more the lived experience of people who have been brought together into the kingdom of God.

Steven Hovater has been the Preaching and Outreach Minister at the church of Christ at Cedar Lane since 2010. He holds an MDiv from Harding School of Theology and a DMin from Columbia Theological Seminary. He writes about missional theology and practice, among other subjects, at

Adapted from a DMin project by the same name submitted at Columbia Theological Seminary in March of 2017, presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 7–9, 2017. See the full version of the project at

1 I acknowledge that the term “outsiders” contains undesirable tones, and indeed the easy classification of people into “insider” and “outsider” groups is part of what I am pushing against in this paper. In the specific congregational context examined here, the church’s heritage in the Churches of Christ (American Restoration Movement) typically means that membership is conferred upon “placing membership,” an opportunity traditionally reserved for those who have received baptism as believers. However, “insider/outsider” status may also involve other factors, as demonstrated in this case among teenagers who are baptized and become members, but whose families are not a part of the congregation. Such a situation may result in teenagers who are seen as “outsiders”for some time after they have become “members.”

2 The average attendance at its weekly worship service is 390. About 90% of those people are white. For comparison, the United States Census Bureau reports that as of 2010, Tullahoma’s population is 88.1% “White alone”, with the next largest group being African American (7.0%). U. S. Bureau of the Census, “Quickfacts, Tullahoma City, Tennessee”,

3 For example, previous curriculum choices assumed that children would generally progress through the entire program, with each grade’s materials assuming knowledge of previous years. However, adjusting to the new situation meant searching for approaches that ensured that children could enter the program at any given year or even week, and enter the learning process with much less prior knowledge assumed. Another example was the need to reevaluate the cost of trips and events for youth ministry participants, which presented a barrier to inclusivity.

4 Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

5 Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) 3, 5.

6 Guder, 4. See also Van Gelder and Zscheile, 8, 21, 24.

7 Guder, 101–9.

8 Ibid., 101.

9 “God’s being and agency require us to attend first to the identity/nature of the church before seeking to address its purpose/mission—what the church is prior to what the church does” (Van Gelder and Zscheile, 9).

10 Guder, 1. Van Gelder and Zscheile, 49–50, describe the effort to make the case for this shift as the first of six movements within Missional Church.

11 Alan Roxburgh provides an example of the first theme, demonstrating how churches not only survived by becoming the caretakers of private faith, but for some period of time thrived as they continued to possess a religious monopoly on this private space. Alan J. Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International, 1997), 6-13. An example of the second theme may be found in Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, rev. and updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 29, 34.

12 The Gospel and Our Culture Network identifies twelve such hallmarks, while Frost and Hirsch, 25–26, add three different ones to this list. See also Lois Y. Barrett, et al., Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 159–72.

13 Guder, 11.

14 David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 42–43.

15 Guder, 175–80. See also Barrett, 169–70, and Fitch and Holsclaw, 105–7.

16 Guder, 163–66.

17 Van Gelder and Zscheile, 132.

18 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 67–72.

19 Guder, 178.

20 Van Gelder and Zscheile, 132.

21 Ibid., 133.

22 Van Gelder, 63–64.

23 This particular selection of participants is marginalized both within the congregation and in society for a number of reasons. First, they do not have adult family members who are also members of the congregation. Second, although it was not an explicit parameter for the selection of participants, each of the participants in this set lives within a family that has experienced poverty to an extent that has created instabilities such as housing issues or food insecurity. Finally, it is important to note that nearly all the participants interviewed are also affected by other marginalizing factors, such as home instability, legal or academic issues, disabilities, racial prejudices, and other factors.

24 In the broader study, other themes identified included the importance of a sense of belonging in the church, the significance of hospitality and places where it was perceived as limited, and the breadth and depth of intergenerational relationship.

25 To preserve anonymity for the minors interviewed in this project, each participant is referred to by a number: P1, P2, and so on.

26 In quotations of the interviews, I retain each participant’s original language, except where pronoun replacement or grammatical correction is needed for clarity. Non-inclusive language, particularly regarding the divine, has not been altered.

27 On one level, this theme is a predictable result from the engagement patterns of the participants. Most have been primarily involved in the church’s Wednesday evening programming, having attended the children’s ministry for several years before being promoted to the youth ministry in the sixth grade. The children’s ministry has been structured as a classroom setting, and there is significant time devoted to teaching in the youth ministry’s Wednesday night programming as well. It follows that these involvement points have formed the participants’ perspectives of the mission of the church. However, it is also important to note a possible selection bias at this point. It is likely that the church’s outreach ministry to youth has been effective in engaging people disposed to appreciate this sort of educational emphasis. It may be that those inclined to more service-oriented experiences, or who thirst for more time focused in worship, have simply not been retained over time.

28 Roxburgh, 46.

29 Ibid., 46–47.

30 In texts such as 1:46–55, 5:1–11, 14:7–14, and 18:9–14, Luke keenly portrays the inverted statuses of the kingdom of God—those who see themselves as high are brought low, and the humble are exalted.

31 This call to Lukan humility also provokes the church to recognize the real consequences of social and economic differences within the church. Those who live empowered lives must address the power and privilege differentials that exist. It will not do to only say, “We are all marginalized.” Rather, in our context of a community fractured across class lines, the church can build constructive friendships and walk toward the reconciled justice of the kingdom of God.

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