Posted by: Philip Rushton | August 15, 2011

Missional Revision In The Geriatrics Ward

We talk a lot about being ‘missional’ in the church these days. The so-called missional church movement finally left the pages of seminary text books and made its way into the local church.

I am thankful for this development. I strongly believe that the missional church movement recovers some important biblical ideas. In essence the missional church movement relocates the center of the church. Instead of viewing the church as an institution where people gather, it views the church as a group of sent people. The church is a place where we are equipped to go out and bring the good news of Christ into our workplaces and communities. The church is less about getting people to come to us and more about getting us to go and make an impact in the world. This movement takes the commission in John 20 seriously where Jesus says, “just as the father has sent me so I am sending you.” Like Christ we are sent out into our broken world to be agents of healing and reconciliation.

Yet, while this terminology is getting a lot of air time in the church, I think it has a tendency to be misunderstood. “Missional” can mean a lot of things depending on who you talk to. In his book Missional Small Groups, M. Scott Boren provides a helpful clarification regarding what this term really means. He writes:

“God’s missional rhythms run much deeper than a list of tasks we can check off. In our context, if we are going to be missionaries in a culture that plays the rhythms of the FedEx life, then we must learn to be relational in the way we interact with one another and in our neighborhoods. Too easily we turn being missional into a project in which those of us inside the church perform some action for those outside the church.”

Boren’s insight provides a helpful corrective. Missional engagement is not simply about doing service projects or visible tasks, though these are still important. At a more foundational level being missional means being relational. One of the greatest needs in our culture is for relationships. The “FedEx” rhythm Boren refers to is the fast paced American life that crowds out people in the name of efficiency and productivity. Long commutes, busy schedules, and excessive technological engagement often come with the cost of loneliness and isolation.

I have been reflecting on this a lot in my current place of residence. I currently live in an apartment building with a lot of elderly people. Pastor John jokingly calls my apartment the “geriatrics ward.” As I have become acquainted with my neighbors I’ve come to realize that one their greatest need is to have someone to talk to. The greatest challenge my neighbors face is loneliness.

M. Scott Boren continues by saying, “We can talk about what we are doing as a church for those in need; but none of this means we actually love. To love means being in relationship with others who do not have that love. We are investing in them not just through projects but through continued, often very costly interaction.” There is certainly a need for us to do service projects and care practically for those in need, but in the midst of these acts we must not forget to engage relationally with others. In fact, service projects can easily become dehumanizing for those being served. The people we serve can easily be reduced to a project to check off the list, or a project that makes me feel better about myself. Boren concludes by saying, “I have encountered too many groups who want to perform some kind of missional act for God and impact the world, but they don’t see the need to embody the kind of love that will actually impact the world.”

Do you agree that being relational is a key part of being missional?

What sort of opportunities do we have to be more relational with those outside the church?

What are the barriers that prevent us from investing in these relationships?


  1. I think we could all agree that there is a cry for mission projects which directly provide goods, services, or a message to those in need. For instance, any help that we direct towards the famine in East Africa, as you described in the last post, is crucial and lives depend on our support.

    At the same time, during the course of my life experiences, I have observed the power of genuine relationships as the fundamental building blocks for impacting others. In our culture, often it seems that our ability to share God’s love through words or actions is strengthened to the degree that we have invested in others.

    As a public school teacher for 34 years, I have observed that once children experienced my personal interest, knew that I loved them, and trusted me to care for them, they would strive to reach their highest potential in my class. It seems that with so many conflicting messages bombarding humans every day, often folks may not care about what we know until they know we care.

    As has been noted, building relationships requires much from us in this culture. It is precisely because people have a need to be loved that touching them with the gifts of time and caring can be most effective in creating open hearts in others.

    While this has been more easily done in my job as a teacher in my classroom and in my work place, it is more difficult for me in my life outside of school. One reason may be because I am always in a bit of a rush to move on to the next step in my plan for the day.

    Sometimes, I think perhaps it helps to look for opportunities that challenge us to combine our passions with a project that offers the opportunity to stretch and build relationships. My current learning curve is huge and can seem a bit overwhelming in my role as a Young Life Leader.

    Ideally, I would be able to form relationships with everyone I regularly come into contact with. To start with, it would be helpful to slow down and be aware of the folks I pass. Most importantly, my goal would be to be more in tune to God’s nudging as I move through life.

  2. Hi Betty,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciated your statement “It seems that with so many conflicting messages bombarding humans every day, often folks may not care about what we know until they know we care.” I think this is particularly important for the Christian community to grasp. If we have any hope of communicating the gospel to our skeptical culture we need to live with integrity and genuine love for others.

    You conclude by looking toward the ideal of forming a relationship with the majority of people we regularly are in contact with. This idea has always challenged me. How many people can I genuinely invest in and care for without burning out? Some sociologists suggest that the span of care one person can have should be for around 10 people. There is also the biblical idea of Moses setting up a structure where people were cared for in smaller groups. How do we know when to say “no” to relationships and when should be we more open? I’m still figuring that one out!

  3. It seems to me there is a not so subtle change afoot in our walk of Christian faith and outreach. It is obvious that what worked in the past as a “call to faith” is not what bears witness to Jesus today. The culture around us has changed yet the church has not kept in tune with those changes so as to be able to impact it with the message of hope. I really believe building Christ based relationships is our call today. But I think we lack experiences and opportunity for building these types of relationships, especially at church.and if I don’t build these faith relationships there, how can I build them outside the church community? Coffee hour is a great way to meet someone, but not such a great place to discuss scripture, our personal struggles, our faith questions, and wrestle with the meaning of scripture. Church lets us greet one another, hear a sermon, and confess our sins. But it is not a conversation with a friend that meets an inner most need. Building these kinds of relationships takes time, conversation, listening, focusing on and remembering things shared. It is an investment of myself in another person. It requires that I am open and transparent about my faith. This is quite a change from the past when faith was a very private thing. What continually works against relationship building is time. Time is a limited resource. We only have 24 hours in a day and for so many of us working, raising kids, cleaning, cooking, finding time to be with a spouse, and getting the laundry done eat up about 18 of those hours leaving about 6 to sleep. We come to church a bit stressed and find few opportunities to invest in relationship building that reflects our faith. Teaching a Sunday school class has been an opportunity to talk, wrestle with, and listen to other people’s needs and perspectives. I especially love to listen to people discuss questions around scripture lessons. It has helped challenge my faith and called me to deeper faith. It has allowed me to care for others in need and given me opportunity to encourage others in their lives and in their service. I have heard pearls of wisdom that have really made me more aware of my own weaknesses. And I have been amazed at the faith of those around me. All of this came from conversations around scripture when the teaching (that’s me talking) stopped and the class began to process the information. That is not to say that scripture hasn’t penetrated my very innermost being, it has. But the relationships between myself and others deepened with each time we sat to talk, process, offer our insights and questions around a topic. I think we need more small group interaction in the Church to know how to interact in the name of Christ outside the Church.

  4. Thanks Mary,

    I appreciate your thoughts. I think there is an important connection between living in community within our church context, and engaging our community outside of the church. As you have noted, it is often in the context of small groups that real growth happens. Truth meets life when we converse with one another and apply scripture to our lives. Thanks for your all your involvement with the ‘journey’ group.


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