Rethinking Church and its Mission in the 21st Century

September 2nd, 2011 – by Nelson Okanya, Fall 2011

This post is the first in a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope @emu.edu if you would like to contribute to the series.

On Thursday July 21, NASA ended the shuttle program after more than 30 years. That Thursday morning I drove 2 hours away to meet with a committee to explore the possibility of serving as the next president of Eastern Mennonite Missions.  That same weekend a new nation was to be born in Southern Sudan.  I could not help but see the emerging theme.

As a person born and raised in Africa, once considered the mission field for Europe and North America, I could not help but think about the new reality I was living in.  The fact that I was being considered to lead a mission agency in the United States was a new frontier for the mission agency and for me.  Southern Sudanese for the very first time had their own brand new country and the shuttle had served its purpose and something new was being envisioned.  These stories convinced me that a new era has dawned and with it new ways of living and being the church in the world.

I was moved by one reporter’s description of the space shuttle.  He said,

“The shuttle is an amazing machine. It takes off like a rocket, but lands like a plane, so it’s re-usable. It’s had some spectacular successes. It carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. And the shuttle built the International Space Station. It launched the first American female astronaut into space, and the first black astronauts. But the space shuttle has also developed a reputation for technical problems. Originally, it was supposed to fly dozens of times a year, and cheaply.”

This reporter’s next statement has parallels to mission agencies and the church.  “But NASA’s William Gerstenmaier says the shuttle isn’t ending because we’ve lost our mojo. It’s because the next missions require different designs to go into deeper space ….We need a smaller, more compact vehicle than the winged vehicle we have today.”

I believe this story is relevant for the church as it engages God’s mission in the 21st century.  We are living in exciting, as well as scary, times.  These times are characterized by great opportunities to innovate and think outside the box.  As NASA continues to research and envision the new frontier of space exploration, the church must likewise envision the new mission frontier.

I envision a new generation of missionaries being raised as the church once again rediscovers God’s mission in a fresh and new way.  We cannot live as if everyone understands what it means to be a Christian, even those who have been part of the church family for years.  The Christendom era where we assumed that everybody knew the Bible is long gone. And I think we should celebrate that reality!  Even though the era of Christendom has ended, as we look back we must acknowledge the successes, as well as the failures, of that era. Like NASA, we must do some self reflection and dream about new ways to be relevant, go to places where the witness of the Gospel has not yet reached, and discover fresh ways to embody faithful Christian discipleship in our own communities.

Missiologist Craig Van Gelda of Luther Seminary, in his book, The Ministry of the Missional Church argues that the church must reflect and self define in order to understand its relevance.  He writes,

“The key premise is that understanding the nature of the church is foundational for being able to clarify the purpose of the church, and for developing any strategies related to that purpose.  And understanding the nature of the church is also seen as being foundational for discerning how to address changing cultural contexts.” (p 13).

Taking Van Gelda seriously, I looked at Acts chapter 2. In this chapter, I see the church growing exponentially as the Holy Spirit descended in a fresh way.  Numerically, it grew from 120 people to 3,120.  As the Holy Spirit took charge, it was transformed and empowered to become an authentic Christian community that ministered to others. It became a community that continually experienced the Lord’s hand at work, God’s Spirit continued to shape and act in powerful ways. It is no wonder that the author reports, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47). This Christian community experienced phenomenal growth as the Holy Spirit descended and the community took seriously their new identity and mission.

Is the Acts 2 experience possible again? I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes”! What would the church look like if we were to live as Holy Spirit filled communities of Jesus? What kind of impact would we have in our immediate neighborhoods and around the world, as we become authentic communities of disciples? We must actively engage our changing cultural realities with the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In order to do this, as Christians we must once again cultivate the virtues that continue to form us and helps us to embody the Christian narrative, for in the same way Jesus was sent, Jesus has sent us (John 20:21).

Nelson Okanya was appointed as president of Eastern Mennonite Missions in July 2011. He will begin his term of service in October.  He has served as associate pastor and lead pastor of Capital Christian Fellowship since 2006. He is a 2003 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate.

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