“I would have thought that after five years your congregation would be sustainable.”
These words were spoken by a Church Revitalization Consultant to a pastor of a church seeking to follow a “Missional” model. By the definition of missional, the pastor’s church was successful: it was witnessing in its community in different ways. But it wasn’t successful by the definition of what is sustainable. So, even though, five years before, the consultant used the language of missional when working with this church, what really matters to her, as to so many, is not the effectiveness of the church’s mission, but whether the church is gaining members and money.
Let’s face it, Presbyterians. For all our reorganization, and adopting a polity, ecclesiology, and language centered around the word, “missional,” we’re not missional. We just pretend to be missional, and talk about how missional we are, because it sounds good and makes us feel all Christian and relevant. But when it comes to the way we evaluate congregational health, the quality of their faithfulness to the mission of God in Jesus Christ is not a significant consideration.
As a denomination the only criteria we pay attention to are still the traditional quantitative 3-B’s of congregational metrics: bucks, butts, and bricks. That is: we measure money, members, and buildings. (And in the end, only one B really matters: bucks.) This is true from the hierarchy in Louisville, to the people in the proverbial pews.
The new euphemism for the 3-B’s is “sustainable.” (Sounds very ecological, doesn’t it?) What it really means is that it doesn’t matter to us whether a congregation is doing mission or not; the only churches we will support are the ones that are on a path to “sustainability.” In other words, the ways Jesus chose to evaluate his ministry – healing, empowering, liberating, and enlivening – are not important to us. We will decide that you are successful when you have enough “giving units” to pay for your building and staff.
When I say that missional is not sustainable, I mean that some of the most faithful missional activities, such as ministry with the poor and underprivileged, outreach to non-Christians, and advocacy for creation, are not often likely to bring large numbers of new members or money into the church. Yet these are the things Jesus calls us to do.
It is possible that such ministries may become “sustainable,” that is, they may somehow eventually generate enough income to be self-supporting, not requiring any infusions of money or energy from outside themselves. But sustainability cannot be a motivation in a church’s mission. To begin with a desire to be sustainable is the opposite of seeking to be missional.
For a denomination to talk as if it wants missional congregations, but then only approve of and offer support to the ones that are sustainable, is self-contradictory hypocrisy. What? Is being missional only a value if it does not threaten what is really important to us: sustainability?
Jesus Christ does not mention sustainability as a goal. Nowhere does he lift up any of the 3-B’s as measurements of faithful discipleship. Certainly, he sends his church into the world to share the good news with others, and he calls people to follow him. But he doesn’t evaluate success by counting how many individuals join the movement. Indeed, he occasionally seems to go out of his way to make himself unpopular. And he never hints that a successful mission is measured by how much money is made or whether a building is constructed. Far from it.
And the bitter irony here is that seeking first sustainability is to drop all hope of being missional; therefore, even if sustainability works, what we would be sustaining is not the mission of Jesus Christ.
If we want churches to be missional, then we need to stop demanding that they be on a path to sustainability as a condition of our encouragement and support. An institution that gives a hoot about sustainability can’t be missional anyway.
Maybe this is why Jesus does not apply for funding to the Pharisees or the officials in the Temple. In the end a missional movement will always undermine the sustainability of a religious institution. For a religious institution to commit resources to a missional movement is fiscally irresponsible. It’s suicidal. Don’t expect it.
Anyway, Jesus Christ calls us to do mission and to support mission. It’s probably not going to be “sustainable.” Do it anyway. Find those places where “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22), and cherish and feed them. Do it directly, though, not through an institution that is concerned about sustainability. Because the sustainability with which it is most concerned is its own.