How we introduce the church to people has a lot to do with how they interpret church. We introduce the church poorly to people when we leave “church” out of our weekday conversations. We introduce the church poorly when we just tell people “how to get there” on a website. How we introduce people to the church, especially on Sundays, is important if we want to re-arrange their expectations around a gospel view of the church.

Here are a few ways we’ve done it. I’m not being dogmatic, just suggestive. I think this is important, but I also think you should introduce people both theologically and contextually. In other words, rearrange their view of the church around the gospel, but do it in language that is true to your vision and your context.

Introducing Church on Sundays

Over the past couple of years we’ve changed the way we introduce people to the church on a Sunday morning, but all in all we’ve had minor variations. We used to say stuff like:

If you’re visiting today, we’re so glad you came. We hope this is the last time you come to church, because this building isn’t the church. These people are.

Early on this certainly weeded out the consumer, but probably also ran off a few potential disciples. With time we softened our introduction to tell people that:

“The best way you can get to know the church is to visit a City Group, where the church is the church to one another and the city.”

This was more welcoming and still community affirming. It mixed more grace into the welcome. However, as we continued to reflect on this introduction, we still felt like it was, at times, intimidating for front door visitors. Why? Because we pushed City Groups so hard. You’re bound to feel out of place if you aren’t in one, especially since the majority of our church is. We wanted to relieve the person who unreligously visited out Sunday gatherings once every 4-5 weeks, while remaining true to our vision of the church.

So we went this this, roughly. People laugh every time they hear it (the bold part), but I can tell they love it. They tell me so.

Welcome to Austin City Life. My name is ____, and I am one of the Partners with our church. If you’re visiting, we’re really glad you found us. We would love to meet you, so hang around afterwards over coffee, join us for lunch, or fill out a visitor form on a lap top.

You should know up front that we are a very imperfect church. We will disappoint you, but we’ll do our best to point you to a perfect Savior. That’s the Gospel, and we believe it converts us to Christ, to Church and to Mission. It’s why we’re here, to be the church to one another and to the city. To be in the city and for the city, redemptively engaging peoples and cultures.

The best place to figure this all out is in our City Groups, gospel communities that serve one another and our city. You can check them out right here by hanging around afterward and chatting in the back, by our sign, or learn more online at austincitylife.org.

Introducing Church on Websites

Your introduction to the Church on Sundays should resonate with what you say on your website and, most importantly, your small group/missional community experience. We’ve changed our web wording to reflect our actual gathering, keeping the non-Christian in mind.

Sundays Gatherings are an important part of being the church at Austin City Life. Although we want to avoid the mistake of seeing Sunday as “the Church”, we believe it is important to gather every Sunday for worship, preaching, communion, and community.

On Sundays you’ll find an interesting juxtaposition of theological depth and cultural expression. We are in line with historic, orthodox Christianity, but express that Christian faith progressively, in a venue on Austin’s renown 6th Street.

What is Sunday Like?
We gather every Sunday at The Parish, one of the best music venues on 6th, where you’ll hear our musicians play rich, stirring, God-focused music, not as a performance but as an act of worship. You’ll also hear substantive gospel messages that regularly engage cultural issues. Best of all, you’ll get to meet a community gathered around Jesus that loves our city.

These people are like you in many ways. They are citizens, creatives, moms, dads, young marrieds, professionals, college students, and singles. They are Christian and not Christian. We are all imperfect people looking to a perfect Christ.

This certainly isn’t the last “word”, and introducing people to the church is so much more than what you say. But what you say also affects how you live.

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Here are few new books I am reading:

Music for the City is hosting a HOPE for HAITI Benefit Concert on Monday night @ The Parish. This immediate response is for the tremendous need for relief among Haitians. Plan on coming and supporting. Let’s show Haiti they are loved!

Proceeds will go to REAL HOPE for HAITI, a non-profit organization providing medical relief and care for severely malnourished children in Haiti.

As the statistics roll in, pictures cross our screens, and shivers go down our spines regarding the plight of the Haitians, we need somewhere to go with this immense suffering. I want to suggest three places:

1. Go to God in prayer for the Haitians to encounter true, whole gospel relief and attention–spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and physically. Pray, “Lord have Mercy on the Haitians!”

2. Before putting God in the dock, remember that although we all deserve death, God has graciously given some of us life. How are you using your life? Will you use it to bring blessing and hope to hurting Haitians? How will you live in response to Haiti? We will all suffer and die, perhaps not en masse or in great tragedy, but we will suffer and die.  How will you suffer? How will you die?

3. Respond intelligently and deliberately to the plight of the poor.

  • Purchase needed items for Red Cross Relief and/or donate to Red Cross and the ADRN here.
  • Get a HELP HAITI T-shirt. All proceeds go to HAITI.
  • Join Austinites from across the city on Monday night for the Hope for Haiti Benefit Concert at The Parish (details coming soon).

This is a great opportunity for you make good culture, redeem social ill, and share a whole gospel. Don’t waste the opportunity.

We can’t plant a missional churches that don’t address Work. Most people spend the lion’s share of their time in their field of work. That field of work is not only a mission field, but it is a city field. It is an urban domain.

Cities are comprised of anywhere from 5-10 city domains: Government, Arts, Education, Social Services, Health Services, Technology, Family, etc. Missional Churches must do the hard work of helping their people see their vocation in urban domains in terms of missional calling, not merely for evangelism but for whole gospel living.

Although I’ve thought, worked, and taught on Work as Mission for a few years, this is only the third message on work in the past 20 months as Austin City Life. We need to continue to resource, inspire, equip, and release people into the Mission of Work. Over at Creation Project I’ve listed some practical ways to do this. Feel free to share yours!

Amiable Religion reporter, Joshunda Sanders, visited Austin City Life on Sunday and gave us a nice review in the Austin Statesman Of Sacred & Secular blog. I think she did a good job describing a Sunday for us. I’ve included an excerpt:

From Dodson’s wife to a couple whose bills had been paid anonymously by the church community, members addressed the congregation during the hour-long service in a spirit of love and gratitude. “It’s great to know that the Gospel is more than words on a page,” David Hampton, a member said. “The Gospel is a living God, not just an old guy on a cloud with a ZZ Top beard.

The rest of the article goes into greater detail. Thank you Lord for a good, gospel-reflecting review!

One of the dangerous things about publishing and writing online is that you can get an exaggerated presence. People begin to inflate your ideas, your church, your leadership well beyond their actual capacity. I think this is a real danger among church planters. We’re all “trying to make a mark for God” by employing the latest missional thinking. We comb the web for innovative ideas, best practices, and training in order to make the “best mark for the glory of God.”

I want to deflate any exaggeration that might be out there about Austin City Life or my own leadership. Not just to deflate, but to bring balance and realism into the picture. A lot of young church planters are captivated by methodologies and best practices. These methods and practices are often downloaded without any effort to rethink them for their own vision and context. That, too, is dangerous.

At the risk of promoting more uncritical downloads, and with the hope of bringing realistic balance to what I write, I thought I would point to some actual stories of Gospel, Community, and Mission told by our own people on a Sunday morning. We often bring people up to share about how God is working in their life during a SUnday gathering. We do this, not to be cool, but to a) As the psalmist says “tell of the works of the Lord b) to reinforce that church is a family not an event c) to encourage others.

This past Sunday was a vision/story-telling Sunday. I brought three people up from our community, who are not leaders, to share how they experienced God’s goodness in 2010 in the areas of Gospel, Community, and Mission. The stories are earthy, inspiring, real. They are not canned. And because of that, I hope you’ll find them helpful. They are little windows into an imperfect church, clinging to a perfect Christ, that is trying to live by the gospel, in community, on mission.

Missional Church is in full swing. In classic American fashion, we’ve created a whole industry around it—Networks, Conferences, Books, Blogs, Seminars, Schools, Workbooks, Degrees, and so on. Missional is becoming common parlance among American evangelicals. But at the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. What kind of impact is missional church making?

Ed Stetzer reported a disappointing trend in 2008 of continued decline in conversions, church growth, and church starts. Church plants are popping up everywhere, but not faster than established churches are closing their doors. It appears that The Next Christendom isn’t returning to the shores of the West anytime soon. In fact, according to Gallup, cultural Christianity is on the decline. Are we to then assume that the missional church movement is a failure, a fad?

There are several reasons why Missional Church isn’t working. Here I will focus on one reason—syncretistic missional ecclesiology. Syncretistic missional ecclesiology (SME) is the fusion of missional church with institutional church. In other cultural contexts, syncretistic ecclesiology combines Christian church values and practices with other religious institutions like Buddhist temple life. Here we are concerned with the American context, the resurgence of missional church and its unhealthy integration into the institutional church.

Institutional Missional Church

Although many leaders and churches have embraced missional language and theology, they are still having trouble translating mission into their own communities. Why? Because church plants are fusing missional ecclesiology with their prior experience of institutional church. The nature of missional church requires more than cosmetic adjustments to our inherited forms of church. Missional ecclesiology requires an entirely new way of thinking about church, from the bottom up. Church plants and established churches have failed to recognize this important point. As a result, they have created a syncretistic ecclesiology, blending institutional church with missional church. This syncretism is both theologically and practically defective. Sometimes the blending of institutional and missional church is only functionally defective, prone to failure. Other times it is theologically defective, prone to heresy and correction. Here we will primarily focus on functionally defective SME.

Syncretistic Missional Church Practices

How do you know if you are approaching mission institutionally? Here are a few ways:

  • Institutional mission relies on preaching, teaching, and writing to implement missional ecclesiology.
  • Institutional mission adopts a program of mission during a set season of the year to implement missional ecclesiology.
  • Institutional mission focuses on evangelistic and social justice events to implement missional ecclesiology.
  • Institutional mission sees mission as a line item in the church budget, not mission as the whole budget.
  • Institutional mission views mission as an implication of the gospel, not as part of the gospel.

While these institutional approaches are not bad, they are not enough. Church leadership and practices must be consonant with the nature of mission. The nature of mission is Spirit-initiated not man-made, organic not institutional, training not just teaching, relational not programmatic, gradual not instant. What we need is not institutional mission, but intuitive mission

Intuitive Missional Church

Intuitive mission relies on the intuition of the Spirit through the guidance of the Word to embed a gospel that is missional. It is not primarily concerned with implementation but with cultivation of DNA (see Hirsch’s Apostolic Genius). Intuitive mission is soaked in the Spirit’s guidance. It discerns missional leadership patterns in Scripture. It understands that mission is gospel-centric. It approaches mission as something to be cultivated. Here are some ways to know if you are practicing intuitive mission:

  • Intuitive mission relies on Spirit-led prayer that begins with repentance over the sins of institutional, individualistic Christianity in neglecting the mission of the church and diminishing the glory of Christ.
  • Intuitive mission discerns missional leadership patterns from Scripture instead of uncritically implementing business models of leadership.
  • Intuitive mission cultivates missional DNA through personal and communal forms of training instead of relying primarily upon professional, monological communication.
  • Intuitive mission spends lots of time with people not programs, so that we have networks of relationships in which we can authenticate the gospel we preach.
  • Intuitive mission does “everyday things with gospel intentionality”, instead of seeing mission as either an evangelistic or social justice event.

If missional ecclesiology is to sufficiently permeate our churches and change our point in history, then we will have to do a better job of spotting our institutionalism. We will need to rigorously weed out unhealthy syncretistic missional ecclesiology. Throw out institutional mission while retaining our rich traditions. Cultivate intuitive mission practices that remain faithful to the gospel and force a gracious, deliberate, and discerning reworking of institutional mission. It is a difficult process. I fall back into my inherited patterns of ecclesiology all the time, so pray for me. I welcome your help. Let’s push mission all the way through our churches, by the grace of God, to see his gospel permeate every aspect of life.

Discussion continued here

In recent research Ed Stetzer examined 450 sermons, with the help of a team, and asked some interesting questions. In particular, he posed: “Do you start [your sermons] with the text or the [listeners] context?” 37% of preachers said they start with context to connect with their audience first, but at closer analysis it was actually over 50%.

Which is Better: Text or Context?

There are pros and cons to starting with either text or context. When we start with text, we reinforce the centrality of God’s word over the preacher’s opinion. We can call people to open their Bibles and follow along. When we start with context, we connect with the listener right away, at a felt need level, and can lead them to the relevancy of the Bible.

Does PowerPoint Reduce Dependence on the Bible?

I typically introduce my sermons with a brief connection to the listener’s context, pray, and then start the sermon. While I think this is good, Stetzer’s comments regarding PowerPoint enriched some of our recent thinking about sermon delivery. Stetzer has almost stopped using PP. Why? People begin to depend on it, not their Bibles.

People at Austin City Life don’t bring or follow along in their Bibles enough. I’m not sure why, so I started an online survey to find out. I think they depend on PowerPoint. I’m glad that some people don’t bring their Bibles because they aren’t even Christians. The fact that they are reading the Bible on a screen is better than not reading Scripture at all. But, there are other ways around that.

I may start using PP less and less. At the start of 2010 we are making a very clear point about the necessity of bringing Bibles to our gatherings, not to be religious but to be reasonable, to reason through Scripture yourself, and not just ping single texts off of a screen. Reading your Bible during a sermon can help you in several ways:

  1. Focus on the sermon.
  2. Understand the Bible.
  3. Read the passage in its larger context.
  4. Test the pastor’s message against the authoritative message of Scripture.
  5. Allow you to cross reference what he says with other portions of Scripture.

But a lot of people don’t bring or read their Bibles during sermons. Marshal McLuhan is famous for saying: “the medium is the message”, and I believe one of the unintended messages traveling through our PP medium is you don’t need to read your Bible. Isolated texts on a screen is good enough. That is an awful message, one contradicted by the message of Scripture itself (Ps 19, 119; 2 Tim 3:16).