Yesterday I started reading Alan Roxburgh's new book Missional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood. I've been a big fan of Roxburgh's since reading The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality - the book that more than any other has given shape to my ministry. Everything he writes is excellent. But, 60 pages in, this new one is by far the best thing he has written.
If you've not read much on missional thinking or anything by Roxburgh, start here. For one thing the writing is really clear, the story telling is punchy and well focused and the story he tells is ruthlessly honest and richly informative.
And the clearest insight that I've got so far is that I've really been asking the wrong question over the past few years. I've been asking questions about how to do church better, about how to make my congregation more missional. Roxburgh has helped me ask this question. But in this book he points out that it's the wrong question. It's not that the book or his thinking is anti-church - far from it - it's just that church is not the place to start thinking missionally.
Contemporary missional thinking grew out of the ministry and searing insights of Lesslie Newbigin and going back to the source has helped Roxbugh see that Newbigin's concern was to investigate the matrix of gospel, scripture and culture. The church only entered Newbigin's thinking once he had thoroughly and fully explored how the gospel and culture informed and interacted with one another.
Church - or congregation in Newbigin's terminology - comes as a result of mission that has itself been born of the interaction of gospel and culture. So the key questions that Roxburgh begins to ask at the start of his book are ones such as 'what is the gospel?' not in general, but specifically for the community he is walking through on a given Sunday morning, discovering that most people are not in church. He does not ask - indeed he has stopped asking - 'how do we create the kind of spaces where people who are not in church on Sunday morning might feel safe to explore the Christian faith'? Such a question seems irrelevant. These people are not in church and are never likely to be given what they seem to enjoy doing on a Sunday morning. So the question is 'what is the gospel for them?' A supplementary question might be 'how will they see and hear that gospel'? but that is a little way down the track...
As I started reading this ahead of a leaders away day on Saturday, I have been given plenty to think and pray about. Indeed, one consequence of yesterday's reading is that I went walking in my neighbourhood prayerfully watching and asking 'what is the gospel for this place at this time?' And I came home with aching feet!