The church becomes progressively aware of the lost world around them, both locally and globally.
The Sending Church Elements are a framework for growing as a sending church. They point out the strengths and weaknesses of churches in missions. Although The Sending Church Elements do not always describe linear steps, Cultivating Missions Awareness is a natural starting place for churches to take ownership of missions. This series addresses why being aware of God’s mission is important to missions, how to practically cultivate missions awareness in churches, and some of the most common challenges to accomplishing this.
Globalization and the White Noise of Information
The phrase “cultivating missions awareness” might be a bit deceptive. In most cases, local churches today generally are aware of the world around them. It is nearly impossible not to be, considering the globalized news we constantly encounter. From our easy chairs we witness thousands of refugees fleeing toward survival; Syrians, Eritreans, and Somalis on the run by foot, by boat, by anything that will get them there. Who can forget the image of the little Syrian boy washed up on a Greek beach?
But there is even more compelling evidence happening right in our very neighborhoods. Whether I’m in Louisville or Madrid, I can talk with people from North Africa, Eastern Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Asia. The nations have arrived in our cities. On the other hand, even in small towns we feel the effects. Rural areas may not be evolving into ethnic melting pots, but they are watching more and more of their own depart for urban centers. It’s like the whole world is on the move.
As Christ-followers, watching these dynamics unfold gives us some sense that the church should be involved. Whether or not we’re deeply concerned, or actively doing something to engage our changing world with the gospel, we are likely connecting the dots that great opportunities are all around us. We are aware.
But that’s not what we mean by churches "cultivating missions awareness."
Moving beyond Individual Engagement
We see non-profit mission agencies springing up to meet a variety of needs. We see legacy mission organizations shifting towards engaging people with the gospel. We see missionaries asking people to pray and give to their work. We see individual Christians getting involved in lots of ways. But how can churches respond? It begins with intentional observation.
When we first began The Upstream Collective, we offered vision trips (called Jet Set Trips) to help young churches become aware of the need to engage people with the gospel. However, we quickly noticed that many churches had plenty of mission activity, but very little holistic awareness.
I remember working with one church that was relatively young. As I consulted with them, we listed out on a white board all the missions projects in which they were involved. There were twenty-five different places where they were “on mission.” They certainly had some mission awareness. They definitely had a “choose your adventure” list of mission activity. But only a handful of church members were involved. They weren’t seeing the big picture.
Missions Identity before Missions Activity
The key to cultivating missions awareness in a local church—and the biggest challenge to it—is building mission identity rather than mission activity. Another way of saying this is developing a culture of missions, not merely a program. It will always only be a limited number of church members who get excited about a certain activity or project (such as a mission trip, evangelism training, serving at a homeless shelter, etc.), especially when it appears that projects are where mission begins. A missions program will revolve around the same people who pray, give, and go, and it will rarely permeate throughout the church.
But is that the goal? More importantly, is that how church leaders “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12)? From my experience as a church planter, I believe that leaders must make a choice—either to settle for a successful program or to work toward a compelling vision that envelopes all God’s people. I’ve done both, and I advocate for the latter.
Throughout the rest of this series, we’re going to show you how to do it.
Larry is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Upstream Collective. He and his family have lived in Europe for nearly twenty years, where he has served in a variety of strategy and leadership roles. Prior to moving to Europe, he was a church planter and pastor in the US. He is a co-author of Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission, The First 30 Daze: Practical Encouragement for Living Abroad Intentionally, and The MarketSpace: Essential Relationships Between the Sending Church, Marketplace Worker, and Missionary Team.