The Shadow Mission

Why do we do what we do as a church? We often talk about our mission in terms of Christ’s command to “Go and make disciples.” This means that local churches don’t need to create their own fancy mission statement. They already have one from Jesus.

What we do, is think about how we apply that and describe it in our context. Chris Green says that the local church’s mission statement is “Matthew 28 with a post-code on it.”

So, I often talk about what we do as “Helping people who don’t know Jesus to come to know him, in order to see Bearwood and beyond transformed by the Gospel, to the glory of God.”

Now that all sounds well and good, doesn’t it? However, Bill Hybels has pointed out that there is a pitfall we can walk into. He calls it “The Shadow Mission.” This is where we have our official mission statement up on the walls and in our documents but we have a real (even unintended) mission statement that shapes how we actually do things. He has talked openly about how he realised that they had a shadow mission at Willow Creek which was to reach people like them meaning Willow Creek was becoming a church for successful people.

We end up with shadow missions because actually growing things, making disciples and worshipping are all very natural things to do. We all do these things all the time, so the question is not “is there growth, are you making disciples and are you worshipping?” Rather it is “Is there healthy growth, who are you making disciples of and are you worshipping the true and living God?” 

I will make disciples of somebody, I will encourage people to follow someone but if they are not following Jesus, then who are they following? So often, the reality is that we are in danger of making disciples of ourselves. People learn to follow me and to be like me.  People develop loyalty to me. What is more, if I am not careful, then I find myself expecting, demanding even, loyalty to me and my vision.

And put in those stark terms we recognise it immediately as idolatry. In fact, at best we have just started a gang and at worst (if we are particularly good at it) we have created a cult.

Now, a little side-point here. I spend a lot of time with pioneer church planters. They are great people, they are passionate about the Gospel, they are often entrepreneurial but they are not immune from this risk.

Often with the pioneer spirit comes a suspicion of structures and institutions. Alongside this, an approach to church that emphasises organic life has become popular. This has been a useful correction to a heavy focus in the past on structures and programmes. Don’t mishear me on this – I have found books like Total Church and The Trellis and the Vine very helpful.

However, structures and institutions are not inherently wrong. In fact these are the things that can help provide accountability and protect against our shadow visions. If you think it is always wrong to institutionalise things then remember that:

                Jesus institutionalised the Lord’s Supper and baptism

                The Apostles institutionalised the offices of elder and deacon

Why does this matter? Well, think about how those of us that are pioneers tend to function. We make connections, we rely a lot on personal relationships, we make decisions informally. That’s all good stuff for getting things started. But think about how things function once there is a church gathering.

                -Do all decisions have to be agreed by you personally?

                – Do people know how decisions are made?

                -Is it clear who is responsible for making decisions?

If decision making depends upon who is in or out of favour with me this week -then we are back to the gang. It creates uncertainty and opportunities for manipulation. That’s why healthy churches have clearly recognised plural leadership. It’s why that leadership team in the end must be united not because they happen to get on with each other but because they share the same vision to see the Gospel proclaimed, the same love for the Lord, the local church and the lost and the same doctrine. 

So here are a couple of health checks

1.       Are you able to state clearly and simply why your church does what it does? Does it all flow out of the Great Commission?

2.       What is your shadow mission? Where are you at risk of idolatry?

3.       Does your church have the right structures in place that keep you on track with the Great Commission?