The Oak is a spectacular tree. It evokes power, prestige, glory, and steadfastness. Wouldn’t this be the best tree to represent the Kingdom of God? It rises above challenges, it withstands the wind, and it is noble.
Jesus must have been wrong, then, when he said that the Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard that turns into a tree. A mustard tree is far less noble and glorious. The mustard tree is more like a gnarly weed. It grows large, but mostly in an outward direction. It grows along the ground covering whole areas. Jesus said that birds are able to find cover in the shade of its branches. Surely Jesus was wrong when he likened the Kingdom of God to a sprawling weed. Or was he?
In exciting pockets across Canada, Christians are gathering to take seriously God’s call to be like the mustard tree. In mid November, I joined in with church leaders and passionate followers of Christ at the Renov8 Church Planting Congress in Calgary, Alberta. I resonate with the words of Len Hjalmarson who wrote this about the Congress, “Seven hundred people from across the denominational spectrum and from rural, urban, and suburban settings across Canada coming together for a single missional agenda – to impact our country for Christ by seeding missional communities. And it is equally amazing that nearly half of this group have come to a Congress for the first time. Something is stirring in Canadian hearts — a work of the Spirit.”
God is at work and it’s exciting. But what is this Missional conversation about and why would 700 people gather in Calgary to talk about it?
A bishop once said, “Everywhere Jesus went there was a riot, everywhere I go they serve me tea.” Jesus’ life was by no means risk-adverse nor was he concerned with self-preservation. His life was rustic. Jesus was born in a manger, his parents lost him in Jerusalem for several days, he wandered for a year in the wilderness, and some accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton for eating with sinners. To outsiders he might appear so, for his first miracle was to make more wine at a party. And what was one of Jesus’ last commandments? This “drunkard and glutton” asked his people to remember him by feasting together. Today instead of feasting with sinners, we serve a thimble of drink and a morsel of bread every third Sunday morning. We sip tea when we need to dish up a feast.
God’s church does not have a mission, God’s mission has a church
Missional leaders in Canada are starting to make some powerful assertions about the future direction of the church. Gary Nelson, in Borderland Churches says that, “The missio dei changes the functional direction of church…from centrifugal (flowing in) to a centripetal (flowing out) dynamic. This in turn leads to a shift in emphasis from attracting crowds to equipping, dispersing and multiplying Christ followers as a central function of the church.”
Dispersing? Multiplying? This sounds less like an ancient tree, and more like a spreading weed.
But isn’t the church supposed to be like “a tree planted by streams of water” (Ps. 1:3) whose roots run deep? Yes! But the water we draw from is Christ, not our church culture, not our ethnic background, not our ecclesiastical preferences, and not from anything that may sound pious and holy; if it’s not Jesus, it won’t satisfy. When we die to ourselves and give our lives over to Christ we join a missionary God who is on the move out into the world. We get our cues from Jesus, he becomes our reference point. And what a reference point he is! There is life, risk, joy, and new challenges around every corner. There is nothing stagnant here!
If Jesus is moving, then we as a church need to move also. This may include rethinking our colonial and attractional models; they just do not work anymore. Taking our cue from Jesus, we need to reclaim models that are missional, relational and incarnational. Leonard Sweet says that, “Christians in the West can no longer expect to have that home court advantage…God is defragging and rebooting the church.”
We can no longer put our faith in the structures and hierarchy of Christiandom either. We are living in a post-Christiandom world. The old oak construct will fail; especially if we are not moving with God into his activity in the world. Isaiah likened those who were not connected to God’s movement to be like unwatered oaks, “You will be like an oak with fading leaves, like a garden without water” (Is. 1:30). Perhaps that is why Jesus was happy to share the vision of the mustard tree. Oak trees fall, but weeds dig in, spread, and don’t easily go away. From the tundra to the tropics, weeds are thriving in almost any climate.
David Augsburger writes that the church “is an alternative community – an alternative to human communities that live by coercion, competition and collective self-interest. It seeks to be a community of disciples who obey the particular ways of God that are revealed in Jesus.” Is your church an “alternative community”? Is it different? Does it follow a rustic and risky, joy inspiring Jesus? Does your church strive to be the independent oak, or the sprawling weed that can’t help but grow into its neighbourhood, providing shade and life for those in its path? Does your church, synod, or denomination live for a collective self-interest, or is it willing to follow Jesus out into the world?
Want to join God’s movement in your neighbourhood? It all starts with a mustard seed.