By Ethan Magness
In our own congregation, the BEYOND theme has been a channel for change. When we see what has happened here, we have great hope for what God will do through our convention.
All of us want to be a part of churches that are moving beyond. We want to be always following Jesus to a place we have never been before. Certainly this desire to move beyond is a central value of Mountain Christian Church, where I serve on staff and where NACC President Ben Cachiaras is senior minister.
One of the reasons we are excited to be a part of this year’s North American Christian Convention—which has “BEYOND” as its theme—is because we believe this convention could be a catalyst for transformation in churches all across the country. In fact, long before the convention, the call to go beyond has been shaking up Mountain. We experienced a dress rehearsal of the BEYOND series more than a year ago. But there was nothing rehearsed about the impact to our church.
As I reflect on BEYOND at Mountain Christian Church, one year later, I observe at least six realities about our interaction with that call.
This was a timely challenge for the church. Our diet of teaching and preaching had long cultivated a sense of anticipation for God’s next challenge in the life of the individual follower and the gathered church. That challenge to go beyond was a new label that allowed at least three elements to coalesce.
The first was a well-known and open-ended mission. Mountain’s mission is to “make disciples—more and better disciples.” This mission is well known by the church, referenced regularly from the stage and is intentionally open-ended. You can never be done with a mission that calls for “more and better.”
The second element was a culture that celebrated a history of change. We regularly tell the story of Mountain, and it is always told as a story of people who left where they were to do the next thing that God had for them to do. We tell our story not as a history of landings and homecomings, but as a remembrance of launches and adventures.
The third element that was already in the soil of the church was a shared sense of ever-renewing vision. Our whole church is regularly invited to look ahead to the possible future that God might bring about through the ministry of Mountain. The very week I’m writing this article, our staff is looking ahead again to 2020 to share what we see, and to seek together the direction God is calling us beyond.
Urgency in the Leadership
The first challenge of the BEYOND series was at the leadership level of the church. As we considered the topics through which we would be challenging the congregation, we knew we must start to personally face these challenges.
Long-discussed ideas finally moved into action. Values we had long held but rarely enacted became a high priority. We quickly knew this would be an event that challenged our congregation because we knew it was challenging us.
I particularly remember our conversations about moving BEYOND RACIAL ZONES. We had wanted to do something in this area for some time, but it was this series that included a strong public declaration that we were going to be a church that cared about racial diversity. We knew that, for all of these issues, if we were going to call people beyond, we would need to be ready to act. We knew each week would need to be tied to a specific opportunity to get moving.
We were ready to move beyond.
The third broad reality I observed was the immediate discomfort experienced by much of our congregation. It was difficult to speak frankly about habitual racism. It was challenging to sit within the walls and together declare we needed to go beyond the walls. For many it was difficult to be reminded that Christ called for disciples and not converts. But this was a unifying and holy discomfort. It was unifying because it was shared. It was holy because it was the same kind of discomfort Christ caused in his preaching.
This series was confrontational. A few people objected. I am sure a few people left, but most stayed long enough to hear the gospel, the gospel they perhaps had been ignoring.
Those who continued to come through this series knew they were coming to be challenged, and they embraced the discomfort they felt as an opportunity to move beyond their present comfort. We identified a gulf between where we were and where God was calling us to be, and for many that initially was a bit painful.
I am convinced this element was a vital and important part of the series. One of Jesus’ most pivotal and important sermons resulted in some turning away because the teaching was too hard. This will be the case in all prophetic preaching. Some will rejoice, some will hear a hard word and repent and follow, but some will reject the word of God as too hard or too much. Many of us are very comfortable where we are, and so we should not be surprised when the call to go beyond is hard to bear.
Almost simultaneous with this shared sense of discomfort came a delightful sense of restlessness. After almost every sermon, people could be heard affirming the message with urgency and joy. The occasional sense of impatience could be heard, “Why haven’t we done this before?”
Even more frequent was the insistence, “Well let’s quit talking about it and let’s go.” Our lobby was a hub of activity.
We had worked hard to give concrete first steps in many of the areas, but for many it wasn’t enough. I encountered a man impatient to begin a ministry of lunchtime evangelism, and on the same day, a woman wanting to finally get serious about the study of God’s Word. Both were shaken out of a long-lived complacency to move beyond the great omission (forgetting to evangelize or forgetting to teach) to work on the Great Commission (baptizing and teaching to make disciples).
Those who were already excited about global mission and service to the community celebrated the public recommitment to these values. Many of our members were very grateful we had opened up a dialogue about race and Christian unity, so that they had the freedom to tell their story. The call to go beyond revealed that some were already on the move and were eager to lead the way.
The power of the BEYOND series was not mainly in the newness of the ideas or the programs that were launched, but rather in the refreshed perspective it gave. We were reminded and “re-called” to the reality that movement is normal in the church. Our efforts in ministry are not called by a certain destination, but in a certain direction.
In the areas of global mission and local service, the BEYOND series was not a stake in the ground of commitment (that had already been done), but a shot in arm of revitalization. The BEYOND series reinforced a value that looks for movement rather than accomplishment. We are learning to praise God for what God is doing and will soon do, rather than getting lost in the nostalgia of what God has already done.
Farther to Go than When We Started
Our BEYOND series reinforced congregational values. It put godly urgency on our leadership. It confronted the congregation and affirmed their Spirit-led restlessness to act. It was effective as an event.
But beyond all this (if you will pardon the pun), the lasting impact of the BEYOND series seems to be a shared sense that we have not yet begun to go beyond. Like a hill that is climbed only to reveal that mountain behind, the BEYOND series is not something we have accomplished, it is something that has happened to all of us.
The sense of going beyond has created a climate in which, even as we follow Jesus to places we have never been, we have a growing awareness of all the places yet to go.
In discussing a new discipleship strategy we began not long after BEYOND, one of our key leaders remarked to me, “Isn’t this great? And to think, this is just the beginning.”
He is looking beyond.
Ethan Magness is pastor of spiritual formation with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.