By Stephen Sams
At Axis Church in Mason, Ohio, we don’t use the word missional. It’s not that we are opposed to the word, it’s just that we try to use words that people understand. When you are trying to reach people who don’t know Jesus, you must use words that communicate and create mental pictures. If people can’t define it or explain it, then they can’t carry it out or act on it.
Nearly everyone in America has a concept of church. They think they understand it. They have predetermined definitions of concepts like discipleship, evangelism, and worship, largely based on their personal experiences.
For most, church is a place you go to. For such people, at its best, church is a place to go for encouragement, inspiration, friendship, and even hope. At its worst, church is a place of irrelevance, judgmentalism, or even pain. The idea that church is a place to go relegates the church to a one- to two-hour per week experience.
Because of this, church leaders (like me) often fall into the trap that we should put our best foot forward on Sunday because that’s when people are there. That’s what people who attend expect. I even remember telling staff in previous ministries, “Every Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday.” When that mentality exists, often there is little life-on-life discipleship, mission is considered what we do overseas, and our scorecard is filled with numbers based on weekend attendance.
We started Axis almost four years ago, in part, because we felt called to get away from the “attendance mentality,” and also because we saw revealing trends in both population increases and in the lessening influence of the church. We realized something had changed.
The world’s population in 1950 was about 2.5 billion people. Today it is more than 7 billion. The trajectory of world population growth has been pointing almost straight up for more than 60 years, while during the same period of time, the percentage of people in church has gone down significantly. Eight churches a day are closing their doors.
These realities have all kinds of implications for the church. “Business as usual” isn’t an option any longer. We truly are living in a mission field.
A tag line you hear around Axis is, “Church Different—not just a place you go, something to be a part of.” We are constantly reminding our church that we are a team, every person at church is part of the team, and every team has a mission.
Team on Mission
When we started Axis, we saw our role as literally moving into a mission field. We asked a simple question, “How are we going to reach this culture for Christ?” We thought of the church as a team on a mission.
Not long ago, I was invited to talk to a group of Christians on the topic “Evangelism in the 21st Century.” The host told me it would be an older group, and true to his word, the average age was about 70. I started by saying, “Suppose we all decided to start a church in Ghana, Africa, how would we do it? What steps would we take to reach the people of Ghana?” What do you imagine the folks in that older crowd said? Build an awesome building with incredible children’s programming? Bring in the most outstanding speakers and advertise on local radio? Host a revival?
One white-haired gentleman shouted out, “Build relationships.” I wrote his answer on the white board.
An elderly lady yelled, “Meet needs.” I wrote it down. I liked where this was going.
One person quietly said, “Pray,” as if he were thinking we should probably add something “spiritual” to the list.
“Absolutely, we should pray!” I said.
Another person said, “Get to know the culture.”
As I wrote it down, I added, “that might include living among them, even getting a job, right?” Everyone seemed to agree.
I paused, looked across that room of 70-somethings, and said, “That’s evangelism in the 21st century.” That’s missional. Get to know the culture, build relationships, meet needs, pray, and through that, lead people to Jesus. That’s not just the mission in the 21st century, it was the mission in the first century.
How does all of this play out in the day-to-day life of Axis Church, and is it working?
First, our desire to move from the old paradigm of church as a place where one goes, to a biblical concept of a church on mission, meant we needed to deemphasize our space.
Our building is a rented warehouse. Our first year, we met in a day care facility. The second year we met in a movie theater. When the theater was sold, we spent two months in six house church locations doing a live webcast between each house. Then we moved into the warehouse. It’s not impressive. The total renovation cost less that $95,000. Imagine being able to renovate a warehouse into a worship gathering space in only a few weeks time and at a relatively small investment. We communicate regularly that we place our priority on people, not a building.
Is it working? Well, we probably don’t reach a large percentage of consumer Christians who are looking for the best of the best, and that’s OK with us. But we are finding refreshment within our church. And we are able to give resources to the mission rather than the place.
Second, being a team on mission forced us to use clear language and defined terms.
Imagine being a football team with players who do not understand concepts such as “first down” or “quarterback sneak” or “goal-line stand.” That team would lose.
Do people really understand what a disciple is? If you can’t define one, you can’t make one. How about the word community? That’s a good word, but what does it mean?
We define a disciple as someone who “hears and obeys.” Jesus had a lot to say about that. So, as we are on mission, we are teaching all of our team to ask two questions, “What is Jesus saying to you?” and “What are you going to do about it?” Those kinds of questions can be asked any time, in any relationship.
What about community? At Axis we say, “Community is beyond chips and dip. In Acts, it meant there was no needy person among them.”
Is it working? Well, we have had team members give cars and mowers and free rent and cash to others on the team who have a need. That’s true community. From what I hear, there are discipling conversations happening in restaurants and coffee shops and within our community groups and student groups. Discipleship is messy and takes a long time, people need to understand, but empowering our team with clear definition and structure has certainly helped.
Third, being a team on mission meant we had to add clear direction and structure to our group life.
Let’s go back to the football analogy. Every football team has three units: an offense, defense, and special teams. The team has an overall goal, but each unit has its own mission.
At Axis, we call these units communities. Each community must balance three aspects of being a disciple: communion with God, community with others, and commitment to the mission. The mission isn’t just a place where the group occasionally serves. It is more about where God has specifically placed that group of people and whom they are specifically called to reach.
For example, we have one group whose mission is to reach the local high school. That group has taken meals to the teachers, helped support families in need, sent thank-you cards to the staff, and more. Another group is focused on reaching people who enjoy physical fitness; the group has partnered with a local gym in that effort. Group members are building relationships with people in that gym with the goal of helping people become physically and spiritually fit.
Is it working? Building relationships takes time, so we have yet to see all that God is going to do, but we are blown away by the relational doors that are opening. Being on mission is working because Jesus is working. It’s still his mission, his example, his plan. And it’s fun to be on his team.
Stephen Sams is lead pastor at Axis Christian Church, Mason, Ohio.