This is an interview I did with Alan Roxburgh about year ago while blogging for Missional in Suburbia…
Alan Roxburgh is a pastor, teacher, writer and consultant with more than 30 years experience in church leadership, consulting and seminary education. Alan has pastored congregations in a small town, the suburbs, the re-development of a downtown urban church and the planting of other congregations. He has directed an urban training center and served as a seminary professor and the director of a center for mission and evangelism. Alan teaches as an adjunct professor in seminaries in the USA, Australia and Europe. His books include: Reaching a New Generation, Leadership, Liminality and the Missionary Congregation, Crossing the Bridge: Leadership in a Time of Change, The Sky is Falling – Leaders Lost in Transition, The Missional Leader (co-authored with Fred Romanuk), Introducing the Missional Church (Baker, Nov 09) and Missional Map Making (Jossey-Bass, Jan 2010). He was also a member of the writing team that authored Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.
Through the Roxburgh Missional Network, Alan leads conferences, seminars and consultations with denominations, congregations and seminaries across North America, Asia, Europe, Australia and the UK. Alan consults with these groups in the areas of leadership for missional transformation and innovating missional change across denominational systems. Along with the team at RMN, he provides practical tools and resources for leaders of church systems and local congregations.
Through Allelon Alan co-directs the Mission in Globalizing Culture(s) Project. This is a multi-year project addressing questions of mission in Western culture(s) from the perspective of the local church and its context, and the implications for leadership development.
When not traveling or writing, Alan enjoys mountain biking, hiking, cooking and hanging out with Jane and their five grandchildren as well as drinking great coffee in the Pacific North West.
Question: In chapter one of your new book (Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood) you write this, “In this book I propose that what I call “church questions,” with a primary focus on the church, only misdirect us. At this point in our history, we need to be asking radically different questions: What is God up to in our neighborhoods and communities? How do we join what God is doing in these places? Church questions are a subset of these far more important questions.” Explain for those who have not yet had the opportunity to read the book what you mean by the idea that we have been asking the wrong questions.
Alan Roxburgh: Almost all the books I read right now in terms of ‘missional’ are, in one form or another, proposals for fixing and/or making the church more effective. I am certainly not against this. My point is quite different. Its the focus of these books and the conversations they generate. The energy resourcing them is about the church. The focus of the conversation is the church. This is where I talk about the church being, either implicitly or explicitly, the subject and object of these conversations. This is what I mean by our asking the wrong questions. Not only are these the wrong questions but, theologically, they are the most uninteresting kinds of questions. Really, they are a continued expression of our North American preoccupation with ourselves. Church questions are the religious side of life coaches helping people to self-actualize. I know this sounds totally counter-intuitive to most people, especially clergy whose whole life is invested in church and shaped by church questions. My contention is that church questions are not the questions that preoccupied the early Christians. We need a reorientation of our imaginations to engage the world opening up before us. The good news is that the Spirit is breaking the boundaries and containers into where we have put the Gospel.
Question: Some people might misunderstand and think you are minimizing the role of the church in the world today. From the reading I have done of your book I get the sense that you believe the church is incredibly important and relevant today. How would you explain the role of the church when it comes to the mission of God?
Alan Roxburgh: Yes, I do believe the church is incredibly important to the mission of God in the world. I am a member of a local church. I preach bi-weekly in my own parish so I’m pretty committed to the local church. But I also believe that the Spirit is out there ahead of us in the neighborhoods and communities where we live and work. It is as we Christians re-engage our neighborhoods by asking the question of what God is up to on the streets where we live that we get a picture of how the Spirit wants to shape our churches. So its not a question of whether the church is important or not. Of course it is. Rather, its a question of order an focus. I don’t primarily, discern what God is calling the church to be by huddling together in church meetings or having outsiders give us some mission/vision statement. We don’t even get there by reading books (even mine) on how others have made their church ‘successful’. Its as we learn to enter and sit at the table of the other (Luke 10: 1-12) that we get the chance of hearing what the Spirit is up to. Those encounters then change and change the shape of our churches. This is a reversal of how most churches function. Now this is not about giving away theological convictions but it is about having them shaped and reshaped by our contextual encounters with the Spirit in the communities where we live.
Question: I must confess that I enjoyed chapter five immensely! You are arguing that the way we read God’s Word may actually hinder us when it comes to us becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. You write, “Scripture isn’t a textbook of information; it isn’t a formula for making life work or a religious Dr. Phil for people who want to improve their lives, expand their bottom line, or ensure their kids get the right start in life. It is full of stories that invite us into the drama of where God is moving creation. Christians are invited to embody this drama.” Explain for us in practical terms how misreading scripture, as you have mentioned, could keep a suburban family from faithfully following Jesus into the world. Describe what that might look like.
Alan Roxburgh: One really simple way to illustrate this is our deeply embedded individualism. Everything about suburbia is about the self-actualizing individual. Go inside the homes of suburban folk and individualism is the way of life from each having their own rooms, TVs, computers etc. So, the deepest value of modernity and the Western imagination is codified in bricks and buildings, in the design of houses, the construction of roads and the TV adds that bombard us 24/7. What this means is that the typical suburban Christian reads his/her Bible from the perspective of the individual. The Bible is a guidebook for me, for my self-development, for my personal life. NO! When the typical suburbanite reads, for example, Paul’s letter and comes across the pronoun YOU it is read individualistically when in fact all this language is plural about social community. The narrative about self and identity in the Bible is the opposite of the narrative the the suburbs. And so, churches shape their ministry around meeting people’s needs or the self-development of individual Christians (often called discipleship) when these are actually the opposite of what is happening in the Scriptures.
Question: In chapter 11 you write about the danger of “decisionist evangelism”. If I understand you correctly, and please let me know if I am off base, what you mean by this is that we have reduced the gospel to simply making a decision to follow Jesus. You go on to explain that when it comes to the gospel we need to understand the depth and power of the word “peace/shalom” as mentioned in Luke 10. So here is the question, what does it mean for disciples of Jesus Christ to bring a gospel of shalom to our cul-de-sac? What does it look like?
Alan Roxburgh: You’re asking a question that really needs a lot of time and space to address. ‘Shalom’ is shorthand for the ‘reign of God’ that has come. It is far more than personal peace etc and way more than some decisionist evangelism that invites people to make ‘personal’ decisions (there is that misplaced individualism again). To be very brief, to live the shalom of God in the cul-de-sac would mean, minimally, recovering basic practices of Christian life (I write about this elsewhere). It would mean living into the rhythm of Luke 10:1-12 which means choosing to stay put and make the neighborhood ones’s priority. It would mean modeling kingdom life which, for example, would mean create extended family in the house with open doors that welcome the neighborhood into its life. There is so much to discuss here. Let me be very clear though, I am convinced that the cul-de-sac is not something to be cursed but is the place where God’s transformative shalom is waiting to be birthed.
Question: This may be a little off track from your book, but I know that there are quite a few leaders who are attempting to transition their church from traditional to missional. What are four or five things that you believe are most critical for such a transition to occur? Since I am always looking for hope and reasons to be encouraged in these uncharted waters, have you witnessed any churches that have actually made the missional transition?
Alan Roxburgh: Hmm! Always struggle with the ‘four or five things’. But let me be foolish. Pastors trying to transition…
Stop trying to change and transition your people. That makes them a project. Start loving them for who and where they are just now. This creates safe space. You start to model what you believe the Spirit is calling your church toward. In other words, YOU move back into the neighborhood and start practicing Luke 10. Until you do that stop trying to change others.
Share the stories of what God is doing in the neighborhood and be a detective of divinity by looking at where the Spirit is stirring heart desire in others in the church. Encourage them, work with them.
Become an interpreter of the Biblical narratives so people can start to read their neighborhoods with God’s eyes.
Stay put, stop moving from church to church.