Borderland Churches -- A Review

BORDERLAND CHURCHES: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living. By Gary V. Nelson. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008. x + 166 pp.

We live and work and have our being in a very different world than that of our parents or grand parents. You can make that claim whether you are 18, 35, 50, or maybe even 60. The fact is that the world has changed and the place of Christianity and the church has diminished. We hear a lot about theocratic pretensions, but by and large those voices, while loud, are rather small in number. Gary Nelson writes from a Canadian context, where secularization is much further along than in the United States. There, more than here, religion is private. The number of those claiming no religion, while growing in the US, hasn’t reached a national number of 16% as in Canada. But what is happening there is quickly moving south. With this growing marginalization of the church, old paradigms of church life and church growth must change.

The title of the book is key. It is about missional living, about the church engaging the culture that surrounds it. The image of the borderland helps give life to this new understanding of church. Borderlands tend to be wild and untamed. Borderland areas are often inconvenient and uncomfortable. For the church to live out its mission in the borderlands, and that is where most of our churches now sit, we will have to understand that the mission field isn’t over there, it’s in our back yard. Borderland ministries, to be successful, must move from a “come to” understanding, that is, a “build it and they’ll come,” to a “go to” one. The challenge is that while missionary work my sound romantic, for us to engage in it requires a great deal of willingness to embrace radical change.

“Missionary life is full of inconvenience and discomfort. It will require that we work outside ourselves. It will require that we substitute ‘that which is comfortable to us’ for ‘that which will be comfortable for you’” (p. 5).

If we are to become a missional church, which many churches are talking about, we must risk ourselves in embracing the community around us. We must engage it and impact it. And the leaders of such churches must thrive in borderland situations. That is, they must be willing to go out where the people are present, rather than stay inside the safety of the faith community.

Churches are often hindered in their efforts because they tend to look backward. While our heritage and our traditions are important help define the message, too often we look back at the way things were, at when we had a place of importance, when people simply came, and we look back with bitterness and anger. When we do this, Nelson suggests, we can’t embrace the future. Now, churches understand that change is necessary, but they want it quick and easy, and when we live and work on the borderlands, change is often long term and difficult. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is the lack of urgency that many of our churches express.

“People only act in a transformational way when they feel urgency. Unfortunately, complacency is a deeply rooted attitude. We ignore the realities around us, take counsel only from ourselves, and listen to only what we want to hear. We wring our hands with anxiety, but continue to ignore signs pointing in the new direction. The song needs to be sung in a new way, but we naively hold on to the way it was” (p. 18).

But to those of us who preach change, he warns this call to change is not mere tinkering. True change, he points out moves beyond the superficial, beyond simply changing the style of music, to changing attitudes and presuppositions. He also points out that those most willing to embrace change are the ones who have some control over it.

So, living as we do in this ever changing environment, with the church becoming more and more set on the margins, with diversity becoming a constant opportunity and challenge, how might the church move forward? With the borderland theme preeminent, Nelson invites us to cross the border and begin living in the borderlands. This is an invitation to incarnational living. And once we cross over, there is no going back. That’s why they’re so difficult and challenging. Indeed, he notes that the most difficult moment is that moment in which we must actually jump, at the point of actual decision.

“Crossover times imply moments of decision, but they are not always decisions we control. They are more often decisions of response. Choices also take place when we are simply pushed off the edge. In those times, we have to decide whether or not we will fight against the experience” (pp. 29-30).

But once we cross the border, the journey isn’t over. Once we’ve crossed, the journey continues. It’s not just that we can fix the problems and then live in perfect peace. Border crossing becomes a continual adventure.

Churches are exploring the missional model understand that it requires of them an outward focus. They understand that being missionary is a nonnegotiable part of being church – we have been sent out! That means we must recognize that our lives must be shaped by the gospel itself. And how will we know when we have crossed the border and begun living incarnationally? It will be reflected in Nelson says, in “mood and atmosphere long before they move to programs” (p. 39). It will be expressed in attitudes such as openness and creativity. It will be expressed in beginning to exist for others. It will begin happening when find ourselves present in our communities. Nelson writes:

“Borderland churches know their neighbors, their politicians, and their neighboring businesses. They share in the community activities and are recognized by the agencies that work there. They are a presence not just through their buildings but through their social networks” (p. 39).

This journey to the borderlands requires that we connect with our roots. Nelson points back to the church at Ephesus. Whether or not we accept Pauline authorship of Ephesians or the pastorals, it is helpful to recognize that this church was incorporated for mission, but as he notes, in Revelation is criticized for having lost its purpose. As we take this journey, we must recover our passion. That requires that we let go of the safety of our institutionalized religion and embrace the world around us. This will require that we recover a theology of the church that centers in community that understands its purpose as being redemptive and transformative.

This involves three things: That we understand that the church is “called together,” that it is “called for” (to be a community of disciples), and that it is “called to” (service in the community) is essential to our movement forward in transformative ministries.

For clergy and other church leaders, this is a difficult transition. Clergy have for centuries been respected leaders in the community – even if never well paid. Now, they (we) are essentially irrelevant or at best our position in society is ambiguous. This requires that we develop a new tool kit, one that Nelson describes under the headings of apprentice, pastor, missionary, and theologian. It is that last calling that may surprise some, but it is essential that the leaders of churches be able to think theologically about the issues of the day. Note that the image of manager is missing.

“Pragmatic business models helpful in implementation do not necessarily produce deep churches and are wholly inadequate for the complexities of the times that we are in. Leaders cannot simply ‘have’ a theology, they must learn to ‘do’ theology, thoughtfully engaging in the task of cultural and relational interpretation through the lens of biblical reflection.” (P. 84).

Not only do leaders need new skill sets, but they also need to understand that leading churches into the borderland is a bit like “herding cats.” Therefore, as leaders they will need to learn to cultivate people so that they are able and willing to follow Jesus into the borderlands. This requires building trust and developing a sense of commitment, context, and constructs. The commitment should be self-explanatory, context is a sense of the environment – the neighborhood. Constructs have to do with congregational cultures – their history, structure, and values. To move forward many of these constructs must change and evolve. The way we talk and act with each other and in the community may need to change, and that will require that we begin questioning the assumptions by which we live and move and have our being!

As the church begins to question its assumptions and begins to rebuild for a new day, it must begin looking outward. In a most helpful chapter, entitled “Missioning the Church,” Nelson talks about our propensity to so focus on building the church that we forget that ministry happens out there. We commission Sunday school teachers and choir members, but not public school teachers, attorneys, nurses, etc. In doing this we forget that God is calling us to engage in incarnational ministry. In part this happens because the structures need servicing, so we want to honor our leaders and volunteers. But that need not preclude recognizing and “missioning” our people as they go out into the world. He writes:

“The church becomes both an instrument and sign of what God wants to do in this kingdom that Jesus brought to earth. The purpose of the church and its mission is to incarnationally point to what it might look like when a community of people becomes alive under God’s reign. By ‘missioning’, the church is making visible to each member, to the church community, and to the world that God’s people are at work” (p. 113).

Having been “missioned” we go out into the world, but do we go as tourists or travelers? Tourists go the convenient way and are unchanged by their encounters, but the traveler will encounter difficulty and discomfort, as Paul experienced it perhaps, and be changed by the encounters along the way. As we travel, we will experience, what he calls the “four E’s” – experience, embedding, engagement, and embodiment. To bring the words of life, the church must first gain a hearing, and thus it must go into the world and share life there.

The book closes with a series of case studies, of churches that have embraced the call to cross the borders. These stories suggest that while difficult there are real possibilities. But the churches are as transformed as the communities in which they live. That’s the point of all of this. We will be changed ourselves. We will, if we choose this route, abandon the old “attractional” or “come to” model that worked so well for generations. Then you just built a building and hung out a sign and waited for them to come. That day is over. Now is the time to embrace a new, “go to,” model. With this model, we will invest ourselves in our communities, in our neighborhoods. And just so that we understand what that means, Nelson points out that there are two kinds of neighborhoods to be entered. There is the neighborhood that surrounds the church, where the building is present. Missional life requires that we enter that community in a way that is transformative. But that’s not the only neighborhood. There is the neighborhood where we live, and the neighborhood where we work. In these communities, we are called to incarnational living. The good news is that we don’t cross the border alone – for God is with us. Oh, and a series of appendices provides help for congregations to explore and consider their neighborhoods.

This is a most important book, one that comes out of “The Columbia Partnership Leadership Series.” It is well written, thoughtful and challenging. While, it is another exploration of missional church theory and practice, it’s not just another book of theory. It offers important insight into how churches intent on becoming missional can take the next step and cross over into a new way of living in the world. Just the one little chapter about “missioning” the people is worth the price of the book. It will, I think help revolutionize the way church not only understands itself, but enters the neighborhood in a way that will transform both church and neighborhood. In closing, let me say: this is a must read book for all who wish to be not only missional, but to be a church that is present in a transformative way in the world.


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