This article appeared in the March Issue of The Congregationalist Magazine, published by The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, (NACCC), of which Mt. Hope Congregational Church and Pastor Chris Surber are a part.
Toward a Congregational Missiology
Our way is an incarnational way. Our way is an adaptable way. Our way is a lived way. The Congregational Way is nothing if not the “life on life” incarnate visible demonstration of the truth, the way, and the life of Jesus in the world and among us. I’m convinced that our way has deeper insights into Christian missiology than others credit and perhaps even than we know of ourselves. Faith, Freedom, Fellowship undergirds my philosophy and practice of mission.
My wife and I founded a vibrant and growing ministry in Haiti called “Supply and Multiply” which is inherently Congregational. It is rooted in cross-cultural relationships. It is essentially indigenous. It couldn’t be less denominational. I’ve been a decidedly Congregational and decidedly outreach oriented pastor for several years at the same time. Supply and Multiply is the outgrowth of a life following Jesus simply and reaching out relationally. I am a missiologist in the most practical sense of the word. I really do this stuff and The Congregational Way not only informs, but frames my missiology.
On December 19th, 1909 at First Congregational Church of Detroit, Pastor Gaius Glenn Atkins proclaimed, “We want our truth made incarnate, not only because life is the best demonstration and passion is the best logic, but because truth once made incarnate is stated in terms which are forever intelligible.”  We are the present tense passionate living breathing incarnation of Jesus in the world. The Congregational Way is inherently missiological. Here’
Who better than followers of Jesus who do so as pilgrim followers of The Congregational Way to carry the message of Christ to the nations and our neighbors? Why has the missional aspects of our way been obscured when we carry it so simply and have the capacity to offer it in such straightforward terms? Followers of our way championed bringing the Gospel message to bear in the real affairs of the world when champions of social justice like Washington Gladden worked to promote and spoke to proclaim that “The relation of Social Science to Christianity is, in fact, the relation of an offspring to its parent. Social Science is the child of Christianity. The national and international associations that are so diligently studying the things that make for human welfare in sociality are as distinctly the products of Christianity as is the American Board of Missions.”
For any missiology to be properly oriented in the direction of biblical inspiration, historic Christianity, and godly adherence, Christ and His Gospel must be at the center. “The Christian approach is, of course, the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus Christ.” Our way is a way consistent with those earliest Christians who followed Christ, who suffered martyrdom in His name, and believed in the efficacy of the suffering of Christ so deeply so as to warrant their own collective and personal suffering to further His name.
Our way speaks as directly to a missional way in the world as it did in Gladden’s day. We continue to be a people deeply concerned with applying Christianity in direct terms to the world around us. The Congregational Way has informed our missionary work in Haiti in way directly. Matthew 28 is our aim and Matthew 25 is our method. We proclaim Christ in our acts of compassion, kindness, and bringing godly justice to bear in the lives of the poor and forgotten. We proclaim Christ in our words on the platform of an applied Christianity.
Brothers and Sisters, a plain vocal proclamation of the Gospel – that Jesus died for sinners – and a spoken invitation to receive the redemption offered in Jesus by faith compliments a desire to act justly and live like Jesus in the world because, “We are never really renewed until we are renewed in ours.” What’s more, it is inherent to our way.
“The work of Christ on our behalf was potent beyond all other because His love was the most sincere, His self-renunciation the most complete, His sympathetic participation in the world’s pain and shame the most acute. In his desire for our redemption He became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross – it was the completeness of His devotion to our interests and to the will of the Heavenly Father which brought Him to Calvary.”
Our historic understanding of an applied faith informs a missiology which is replete with reasons to receive our Gospel. In Haiti, I’m all the time telling mission team members that the only way to find the endurance for long term work in the desperate details of Haiti is to accept that the world really is this broken and that we – as the living passionate incarnation of Christ to world – must wade through the brokenness in deep relationship with people. We aren’t here to check project list boxes or to do parachute drop ministry and run back to the comforts of America. No! Christ is most well and perhaps only authentically expressed in covenant community.
And that is as true at Mt. Hope in Livonia as it is in the dirt street allies of Montrouis, Haiti. Our handling of the Gospel, when it is a valid expression of The Congregational Way is demonstrated and therefore intelligible! It is inherently a “life on life” expression of divinely inspired healing interaction which is burning with the compassion of Christ.
Woven right into the fabric of our identity is adaptability. No family of churches has rolled with the punches of shifting culture, societal and theological trends more than followers of Jesus living out The Congregational Way. When I first came into Congregational Churches I wondered if our diversity was our detriment. We put up such a big tent that I wondered if our broadness would necessarily crowd out the Gospel. In the years since then, I’ve discovered the opposite to be true, though I remain concerned that our greatest strength has the capacity to become our greatest weakness. When freedom in Christ becomes license to abandon the simplest commands of Christ, our ideals can lull us to sleep when it comes to intentionality in missions.
Making room for various views of the Kingdom can never become license to ignore what is perhaps the clearest command regarding the Kingdom – to declare it’s King to the world! Lecturing on missions in the nave of Westminster Abby on the evening of December 3, 1873, Professor Max Muller stated the following with clarity.
“Let missionaries preach the Gospel again as it was preached when it began the conquest of the Roman Empire and the Gothic nations; when it had to struggle with powers and principalities, with time-honored religions and triumphant philosophies, with pride of civilizations and savagery of life – and yet came out victorious. At that time conversion was not a question to be settled by the acceptance or rejection of certain formulas or articles; a simple prayer was often enough: “God be merciful to me a sinner”
Who proclaims unity in diversity more loudly than adherents of The Congregational Way? So long as we cling to the simplest purest historical and biblical truths, our diversity is the very thing that secures a well-considered and properly articulated Congregational Missiology a head chair at the table of any discussion of Christian missions. Our way is inherently undenominational and as such, we ought to be more free than any other movement to cling to the simplicity of the biblical Gospel alone!
I’m a practical missiologists. I’m a missionary. I’ve found there to be a great deal of rigidity found among a broad range of missionaries. It’s to be expected. God’s call to missionary work is usually heard most clearly by people of strong convictions. “Wishy-washy” people don’t tend to toward bold and courageous actions. It takes conviction to personally interact with victims of homelessness on the streets of Detroit or to lock eyes with orphans in Port Au Prince. Missionaries are often formed in Christian traditions which promote a heavily rigid way of thinking doctrinally. Life on the mission field – wherever it is found – is difficult. Consequently, many people take spiritual, psychological, and emotional shelter in unbending patterns of thought.
The trouble is that perhaps nothing hinders a missionary’s effectiveness more than a lack of adaptability. Mental, spiritual, and emotional elasticity is crucial to every aspect of mission work. Learning another language at a high level requires entrance into another culture. Language nuance is bound tightly to the culture in which it is spoken. Interacting effectively with people who don’t think like you, requires what may appear to outsiders to be an absurd amount of empathy and understanding. Rigid thinking does not lend itself well to effective mission work. Ministering cross-culturally must be adaptable, nonjudgmental, and relatable.
An adaptable missiology, the kind that flows naturally from our culture and heritage, has incarnational impact that rigidity simply cannot. Rigidity reinforces opposition to the Gospel-bearer and the Gospel, while adaptability creates for the creation of life on life relationships. “
A lot of people want strict adherence to rules and regulations when it comes to programs of Christian discipleship, patterns of local outreach, or participation in global evangelism and foreign mission. I’ve experienced and witnessed a great deal more value and lasting spiritual and material fruit flow out of authentic community life. In Haiti, we take people on mission who barely know Jesus and watch Christ life come alive in them. In Church discipleship we steer people toward a Holy Spirit led personal and communal search of the Scriptures and watch people become personal students of God’s Word and imitators of Jesus in the world.
Freedom to follow Jesus is an invitation to a hurting world to find lasting hope.
The essence of our way is “life on life” connection. A lot of Christians are gravitating toward this notion because it is seen as inherently missional, incarnational, and consequently, life-giving. But these ideas aren’t a new discovery. They are just a new articulation of truths that have been present among Congregationalists from the time of the English Reformation! Congregational missiologists have something of great value to share with this generation. Ours is a life-giving way with roots.
The Congregational Way is inherently incarnational. Covenant connection, not contrived community, is central to our way. Our way is living, breathing, moving, because it is essentially voluntary. Our churches partner with one another out of a voluntary conviction that two are better than one. Our members voluntarily associate with one another because we recognize that where two or more are gathered Christ is there with us.
I’m suggesting that it’s time for us to restate, reshape, and reimagine a robust conversation as to a Congregational Missiology. My wife and I planted a seed in Haiti wrapped up in Congregational identity and are watching it flourish. Our Haitian church and community investments and partnerships couldn’t be more cross-denominational. Our supporters and friends in America come from every corner of Christendom. We’re seeing that plant in Haiti coming back to the America by way of seeds of similar content in the hearts of mission team members who have tasted its fruit in Haiti and want to find its sweet savor at home.
The Congregational Way is not easy to pin down to one concrete set of dogmas or definitions, yet it is visible. A Congregational missiology is fluid and moving, like a river winding into a nearly unpassable valley. That is because our way reflects the very heart of the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and we live out. “It was a kingdom of insights and ideals and the true understanding of prevailing forces – a kingdom of visions and incarnate love. It was for the moment real only in a life and words which had been sown as seed across the fields in the souls of fishermen and tax-gatherers. Surely there was never so strange a kingdom as that and even its king was on His way to a Cross.”
Our way is uniquely adaptable. It is at least uniquely relational. It is entirely incarnational. Mission activity isn’t something we should do. It is something that – when rightly considered – flows supernaturally out of The Congregational Way.
 Gaius Glenn Atkins, Things That Remain, (First Congregational Church Detroit, 1910), 85.
 Washington Gladden, Applied Christianity, (Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, Boston and New York, 1886), 215.
 Gaius Glenn Atkins, Preaching and the Mind of Today, (Round Table Press, INC., New York, 1934,) 135.
 Gaius Glenn Atkins, The Godward Side of Life, (The Pilgrim Press, Boston and Chicago, 1917), 93.
 Charles Reynolds Brown, Why I Believe in Religion, (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1924), 68. *This book is comprised of the Washington Gladden lectures delivered in First Congregational Church of Columbus, Ohio in 1923.
 Arthur Stanley, On Missions, (Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, New York, 1874), 64-65.
 Gaius Glenn Atkins, The Undiscovered Country, (Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1922), 180-81.