“…making good sense of the Bible and applying that sense wisely to our lives is a hard thing to do.”
Bigger than the Church
Consider this familiar story.
A congregation recognizes its neighborhood has changed dramatically. The leadership sense something has shifted and they want to reach out to the new realities of their context. They upgrade the building to make it more attractive to outsiders, putting in new carpet, giving the place a point job, and hanging religious art on the walls. Then they changed the Sunday service: alongside the traditional service at 11:00 a.m., they now offer a new contemporary service at 9:30 with a worship band, PowerPoint slides for the worship lyrics, and even a bit of drama. The sermons shift from expositional preaching to themes like “How the Bible Helps to Make Your Life Work.” They hire a marketing consultant to develop new brochures to communicate the kind of people they are as a church and why others would want to join them. Finally, they decide to hire a new youth and children’s worker who provides high-quality programs.
One of the struggles with the church is our limited imagination. We tend to think in terms of the church being at the center where people come to encounter, explore, and apply the Christian life. As a result, the church grows and becomes an exciting place. However, God’s work in the world transcends our buildings and campuses. Roxburgh and Boren continue with this provocative statement: “God is up to something in the world bigger than the church.” Often, but not always, when we talk about applying the Bible to our lives we are in the realm of life improvement. The gospel is not just about life improvement. It is about participating in God’s work of remaking the world.
Life Application Is Not Enough
A long time ago, an educator with the last name of Bloom came out with a system (Bloom’s Taxonomy) that helped defined how well students are learning. The system describes what happens as learning moves from a low-level of understanding to a high-level understanding—six levels in all. At the third level, right after remember and understand, is apply. Thus, just applying what one learns demonstrates only a mid-level of learning. The three levels that follow are analyze, evaluate, and create. The deeper the learning of content, the more one can do with that content.
The same is true with the Bible. We need to do more than apply. In fact, I’d like to add another level to aim for—incarnate. To incarnate is to put skin on it, or in other words, to live it out. This is the third task we bring to the Bible—living the gospel, which I call missional action. This is what happens when we embody the gospel as a way of life rather than just sprinkle in life application.
Missional action reorients the way we think about living the gospel. The word “missional” carries the idea of going or sending. More than a change of thinking, it is a whole body move that challenges our place of comfort and connects us with the mission of God in the world. Here are four practices that get us moving in the right direction.
- Leaving. For church people, much of our activity as a church happens at the building. When we want to reach out, we are generally interested in raising money and giving it to others who are already out there doing the hard work. The practice of leaving is about getting beyond our church walls. It is about sending ourselves rather than just sending our money. It is breaking free from the comfort zone.
- Listening. We are way more in tune with the goings on of our own life than we are with anything else. We are dialed in on our needs and wants, constantly thinking about how we fulfill them as soon as possible. When we do catch wind of the needs of others, we usually respond by ignoring or maybe by donating our unused stuff. The practice of listening is about connecting with others. Rather than just handing out stuff, listening is about being with people. It is about asking questions and paying attention to the needs of others.
- Living Among. Church people connect best with church people. It is perfectly natural to socialize with people who share our values, interests, and language. Socializing beyond these natural connections tends to be brief and surface level. The practice of living among is about connecting beyond our holy circles long enough to form friendships with unlikely people. It is about being with the poor rather than just helping the poor. It is about participating in regular life of the surrounding culture.
- Loving. Christian love, even for Christians, is hard. Helping is one thing; loving often demands more than we can imagine. We say we love others—our neighbors, maybe even our enemies—but to do more than verbalize it is hard. The practice of loving is about blessing others in action-oriented ways. Rather than just extending a hand at arm’s length to offer a handshake, it is about an embrace—physically and metaphorically.
As the third task, missional action does not spring from a vacuum. Rather, it is born out of our Bible reading and our theological reflection. Two questions open the door from these first two tasks into the third: What is God already doing around us? How do we get involved with that?
Each task on its own is incomplete. As tools of the Spirit, the three work together to move us out of a comfortable version of Christianity to one that moves into the work of God healing the world.
 Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans, 2003), p. xv.
 Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church (Baker Books, 2009), p. 18.
 Same, p. 20.
 Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom (Josey-Bass, 2008), p. 124. The authors list these four practices first, then use a chapter for each to flesh them out (chapters 14-17).