Recently, my wife and I were backpacking in the Shenandoah National Park along the famous Appalachian Trail. This fabled trail stretches from Springer, Georgia to Maine, over 2000 miles of hiking. People from everywhere decide to take on this arduous task for various reasons. Some take it on as a challenge, a time of grieving, or self-reflection. I always have a good time talking to these people. I find them and their stories fascinating because they are doing something out of the norm. Walking over 2000 miles is kinda nuts. However, dig a little deeper, you find something familiar, something very human. Most thru-hikers start in late March in order to complete their traveling before the winter. This large group of hikers forms a community, a sub-culture. They call it “the bubble.” One of these hikers, Socrates (trail name), sat with us for a while and spoke of his experience on the trail so far. He hated hiking. It didn’t matter to him if he finished, if he made it to Maine or not. But, perhaps unintentionally, he conveyed what mattered to him: people, the community of hikers he’d met along the way. When some of these friends chose to end their journey, he traded in valuable time on the trail to stay with them for over a week in Damascus, VA. “Zero days” is what they call that, days of no progress towards Maine. His goal was subsumed by the bubble of close friends around him. Consequentially, Socrates now traveled alone. The rest of his community was either far ahead of him or returned to their comfortable homes. Socrates now traversed powered by his own will to complete his course.
By now, you’re probably wondering, what in the world does this have to do with missions? I want you to pretend for a minute that Socrates is a missionary or a church planter. He’s in a context of no churches, but he’s got a team, a “bubble” of people with him, people who began this journey with him, sharing the same vision and goal. They’ve been through a lot together. They push one another along, keep one another going. But then it happens. Somebody is frustrated. The group dynamic changes, and their life together just doesn’t seem to work. Words are exchanged and the sacred Life Together isn’t happening. The focus shifts from the external task into the pastoring of internal tension. See the problem? Now, I’m not saying that the bubble or community are wrong. Or, that the task of a missionary excludes discipleship or the “missional community” (whatever that phrase has come to mean) What I am saying is that church planters and missionaries have an aim, a direction, a telos that is more important, more vital, than a bubble of belonging-ness to a team. The mission > community.
All cards on the table. I’m a millennial, 27 years old and I’m saying we’ve got a problem. I’m shining a big light right on my own heart. Our need to be accepted into a community or team cannot trump the mission. A lot of missionaries leave the field because of team dynamics: an uncomfortable or absent community. Here’s the thing though: sacrifices have to be made. You may wake up and find you and your family are walking alone. That’s okay. Didn’t almost every saint, every prophet, Jesus himself find themselves alone at some point, even the most vital point in their ministry? Here’s the truth: Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He came for them, to save them because they were perishing. I’m not saying it’s easy or comfortable, but we should try to build intimate community with the lost people around us. The problem isn’t with community. It lies within context of the community we’re trying to make. If you’re in a context of church planting, the field is your community. Your mission is your community. Your goal is community, but you have to keep walking, even if you’re alone.