Today, when we speak of recovering the missional purpose and nature of the church, we naturally draw upon the Bible's account of the first-century church. However, recovering the church's missiological purpose should not be understood as an attempt to replicate first-century Christianity in our time. Our times are dramatically different, especially given Christianity's unrivaled influence over the last two thousand years. Thus our cultural context in no way compares to that of the Roman Empire. Our challenge, then, is to appropriate the mission of the church (which never changes) to our current cultural context. This is not an adaptation of the gospel message in order to be relevant but rather an adaptation of how we express the gospel relevant to the culture we are trying to reach.
I can think of no more radical example of this than that which took place this past fall on a Friday night in Texas. In a place where high school football often rises to the level of idolatry and players are worshipped, one small Christian school – intent on being missional – displayed, on the field of competition, the radical values and nature of the kingdom.
As Rick Reilly of ESPN The Magazine reported:
They played the oddest game in high school football history last month down in Grapevine, Texas [a Dallas suburb]. It was Grapevine Faith vs. Gainesville State School and everything about it was upside down. For instance, when Gainesville came out to take the field, the Faith fans made a 40-yard spirit line for them to run through. Did you hear that? The other team's fans?
They even made a banner for players to crash through at the end. It said, "Go Tornadoes!" Which is also weird, because Faith is the Lions. It was rivers running uphill and cats petting dogs. More than 200 Faith fans sat on the Gainesville side and kept cheering the Gainesville players on –by name (Rick Reilly, "Life of Reilly," ESPN The Magazine, December 23, 2008).
You see, the Gainesville State School is a maximum-security correctional facility. Few schools are eager to place such a team on their schedule and every game they play is away. They haven't won a game all season and they have few fans. These are young men who have suffered the worst of family circumstances and experienced little or no love in their short lives. This is precisely why Kris Hogan, coach of the Grapevine Faith Lions, invited the Tornadoes to play.
As Rick Reilly wrote,
Hogan wanted to do something kind for the Gainesville team. Faith had never played Gainesville, but he already knew the score. After all, Faith was 7-2 going into the game, Gainesville 0-8 with 2 TDs all year. Faith has 70 kids, 11 coaches, the latest equipment and involved parents. Gainesville has a lot of kids with convictions for drugs, assault and robbery—many of whose families had disowned them—wearing seven-year-old shoulder pads and ancient helmets. So Hogan had this idea. What if half of our fans—for one night only—cheered for the other team? He sent out an e-mail asking the Faithful to do just that. "Here's the message I want you to send:" Hogan wrote. "You are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth." Some people were naturally confused. One Faith player walked into Hogan's office and asked, "Coach, why are we doing this?"
Hogan's response expresses the heart of what it means to be missional. Imagine if you didn't have a home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you. This attitude, which is contrary to our cultural conditioning, our nature and natural instincts, sought to demonstrate life under the loving rule and reign of God – to bear testimony to the fact that they have been transformed by Jesus Christ. The response was nothing less than miraculous.
The Faith fans cheered on the Gainesville players. Reilly noted,
The Gainesville Tornadoes were turning around on their bench to see something they never had before. Hundreds of fans. And actual cheerleaders! "I thought maybe they were confused," said Alex, a Gainesville lineman. "They started yelling DEE-fense! when their team had the ball. I said, What? Why they cheerin' for us?" Gainesville QB and middle linebacker, Isaiah said, "I never in my life thought I'd hear people cheering for us...." It was a strange experience for boys who most people cross the street to avoid. "We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games," says Gerald, a lineman who will wind up doing more than three years. "You can see it in their eyes. They're lookin' at us like we're criminals. But these people, they were yellin' for us! By our names!"
Despite losing 33-14, the Gainesville kids were so happy that after the game they gave head coach Mark Williams a sideline squirt-bottle shower like he'd just won state ... Maybe it figures that Gainesville played better than it had all season, scoring the game's last two touchdowns. Of course, this might be because Hogan put his third-string nose guard at safety and his third-string cornerback at defensive end. Still...after the game, both teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray and that's when Isaiah surprised everybody by asking to lead. "We had no idea what the kid was going to say," remembers Coach Hogan. But Isaiah said this: " Lord, I don't know how this happened, so I don't know how to say thank You, but I never would've known there was so many people in the world that cared about us."
As the Gainesville players walked back to their bus accompanied by armed guards, Reilly reported: "they each were handed a bag for the ride home – a burger, some fries, a soda, some candy, a Bible and an encouraging letter from a Faith player. The Gainesville coach saw Hogan, grabbed him hard by the shoulders and said, 'You'll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You'll never, ever know!'" (Reilly).
Friends, this coach and this community – driven by love – thought about their unique cultural context and how the gospel of Jesus Christ might be demonstrated in a relevant way to a particular people. This is the kind of missional creativity we need to engage in – to lay a foundation in demonstration that gives credibility to our proclamation.