You can’t hang around a church for any length of time without hearing someone use the term missional. It’s hard to believe that this mainstay of our lexicon was introduced to us less than twenty years ago when a group of six professors and pastors published their research in a book called Missional Church: A Vision of the Sending of the Church in North America. Since then, the majority of churches has become more focused on the theology of mission work and has created flourishing ministries, reaching out to all the sub-cultures of their communities . . . all, that is, but one. The military.
”Maybe its the ‘can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees’ type dynamic,” says Gary Sanders,
founder and president Military Missions Network (MMN), a non-profit organization in Chesapeake, Virginia. “But the majority of churches do not have any kind of organized ministry for the military. That’s been surprising to me.”
Clear Strategic Objective
“For example, surfing is a big thing in southern California, so they obviously have people who are in that culture and who feel called to take the gospel to that culture,” Sanders explains. “There are all these different kind of ministries for different cultures and yet, even in communities where military bases are located, most of the churches don’t have any organized strategy on military ministries.”
“I hear this from pastors all the time: ‘We love the military, but we just treat the military people like people. They’re just people.’ I tell them that nobody is unintentionally strategic.’”
Sanders says churches need to understand that the military and their families have a culture with which most of us are unfamiliar. Those who serve are culturally isolated from other subcultures, sharing a unique lifestyle, common experiences, and even a language. Once he can get a church to see that the military are a culture within the overall church culture, he knows he’s making headway. Then he reminds pastors what they learned in seminary.
“I know they learned that if you are in a cross-cultural environment and you are called to a people-group that is not your own, that one of the first things you do is study your people-group and find out how to love them and how to express that love in a way that is meaningful, so you can reach them with God’s love.”
He says pastors typically light up when they begin to see the situation from a different perspective, but even with newfound understanding, churches often think they can’t offer a military ministry; their staff is already stretched to the max, every penny of their budget is already spoken for, etc. Once again, Sanders suggests that this is the forest-and-the-tree frame of mind.
Recruit from the Pews
“There are people sitting in the pews who would have a heart to do a military ministry—we just haven’t given them direction,” says Sanders. “Most veterans want to serve and want to give back to the military, but there’s no avenue to do that. If pastors would say, ’Hey we’re looking for some people who could explore ways to support the military families, and to provide support and prayer . . . ’”
Communities without a military base connection can also provide support. Sanders says that those who serve through the National Guard and National Reserve are sometimes even more isolated than other military personnel. “They come back and they go right back to work, and sometimes they’re struggling just as much as those who are in active duty,” he explains.
Good to Go
Sanders encourages churches that are thinking about a military ministry to check out MMN’s “Community Gatherings” to meet others who have a heart for military ministries and to also consider sending a church representative to the organization’s Flagship Church Conference in October at Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“Military ministries have not been a traditional area for ministry,” says Sanders. “We just need to go back and think like a missionary.”
Judy Bumgarner is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee. She also works at Brentwood United Methodist Church in the church’s Caring Ministry.