(continued from May 28th)
Picking up with the 3rd and 4th strands that form the rope harnessing what it means to be a missional church:
3) Missional church is about the nature and purpose of the church: The church is an essential part of the missional conversation. The question which the authors of the book Missional Church set out to address was the nature of the church in North America as the agency of God’s mission in the world. That part of the discussion focused attention on two critical areas of dialogue a) the nature of the culture in which we currently are located as North Americans and b) the purposes of God in the world as revealed by Jesus Christ and his Gospel. In terms of the former, the church is no longer at the center of the culture. This raises fundamental questions about the relationship between Christian life and the pluralistic culture in which we now live. In terms of the latter, the message of Jesus was about the in-breaking of the reign of God into the world. Therefore, on the basis of both these motifs, the church is the called out community of God in the midst of the specificity of a culture. The genitive in that phrase (the of God) is not an objective but a subjective genitive. In other words, the church is called out for the sake of God; this is what God has done in Jesus Christ in order to call into being a new society whose life and focus is God.
The church is, therefore, an ecclesia, a called out assembly whose public life is a sign, witness, foretaste and instrument to which God is inviting all creation in Jesus Christ. The church, in its life together and witness in the world, proclaims the destiny and future of all creation. In this sense, local congregations are embodiments of where God is calling all creation. The church anticipates the eschatological future of all created things through the power of the Spirit. This is why Lesslie Newbigin gave so much energy in his early writing to understanding the nature of election in the biblical narratives of the reign of God. Election is not the rescue of human beings from some future damnation. It is the call of men and women (in the mystery of God’s purposes) to submit their lives to the God who encounters us in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. Again, to put that into the context of the church in North America (which is largely middle class and suburban) the call of God is to a vocation for the sake of the world, not one’s own personal needs. In this context (and not any other in this conversation) the church is not a gathering of those who are finding their needs met in Jesus. This is a terrible debasement of the announcement of the reign of God. The God we meet in Jesus calls men and women in exactly the opposite direction-to participate in a community that no longer lives for itself and its own needs but as a contrast society whose very life together manifests God’s reign. How the North American church could take this story, especially one focused around the One who, according to Philippians 2 emptied himself by giving up all his rights in obedience to the Father, into a story about God wanting to meet my needs, is a question that makes abundantly clear the church’s own need for radical conversion to the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ.
4) Missional church is a contrast society: The church is formed around a set of beliefs and practices which continually school and form it in a way of life which cannot be derived from the particular culture in which it is found, but must be embodied in translatable forms within a particular culture. Our North American culture is commonly designated as a modern or a postmodern one in which individual rights are paramount. We live in a context where it is simply assumed that in this tolerant and open society personal rights, feelings and desires are to be affirmed. As a contrast society the church is formed around a set of beliefs and practices that continually shape it in a way of life which cannot be derived from the particular culture in which it is found but must be embodied in translatable forms within a culture. Therefore, missional church is about what Catholic missiologists call ressourcement, meaning a return to the sources. Missional church is not about the modern mantra that we must reject the insular, conforming demands of the past with their so-called cultural captivities, for some new future that is all about meeting the needs of middle-class expressive individuals. Missional church, like the biblical texts of Jeremiah and Isaiah, is convinced that God has brought the Western church into an experience of liminality within its own cultural world, a place of marginalization, in order that through its loss, anxiety and chaos, it might hear again the Word of God. This was the experience of the exile in Babylon.
The missional church conversation does not claim a parallel between our situation and that of Judah after 587 BC. The language of exile is alien to the North American imagination. People look at churches full of people and it seems to them that these are signs that all is well in the land. Indeed, the assumption is that if there is a problem with a specific congregation or denomination, in terms of dwindling membership or finances, it is because that particular group has wedded itself to outdated methodologies. All that needs to be done is to figure out the correct methodology for the moment and recalibrate the system for success just like those other church groups that seem to be thriving. This is precisely the lie that the religious leaders of Jerusalem used against Jeremiah prior to the exile. It was all a matter of finding the right tactics; God was, after all on their side and nothing could change that reality. Therefore, a little change here, a little tweaking there and all would be well. This is the situation today.
But the formation of a missional church is going to be a very costly matter. It calls for a people who are willing to conform their lives to practices and habits of Christian life which, at their root, are about the willingness to give up one’s personal needs and rights. This is a terrifying, archaic, almost anti-human thing for most contemporary people to imagine. Human life is not about my needs and me! The humanity that God calls into being in Jesus Christ is one shaped by obedience and conformity to habits and practices learned by God’s people in the Old Testament through the Torah and in the early church through the development of catechesis, offices and practices. Therefore, the missional church is about a way of life that cuts across the grain not only of the culture but the pastoral models of therapeutics or management and control. Missional church is about the formation of a people in the particularity and materiality of real contexts in neighborhoods and communities. Therefore, missional leadership is more about the rediscovery of the ancient work of the abbot among a people. This is terrifyingly hard work for contemporary pastors because nothing in their training or habit of life has prepared them for such a vocation. The missional church conversation calls for leaders themselves to become novices; but novices who return to ancient practices and novices who choose to live under the authority of Scripture among a community of people where the “I” is replaced by the “We.”