“Christendom has done away with Christianity without being quite aware of it” Soren Kierkegaard
Ever since the cross was painted on a shield – held about one yard from the heart, Christendom, in its Constantinian political power, began to lose its true identity modelled on the humble servant/king Jesus.
Money and power have never been far away from the cloistered chambers of prayer, and even today, when we survey the blighted history of the Church we come to the sad conclusion that we didn’t do a particularly brilliant job. While many are hunting down the “speck” of homosexual marriage it seems that we might do well to take the great plank out of our own eyes first. Weeping is a good way to dissolve planks!
Of course, God is the master of history and, as the famous parable says, has allowed the good seed to grow with the weeds. There have always been the bright periods when pioneers, often perceived and persecuted as heretics, and missionaries opened their hearts and the Word of God to the world.
The fastest growing church in the world today is those who are leaving it!
I celebrate my thirty years as a missionary this month. I remember back to those inspiring moments when God called me to follow Him in “triumphal procession” amongst the nations and to share something of the perfume of Christ. It has to rate as life’s greatest privilege. However, I am still mindful of the pain that the word “mission” can conjure up for many. Let’s hear what Mark Twain had to say:
I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonoured, from pirate raids in Kiaochow, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and towel, but hide the looking glass.” A Salutation from the 19th to the 20th Century,” December 31, 1900
In the wake of an often chequered colonial past, Western mission needs to heed the new voices. Lesslie Newbigin has long been such a prophet:
“We are forced to do something that the Western churches have never had to do since the days of their own birth – to discover the form and substance of a missionary church in terms that are valid in a world that has rejected the power and influence of the Western nations. Missions will no longer work along the stream of expanding Western power. They have to learn to go against the stream.” The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission
So, mission needs to learn about going against prevailing currents.
We are going deeper and deeper into crisis it seems.
Listen to what Roman Catholic theologian José Camblin has to say:
“There has never, since the origins of Christianity, been such a radical change in the world as the one that is now taking place. For the church, this transformation is more radical than the transition from Israel to the Gentiles, more important than the establishment of the institutional church under Constantine or the Protestant Reformation: the present transformation forces it to a more radical reappraisal of itself and challenges many more aspects of it than have been challenged hitherto.” The Holy Spirit and Liberation
How will we face up to the challenge? We could avoid the difficult questions by retreating into self centred hedonistic spirituality and simply, like the good old British films of the past, “Carry on Singing”. Another approach might be to batten up the hatches, get into defensive mode, and preserve the dwindling flock with endless Bible study.
Building on the radical voice of Michael Frost’s teaching, let me offer three ways of renewing our intelligence at this time.
1. It is time to think about God differently
For many, God is “up there”, hidden away in distant omnipotence. He seems to be a static God, carved into the rocks and doctrines of time, erecting static churches which need their roofs repairing.
There is nothing static about God! He is ever on the move breathing his creative life over chaotic waters and into human clay. He sent out the Lamb that was in His heart, sent passion and purpose into the world at Pentecost and sends us, his wounded, vulnerable church, into the dung and dough of this world.
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21-22
The very nature of God is to send and be creatively involved and committed. The key attribute of God is mission.
Theologians put it another way and in 1934, Karl Hartenstein, a German missiologist, coined the phrase “Missio Dei” (Latin for Mission of God) in response to Karl Barth and his emphasis on “Actio Dei” (Latin for “the action of God”).
According to David J. Bosch, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.” Jurgen Moltmann says, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”
Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine on the Missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.
We need to encounter the Missio Dei in a fresh wave of intimacy.
Jesus said that he could do nothing without the Father.
“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19
Jesus worked by revelation rather than perspiration! No redundant, ambitious energy here. He took the time to “see”, and worked out of divine relationship with the Father. There was no forced tension or difficulty in this. Divine flowed into Divine.
Intimacy with the Father is the foundation for our collaboration with the Missio Dei.
There is a danger that the marvellous revelation of God’s Fatherhood to us may be perverted into some introspective Freudian passivity. This is so wrong! We have boxed the Father into a psychological, pastorally weighted paradigm instead of releasing Him into His transformational missional identity. Look again at the intimate words of Jesus in Chapter 5 of John and see what other word is associated with the revelation of “Father”:
“He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.”
“…whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me.”
“I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
“For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me.”
“And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me.”
You cannot separate the Father from his “sending”!
Jesus is totally impregnated with the notion and character of a missionary Father – the closer you get to such a Father, the more “sent” you become. The intimacy of such a Fatherly revelation is not limited to your own personal “inner healing” but it spreads like a magnificent tree for the “healing of the nations.”
So think differently and get sent!
“The primary purpose of the “missions ecclesiae” can therefore not simply be the planting of churches or the saving of souls; rather, it has to be service to the missio dei, representing God in and over against the world, pointing to God, holding up the God-child before the eyes of the world in a ceaseless celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany…In its mission the Church witnesses to the fullness of the promise of God’s reign and participates in the ongoing struggle between that reign and the powers of darkness and evil…Thus, in its missionary activity, the church encounters a humanity and a world in which God’s salvation has been operative secretly, through the Spirit.” Vatican 11 Gaudium et Spes 26
2. It is time to think about the Church differently
The church is not a building! It is a collection of relationships propelled out into the cultural context the Holy Spirit has prepared for us.
Your context is your mission field…and ongoing church.
Many know that the Greek word the bible uses for church is “ekklesia” – “called out ones” or “gathered ones”.
Paul in Acts 17:17 “…reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace (agora) day by day with those who happened to be there.”
Both “synagogue” and “agora” also have the same notion of a gathering place. It seems that the thrust of Paul was to use any structure necessary get the word of God to as many folk as possible. He could cater for the “in crowd” Jews but also for “those who happened to be there”
I think that the Holy Spirit may be calling us to think more widely about the nature of church so that it can be available for those crowds around us who caused Jesus such compassion.
I sometimes wonder what Jesus was thinking about when he said in Matthew 16:18:
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
He links church (good) with gates (bad). Now Jesus, with his Jewish background, would have known all about gates. It was the place of authority where the wise would sit and judge for the benefit of their community. When Jesus later talks about “keys”, (are they not for gates?), he is no doubt continuing the parallel of church (good gate) versus the Satanic kingdom (bad gate).
He would have known how Moses put blood on the doorposts to protect from the destroying angel, and would have cherished the memory of Nehemiah restoring the glory of Jerusalem by repairing the gates that were burnt with fire.
Perhaps he may have been thinking of the wife of value whose husband was “respected at the city gate where he takes his seat among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23) or even thinking of the wonderful blessing Rebekah’s family prayed over the future bride:
“Our sister, may you increase to thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies.” Genesis 24:60
Where is your “gate”, the place of authority that the Lord wants you to serve in with wisdom and love? It may be family, or in society – business, education or government. Where is your “agora?”
We need to review the “attractional” paradigm of church, which sees everything drawn into it, and move to a more “incarnational” one which sees us sitting as servants within our society.
Can we begin to think about church as the “called out” wise ones, given as God’s gift to our villages, towns and neighbourhoods – salt and light bringing protection and restoration within the heart of our communities?
3. It is time to make mission the organisational principle of Church
From a study of Acts 2:42-47, most people would conclude that there are four basic functions of Church.
Worship, Fellowship, Teaching & Mission.
Over the years it seems that worship has emerged as the dominant or organisational principle of most churches. There are many ways to worship and share the sacrament, but essentially people go to a building to take communion and sing. We would usually enjoy “something from the word,” biscuit and a cup of tea followed by a kind of guilty numbness about the “lost.” Passionate evangelists, or guest speakers try to give ease to the guilt with the occasional “outreach programme” which mobilizes the more noble amongst us.
While asking you to forgive my simplistic generalisations, can I also assure you that I think very highly of all these functions and do not want to dismiss any. However, I’m making a plea for mission to become the organising principle and not just the last resort.
Once people grasped a clear missional goal together the fellowship and teaching would get done “on the job”. Instead of teaching being like theoretical school homework it would become vital information for getting the job done. Instead of forced fellowship over a polite “How are you?” we would truly become a “Band of Brothers” on a mission.
The worship would go beyond the building and the singing (although I still think we need a gathering point for robust corporate celebration) and into the living sacrifice of lives laid down in service in the midst of a community. Such validation of worship would no doubt engender a deeper reality at the communion table – wherever that was held.
I’ll share a few quotations to help underpin the paradigm of mission as the organisational principle of church.
“The Church, wherever it is, is not only Christ’s witness to its own people and nation, but also the home base for a mission to the ends of the earth.” Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season.
“The Church exists in being sent and in building up itself for the sake of its mission.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4/IV/1.
“I think that the deepest motive for mission is simply the desire to be with Jesus where he is, on the frontier between the reign of God and the usurped dominion of the devil.” Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season.
Mission may take us to the ends of the earth and an unreached tribe in northern India, but it may also take us into the world of business, entertainment or sport. While writing this article I have been involved in developing the concept and practise of Business as Mission. Hardly a new concept…and yet coming back to the centre stage of church life.
As well as encouraging you, like Newbiggin, to have a deeper “desire to be with Jesus where he is,” let me finish with a quotation from the matured wisdom of Kenneth Scott Latourette as he traces the role of the “ordinary man and woman” in the greatest adventure life has to offer – sharing the life of Jesus with the world!
“The chief agents in the expansion of Christianity appear not to have been those who made it a profession or a major part of their occupation, but men and women who earned their livelihood in some purely secular manner and spoke of their faith to those whom they met in this natural fashion. Thus when Celsus denounces a religion which spreads through workers in wool and leather and fullers and uneducated persons who get hold of children privately and of ignorant women and teach them, Origen does not deny that this occurs. [see Contra Cels., III, 55] In the commerce and the travel which were so marked a feature of the Roman Empire, the faith must have made many new contacts through Christian merchants and tradesmen. … Involuntary travelers such as slaves and Christians deported for their faith were also agents.” Kenneth Scott Latourette, The First Five Centuries.
Be you a slave, a traveler, a merchant, tradesman, missionary or pastor…There’s a world to win…and the world awaits…