When it comes to the cutting edge of mission, talk of the church is becoming increasingly faux pas in certain circles.
If we truly want to be on mission cultivating Gospel-faithfulness amidst an increasingly post-Christian, secularized West, then our focus must shift away from the identity/nature of the church and onto the shape of God’s in-breaking kingdom in the world.
This shift is necessary, so the story goes, because ecclesiology has become a distraction keeping us from adequately addressing the missiological challenges before us. Energy spent understanding and cultivating the identity and practices of a local, gathered body of Christians is a waste of time, albeit a harmless one.
Anecdotal evidence – that is, the sense I get from the activity and conversation swirling around me in various evangelical circles – suggests that many individuals and organizations have already, in practice, abandoned corporate habits of worship as a central, defining characteristic in favor of scattered presence in neighborhoods amidst social movements.
Outside the deliberate attempt to shift the conversation theoretically, the subterranean shift is happening subtly, even among some historically sacramental traditions, where thick liturgical practices have become old furniture left over from a previous generation that have forgotten meaning and purpose. Were it not for the novelty the liturgy has for a younger generation, those ecclesiological concerns might be abandoned completely, neglected in order to give attention to more interesting concerns.
Whether intentional or unintentional, it has become possible to pull apart ecclesiology from missiology in theory and in practice. “At what point did the church get in the way of mission?” I wonder. It has become possible to pull apart ecclesiology from missiology in theory and in practice. Click To Tweet
Understand, dear reader, the question I’m not asking: Does or has emphasis on “church” as a thing unto itself distracted us from participating in God’s mission in the world? Yes, this has and is happening. We can all agree that this reality has made the work of missiologists like Leslie Newbigin (and other who picked up his mantle) so important and prophetic.
The question I am asking is this: What assumptions make possible the ability to talk about mission as a deeper work Christians can do more or better once we focus less on the identity and nature of the church? Put another way, how did we come to believe that the shape of mission can be discerned apart from the essence of the church?
I submit that the assumption that makes all of this possible is grounded in another question: “What do you think is happening in here?”
In 63BC, the Roman army stormed Jerusalem, laying siege to the city. General Pompey infamously made his way into the temple, desiring to see for himself what the Jews sought to guard and preserve with their lives. Brashly bursting into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred of space for God’s people, Pompey found it unimpressively empty: “there’s nothing of substance here.”
My hunch is that Christians can find ecclesiology distracting and emphasize the church’s mission separately from its identity because the practices of the church no longer have any, or are gradually losing, substance. Regular practices of worship in a local body have been evacuated of formative oomph. Regular practices of worship in a local body have been evacuated of formative oomph. Click To Tweet
Behind the assumption that the shape of mission can be discerned apart from discerning the shape of the church, is an explicit or implicit affirmation that “there’s nothing really happening here. The historic, worship-practices of the church (and attention to exploring how to cultivate those well) are merely incidental to mission. They have no power for affecting what matters most.
This is one of the reasons why “What kind of world is God birthing in Christ?” and “What kind of church do we need to be?” can exist as separate and even competing questions.
In the midst of these assumptions, I am chewing on a series of questions:
- Without a particular formation within a particular body through particular practice shaped by a particular Story, how do those on mission avoid being absorbed into other (secular) stories?
- And if formation is necessary for becoming the type of people who participate in God’s mission – for cultivating the type of imagination that knows what its looking for and what to witness to when it goes out into the world – then how is it possible to do missiology in exclusion from ecclesiology?
- Do not all assumptions about what “counts” as God’s reconciliation in the world emerge from some place – aren’t those answers embedded in some type of community that is constituted and shaped by a telos with certain rhythms and practices?
- Most succinctly: Is it possible to participate in the missio dei without also participating in the vita dei?
My preliminary response to that last, summarizing question is, No – it is not possible.
If participation in the mission of God is irreducible from participation in the life of God, then the work of discerning how and where God is birthing salvation in the world and discerning the nature and shape of the gathering of people who worship that God are two mutually reinforcing aspects of the same work, not separate and competing work.
The church is the body in which we are formed for witness – in which we learn to embody and proclaim God’s reconciliation of all things amidst other “bodies.” The church is the body in which we are formed for witness. Click To Tweet
This affirmation that participation in the mission of God is irreducible from participation in the life of God, which still needs much unfolding, is critical to Gospel-witness in an increasingly secular West.
— [Photo by Simon Law, CC via Flickr]