February 10, 2009 / David Fitch

Frank Viola/David Fitch on Missiology’s Relationship to Ecclesiology

Frank Viola and I are dialogue-ing via an interview he has done on his blog. I’m trying to keep up. Frank’s got more energy than my three-year-old. In response to question 6, Frank gives his take on the whole “missiology precedes ecclesiology” thing. I respond first to this. (I deliberately didn’t get into the whole Christology precedes ecclesiology issue because I addressed that here). Below find Frank’s and then my response.
FRANK VIOLA: Regarding what comes first mission or church — missiology or ecclesiology, I think it boils down to how one defines mission. For instance, if we define “the mission” as God’s Eternal Purpose, as I do, then mission proceeds ecclesiology because it produces the ekklesia. But if we define it through the lens of D.L. Moody, which is so often the case today, then it simply means bringing the gospel to lost souls and seeing them converted. Evangelism flows out of the ekklesia. It’s what she, the organism of the church, does biologically when she is following her spiritual instincts. But it’s not the only thing she does. Nor is it the most important. God’s purpose goes far beyond the saving of lost souls (or whatever language one likes to use for that).

I personally think that within the modern missional movement there’s massive confusion on the difference between what Luke calls “the work” and “the church.”

The work is the regional, traveling, itinerant ministry of apostolic workers. The goal of the work is to produce local, corporate expressions of Jesus Christ (ekklesias). Workers, however, are produced by the church. Which comes first? It’s a chicken-egg situation. The church produces workers and workers raise up the church.

I’m really not sure how helpful it is to argue over what comes first, mission or church. To my mind, that line of thinking often leads us to the same place that fruitless Word vs. Spirit debates take us. Not very far.

I could be wrong about this, but I think it’s far more important to understand what God’s mission is exactly. I’ve done some surveys on this question among my friends in the missional church movement, and one thing stands out. When that question is raised, things get really murky.

That brings us back to the question of the Eternal (or Ageless) Purpose of God, as Paul calls it in Ephesians. I believe that this is the critical issue of the missional church conversation today.

DAVID FITCH: First of all Frank, many thanks for engaging me. If it weren’t for friends like you, I would not be challenged nor grow from interactions as valuable as these.

I think I get what you and others are talking about when you make that distinction between the guiding telos of God being Mission and therefore Mission is prior to the church, versus say D L Moody, who made the evangelism of souls into personal salvation a mission of the church, therefore for him, the church is prior to mission. In this sense, I am very much on board with you and others who follow this same line.

Where I’d like to push for more clarity is just how much the church is God’s chosen means to engage the world. In other words, Mission is unthinkable in God’s economy of salvation, without the church. In response to Gerhard Lohfink’s question from his book of the same title, “Does God Need the Church?”: the answer is “yes” in the sense that God chose to redeem all of creation while choosing to safeguard humanity’s freedom and living as human in history. God’s chosen means therefore to redeem the world was through the creation of a people whose social existence bears witness to the comprehensive scope of God’s salvation for the world. This is where God would show forth (proclaim out of a visible reality) his mighty works into the world (1 Peter 2:9). This is the Story from the beginning of God’s covenant with Abraham to the formation of Israel, and to the culmination of God’s revealing in Jesus Christ thereby birthing a people to embody (“the body of Christ”) and carry on this mission until He returns. To summarize then why the church is so important to us Hauerwasian Yoderian Anabaptist Missionalites (I just made that word up!), I offer the famous quote from Lohfink in his book which I quoted at the end of The Great Giveaway. Here goes:

“It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have the opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed.” p 27.

Salvation like this, in other words, demands a concrete place (Lohfink’s words). To me this is why the church must be truly “incarnational” (concrete) in the ways Hirsch and Frost and others talk about it. This church is not attractional so much as attractive. The gospel is lived in a way that is visible to, engaging in and redeeming of the surrounding context. It must inhabit and discern and capture and heal as well as bless the surrounding community with its presence as Christ’s body. In this way it becomes a visible foretaste of the Kingdom that is coming.

But it is never as simple as the cheap modernist contextualization where we go into a context and discern where the hurts are and design a church and translate the gospel message in a way that would meet these needs. This is not what I think Alan (Hirsch) means when he says ecclesiology comes “out the back end” of mission. But it is the way a lot of missional practitioners that I meet all over the country have interpreted him and others. Contextualization must be more incarnational than that. This to me is the problem of inviting an alcoholic into an alcoholics anonymous meeting. The goal becomes overcoming alcoholism. And the alcoholics together largely stay within the frame of other alcoholics calling on Jesus (or another higher power) to achieve a personal goal. Instead all we sin-aholics of all kinds must be invited into a community of God’s all-encompassing Mission, His Story of reconciling the whole world into Himself thereby redeeming all of creation. In the process, every part of our lives (including our addictions) are re-oriented into a way of life born out of the salvation in Christ.
It is scary thing to say (because many of us are so disappointed with our churches) but in the sense described above, the church is the epistemological foundation for doing ministry in the world. I believe Yoder is the primary influence here (the Politics of Jesus), by which Hauerwas becomes more explicit on the epistemological priority of the church in a post-foundationalist world. To say somehow that ecclesiology precedes missiology however is to miss the entire point. For there is no dualism here. Ecclesiology is missiology and vice versa.
I’ve got to go teach, and do some meetings and get two hours of writing in. But I hope to visit the blog today and tomorrow from time to time. I’ll sure try to respond to those other questions about our church today or tomorrow. Hope that is alright. I’m honored.
David Fitch