Continuing on the theme of ekklesaphobia from the past few weeks, I often encounter a version of it when I’m speaking somewhere on my (latest) favorite theme – How “sentness extends the authority of Christ.” I try to show how whenever we enter a context, a new culture, and practice the Eucharist or Reconciliation (and other church practices), God’s authority is extended into His Mission, Christ’s presence takes up residence. Upon saying this, some is usually offended. So they will come up to me afterwards (or during the Q&A after the presentation) and object saying something like “but that sounds colonialist” meaning that imposes a preconceived practice/authority on a context. Medieval practices of the Eucharist and Penance probably come to mind and that approach disregards the culture of that context. It dismisses what God is already doing in the midst there. It is coercive, presumptive. Upon which I emphatically agree that these are dangers with all Western forms of church. But I also see here a symptom of what I have been calling ekklesiaphobia, a excessive fear of traditional church practice in mission. I observe this fear as infecting a lot of missional church types and so it’s healthy to deconstruct this fear and take a closer look.
A Fear of Repeating the Mistake of Colonialism:
“Colonialism” names that process by which the Western church once sent missionaries to other countries and, under the auspices of bringing the gospel, imposed their own language, customs and church institutions on the new converts. The end result was often not the furtherance of the gospel but an extension of an institution (their denomination of church) and an unhealthy dependency upon the West. Making matters worse, these institutions were often aligned with imperialist nations who used the church allegiance to exploit countries foreign to it. The so-called “foreign” country became a client of the colonialist nation.
Today, in these post-colonialist times, we nonetheless see colonialist tendencies even in the way church/mission are done in the North American church. We plant churches as extensions of a particular (denominational) form of church. We enter new contexts, set up mega-church programs, video venues assuming the singular presentation of the gospel that we preach in say Seattle is equally valid in a thousand miles away, say Albuquerque. We hold conferences falling into the temptation to extend the institution as an end in itself. We continually fall into the bad habit of identifying our own particular Christianity as determined by our own cultural experience as “the gospel” itself for all peoples in all contexts. There is much to discuss in this malady and many versions of it, but this in short, is the Western temptation of colonialism.
Ecclesial Practices as the Means for True Contextualization (and the Resistance of Colonialism)
The Missional church has done a great job of bringing the issue of colonialism to the forefront of N American church discussion. Missional church people emphasize listening, learning, exegeting, being among a cultural context. I love this kind of work.
But we also must remember that we who are sent by definition also bring something into a context. This is what “sentness” means. We are sent from somewhere, from someone with something. To bring this “something” (the gospel) from (and with) someone (the presence of Christ) we have to then contextualize those “some-things”. Some people call this “translation” (Lamin Sanneh). But I prefer incarnation, embodying the gospel and presence/reign of Christ in a place. This is where I’d like to say that contrary to intuitive wisdom, the practices of the church I have been contending for, not only resist Colonialism/de-contextualization, they actually make contextualization (embodiment) possible. They make possible the becoming visible of the presence of Christ and His reign in our midst in a way that is unpredictable and can only truly be understood post facto, after it has taken place.
To just take an example or two. When we practice the ecclesial practice of reconciliation in submission to Christ’s authority (Matt 18:15-20), God uses that practice to bring into material reality the forgiveness of Christ and the “reconciliation of all things” into our social context. It contextualizes the forgiveness of Christ. It’s a simple process, but we must in fact figure out (“discern” is the Biblical word) in each broken relationship, what this reconciliation will look like, what the Spirit is saying, what it might mean to be faithful to the cross. In this process, described by Matt 18, reconciliation gets contextualized! People get to see it and go “wow.” We start by practicing this reconciliation together as a people of God. But then, as we extend it into every area of our lives and our community, the gospel becomes contextualized into the context. We invite people in our world (outside the church) into reconciliation. The church is birthed anew. The practice of reconciliation actually enables contextualization.
In the same way, the practice of the Eucharist requires contextualization. It is socially disruptive and demanding (read 1 Cor 11: ) It is Kingdom in that our relational bonds with one another, the ways we are committed to one another under Christ’s Lordship, the living together under the victory and forgiveness of God in Christ together, the way our money is each other’s in Christ’s Kingdom, is all made manifest in this Eucharist communion. But this requires contextual discernment (read again 1 Cor 11:29). And this becomes the basis of a unique contextualized hospitality anytime we eat together and with anyone else. From Eucharist together as church, I go share a cup of coffee in McDonald’s and I actually share the forgiveness and the bond in Christ’s Kingdom (“I confer on you a Kingdom” Luke 22:29) with someone who may not know how to receive grace, forgiveness, love and communal bond. This ecclesial practice undercuts injustice and the social bonds based on coercion, torture (and dare I say capitalism)., It demands of us contextualization. Kingdom breaks out. I’ve seen this happen. Likewise with all the other practices including gospel proclamation, fivefold ministry, sharing life with the poor, etc. Each practice forces contextualization (For instance, it is not gospel proclamation if transmitted via a Video feed).
All of these ecclesial practices extend the Kingdom, Christ’s authority. But we are so right to recognize that we can not own these practices and make them our possession and use them to extend our power. We must recognize they can (and have in the past) become the instrument of colonialist evils. On the other hand, properly lead, released from Christendom control, these same practices become the means for the continual contextualzition of the gospel in our midst. In their practice, the church is rebirthed, or as Darrel Guder famously described, the church is continually being converted.” We therefore must deconstruct our phobia of church practice and recognize the dangers of the past allowing us to go forward into the world as instruments of his Kingdom.
What do you do with the colonialist temptation? How do you resist it as you seek to lad you church into Mission? Do you see how the fundamental church practices can shape community in mission as opposed to against it?