In a world where the good of church is decreasingly obvious or assumed, missional practitioners must learn how to give faithful witness to the Gospel in a way that is present but also particular within diverse contexts.
Without both presence and particularity, we risk being swallowed by the existing idolatrous powers that deform and destroy or becoming tone deaf in an ecclesiological echo chamber, thus unable to embody a gospel witness that makes a difference.
Charting a way of faithfulness that is both present and particular requires moving past the temptation either to chuck our received tradition and distinctiveness for something called “relevancy,” or merely to double down on existing, traditional language and practices. In fact, many leaders recoil into a double-down posture out of fear that the only other option is that ambiguous category called relevancy.
The good news is that faithful witness does not need to collapse into generic relevancy or harden into disengagement. Presence is not necessarily the same as relevancy, and particularity is not necessarily the same as disengagement.Click To Tweet
The Danger of Relevancy
The word “relevant” here describes a posture toward a local context that seeks to smooth out tradition-shaped Christian particularity for something more culturally palatable. The primary goal of this kind of relevancy is lowering the bar of intelligibility and approachability.
This kind of relevancy often carries the assumption that the gospel is a kernel of an idea wrapped in the husk of culture, which is interchangeable. Shuck the husk of tradition-shaped forms and then wrap the kernel in a social, spiritual, political, or other cultural frame of reference.
The problem is that this kind of relevancy strategy runs the risk of being co-opted by hegemonic, deformative powers, flying under the radar in a context.
A relevancy strategy can be uncritical about how the existing frames of reference in a context can be spiritually deformative. The particularity of Christian witness risks being diluted and absorbed into cultural systems and expressions that are misaligned with God’s kingdom revealed in Christ.
Moreover, contexts are not monolithic. Most places are characterized by multiple cultural frames of reference. Relevancy strategies are often aimed toward those with social power in a place.
The Danger of Doubling Down on Tradition
In response to the danger of losing the essentially distinct, other-worldly character of Christian faith and practice, we risk recoiling into a sectarian or even coercive posture, seeking to keep things as they are or put back to how they were.
The danger here is not that by clinging to tradition, we might do or say things that appear outdated, outmoded, or foolish in a specific context.
The danger is that, by doubling down, we cut off the possibility of genuine communion with those who are different than us, or short circuit a self-examination process whereby we can discern the ways our received tradition is misaligned with God’s kingdom in Christ or reproduces a distorted version of God’s kingdom.
An important clarification is that it matters which ecclesial tradition in which you stand. There is a difference, for instance, between standing in the stream of the black church tradition in the United States and standing within the Anglican tradition. There is a difference between those traditions born on the margins of worldly power and those with an established record of imperialism. We must soberly reckon with where we are (see below).
A Model for Cultivating a Present AND Particular Witness
Listening: Seeking a contextual witness always begins with listening. Listening brings together presence and particularity, as we seek to reflect the way God became present to us in the particular Jewish flesh of Christ.Seeking a contextual witness always begins with listening. Listening brings together presence and particularity, as we seek to reflect the way God became present to us in the particular Jewish flesh of Christ. Click To Tweet
Listening is both an activity and a posture. As an activity, listening does not mean swooping in from above to “analyze culture” but rather coming alongside to open space for holy curiosity, hearing stories, and seeking understanding about what people are doing and why, and taking note especially of marginalized voices and alternate accounts.
As a posture, listening looks like divesting of any position that can be used to coerce ideas or structures over others (Phil 2). It is a posture that seeks sharing life with the Other as a first principle for mission. It is a posture of self-giving love.
Reckoning: Listening takes place simultaneously with reckoning. Reckoning means wrestling honestly with what the Spirit reveals about us through the process of listening. We seek to hold open what we begin to notice about both the good and bad of our received traditions and assumptions and how our presence impacts the place and people we join.
Through listening and reckoning, we begin to ask questions such as, “What is going on in this place? What forces and antagonisms are at work in politics, sexuality, education, etc? How are local practices shaping people, and to what end? What are we noticing about ourselves we’ve never noticed before? How are our practices shaping us and those around us? How can we repent of misalignment with Christ and his kingdom?”
Embodied Witness: From this place, we begin to articulate a witness, embodied socially in our life together, to how God is birthing new life in Christ by the Spirit in concrete ways among the people and in the place we join.
The goal here is not to pronounce new dogma or unleash a new strategy to take back the city for Christ. Rather, the goal is a witness that can function as a living apocalypse of how God is bringing reconciliation and new life in Christ amidst the forces of sin and death specifically at work in a place.
Christian witness cannot be anything or everything. Our witness has a Christ-shaped, cruciform logic. It is not love or peace or justice abstracted from the particular way God is reconciling the world in Christ. It is a kind of grammar that disciplines our witness. But it is also a grammar that cannot be ruled by one dominant dialect. This Gospel grammar necessarily speaks in a plurality of tongues, always giving privilege to the voice of the marginalized, and always anchored in the history of the people of Israel.
Practices of New Creation. The next move is stepping into the future, not through grand strategies that require being in charge or coercive power, but with practices (some might call these “liturgies”) that seek to participate in God’s New Creation work. These practices are discerned by the confessing community along with other neighbors, even those not yet confessing.The goal is not novelty, or even wholesale change, but faithful, embodied action that disrupts the patterns of sin/death and challenges the hegemonies that destroy God’s life. Click To Tweet
The goal is not novelty, or even wholesale change, but faithful, embodied action that disrupts the patterns of sin/death and challenges the hegemonies that destroy God’s life. We act with a realism grounded in the hope of New Creation.