The Gathering Comes First: Contrary Thoughts on Being Incarnational 3

In the last two posts, I spoke some caution towards what I see as overreactions in the missional church conversation – the reaction against all buildings and the reaction against sacred space (art and symbol). I think in each case missional authors are rightfully concerned about the dangers of Christendom models of church. In doing so however, some go to the extreme ignoring how buildings and art can be incarnational in themselves. Before I leave the subject, “Contrary Thoughts on Being Incarnational,” I’d like to speak caution one more time towards just another potential overreaction – the reaction against the importance of the worship gathering. In missional church, I see the great emphasis on what happens external to the gathered people, in the world. Often I hear, “let’s look for where God is already working, and let’s join up with it!” The missional priority is the joining of God’s people with what God is already doing in the world, and a corresponding downplay on the gathering of Sunday morning (or Sun evening or Saturday for that matter). Hirsch and Frost say for instance, that in Christendom, “the church bids people to come and hear the gospel in the holy confines of the church and its community … ” The mode and impulse is inward (p. 41, The Shaping of Things to Come). They in turn suggest the mode and impulse should be the opposite – outward. And although never spoken, many pick up from this that “the gathering” somehow becomes secondary to the mission of God in the world.

I certainly endorse Frost & Hirsch and their assessment of what happens when a church becomes attractional. The dreaded “attractional” model has been made even worse when the practices of worship become commodified into a goods and service for which Christians shop for and consume. There is an all out loss of missional incarnational presence. And so I heartily endorse the engagement of mission where our people already are! I heartily endorse the church’s presence manifest in the contexts of mission where the strangers live, the poor struggle, and the oppressed live enslaved to capitalism etc. I endorse the trashing of programming missions and instead focus on daily mission in the contexts where people already are.

Nevertheless, I wonder if this missional mantra against the attractional can inadvertently stigmatize the importance of the gathering? I believe that many, after reading Frost and Hirsch, are prone to polarize the missional versus attractional in such a way to devalue the worship gathering as a secondary unessential shaping event to the missional identity of the church. Does anyone else see this danger?

And so, out of this final angst towards potential extreme reactionary versions of missional church, I offer the following four rants. I suggest that indeed the gathering itself is incarnational, the Body, the presence of Christ in flesh and blood in the world, and the basis of being “sent out” missionally in the world. In this sense, the gathering is necessarily “the priority for” but not “the majority of” (not even close) what missional churches do. Here’s 4 quick rants.

1.) You cannot have a missional people without formation!! Missional people do not “grow on trees,” fall from the sky, or “spring forth ex- nihilo, like its natural or something to just be missional. In fact one’s vision of reality must constantly be shaped by the reality of God, who He is, and what He is doing in the world in order to be missional. Deleuze has taught us, we’re all being shaped into and by “the forces.” It is unrealistic … to think that anyone can come out of a consumeristic therapeutic me-first culture and somehow be shaped, motivated, directed and enlivened with the vision for God’s mission in the world apart from the gathering of God’s people to worship, reenact and proclaim the Story of God and His Mission in Christ into the world.
The worship gathering therefore is a priority for the missional way. In worship we are formed and shaped to be missional.

2.) “They” say we need to join up with what God is doing … but in fact how would we know what God is doing out in the world? Unless we assume that God is at work in everything. Indeed there are plenty of Christians who believe God is at work in the violence of the Iraq war, or programs to reduce welfare. I just say this to show that it is not at all obvious what God is doing out in the world. And I suggest that those who believe God is at work in War or the reduction of welfare state have not sufficiently worshiped God in a gathering that shapes our vision for who God is, where He is taking the world and our role in it. Indeed, community and worship is necessary for any kind of discerning where God is working. It is what makes possible the missional transformation we seek. As Yoder says, “Transformation is meaningful … only when those who call for it have a place to stand.” (Authentic Transformation p. 74 This gets back to the inherent Reformed nature of much missional thinking. Because there is a heavy reliance on Common Grace in all of culture, there is less of a need for a discerning process, or a communal discernment which for the Anabaptist makes possible missional engagement in the first place).

3.) The Eucharist forms us into a politics of peace, unity and reconciliation. The Eucharist helps us see that we are One, born out of sacrifice for mission “til He comes.” As Hauerwas tells us, it is the Eucharist which trains us how to think about “ownership,” war, capital punishment and care for the poor (See In Good Company page 161-63). I don’t believe you can be missional without a Eucharisticly formed politics.

4.) Lastly, yes we have a big problem with the attractional model. Anyone who has read me will know I agree with that. But it is inherent in the logic of the gathering, that WE ARE SENT OUT! First we gather, then we are shaped by Word (Confession, Prayer, Affirmation) and the Table, THEN WE ARE SENT OUT into mission. The whole logic of the gathering is formation for the sending. The gathering therefore is prior to actual sending out as that which forms the base for mission.

So let us not neglect the importance of the gathering for being missional. Let us be intentional about our “gatherings,” that they not be attractional, but instead be formational for the sending of the church into mission.

Peace to all this Advent

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