June 22, 2010 / David Fitch

The Three Potential (ideological) Traps of Emerging Missional Theology: Can Rollins, McLaren and Hirsch Avoid Them?

I have had to invent 3 words to describe what I see as the 3 ideological traps facing emerging and/or missional theology. The words are de-incarnationalize, de-eschatologize and de-ecclesiologize. I am not proud of the creativity it took to devise these words. They are pathetically clumsy.
My writing project The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission is winding to a close (praise God).  The book charts evangelicalism’s recent troubles culturally in N America. It then uses political theory via Slavoj Zizek et al to dissect how our beliefs of Scripture, Salvation and Church in Society (and the way we practice them) have shaped us for an inhospitable political presence in the world. I argue that the Inerrant Bible, the Decision for Christ, and the Christian Nation somehow became badges for us that worked against our formation into God’s Mission for the world.  I try to show how evangelicalism developed into an ideology that is imploding under its own contradictions and antagonisms. I then spend a whole chapter showing how our political theology can be re-constructed on a different basis – all the while upholding and transforming these existing theological commitments.

Currently I’m writing an epilogue probing the possibility what a new faithfulness might look like to emerge “from the ruble” of evangelicalism. I applaud the emerging and/or missional church movements among others. But they must avoid three dangers, three traps if they (we) are to elude the traps that evangelicalism has itself already fallen into.  That’s when I came up with these three clumsy terms.

I argue to de-incarnationalize Scripture is to separate the authority and interpretation of Scripture (even its language) FROM the incarnation of God itself in Christ that is extended historically in and through the body of Christ. Once separated from Christ, we must engage Scripture by somehow overcoming it instead of allowing ourselves to be immersed into it. I argue this is a bad idea. We are left with events, encounters, which cannot shape a politic in the world. Like an ideology, events can be vulnerable to being used to support existing political structures. I applaud Peter Rollins account of the problem of Scripture in evangelicalism but also show how he might be vulnerable to this de-incarnationalizing of Scripture.

I argue to de-eschatologize the gospel is to somehow separate the Kingdom of God FROM the life, death and resurrection of the incarnate Christ and the extension of God’s work of incarnation into the inauguration of Christ’s Lordship at His ascension. Any separation of the Kingdom from this dynamic of Christ’s inbreaking Reign, the manifestation of His Lordship in through the Spirit over His subjects and over the world, risks making “the Kingdom” just another banner to be waved for social causes. It can become a Master-Signifier whose meaning can be filled in by many different and competing causes. It can lose its meaning quickly and become highjacked for ideological purposes. I applaud Brian McLaren’s work that has called into question the traditional evangelical construals of salvation. The question is, can Brian himself avoid the error of evangelicalism (turning the Kingdom into an ideological side benefit we fit into our lives)? To do so he must avoid the trap of de-eschatologizing the gospel.

Lastly I argue to de-ecclesiologize the church’s relation to society is to somehow separate the practice of church FROM its origins in the Incarnate Christ. From this point in history the church as a politic was born in the person and work of Christ. From his death, resurrection, ascension, gifting of the Spirit and His continual presense where two or three are gathered, a people are birthed in the world for His Mission, His embodied presense incarnationally in the world. There are some forms (perhaps much abused in our day) to this politic, i.e. the Table, the preaching of the Word, fellowship and justice of a people, which brings into being the inhabiting of the world with Christ’s very presense. To detach the church from its sources via the practices of church (I know this sounds Catholic) we in essence make church and its engagment in the world a banner, a cause, that can get ideologized. “Missional” becomes a banner to promote another program devised by humans. The question is, can Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost for example, avoid this trap when they advocate missiology precedes ecclesiology?

The epilogue to my book is meant to challenge the current emerging and missional movements to not make the same mistakes as evangelicalism thereby succumbing to being absorbed by other ideologies, whether the Enlightenment liberal cause or the evangelical mega church cause.

In the next week I am going to post my three summaries of the Rollins, McLaren, Hirsch engagements (I love all 3 guys by the way!).

P.S. I am still going to post my final post on Mission among the GLBTQ. It deals with the shape and necessity of redemptive sexual community for Mission.