This post is part 3 of 5 in a series on missional and incarnation life. You can refer back to the Series Overview to see the posting schedule. Comments which are going to be addressed in a future post may not be responded to at length until after that post is up. Thanks for reading and engaging in this conversation with me! - Bret
We began this series of posts by considering the problem of church becoming inwardly focused and dedicated primarily to the protection of the institution. We then considered the theological and Biblical foundations for a more missional/incarnational life.
In dealing with this, and really any, issue of our faith we must maintain a certain amount of tension in how we proceed. Some will want to spend time working out the theology, as we have been doing up to this point and others will want to consider the practical realities. Both of these are needed; both flow into one another, and any who would focus solely on one at the expense of the other, in actuality, despises both.
We must move from theology to practice, but we also move from ministry to theology. What this means is that we make a huge mistake if we begin considering an issue based solely on “what works” and not on theological reflection. I believe that “church growth” folks often do precisely this. We study market trends, successful business models, cultural analysis and opinion polls and then move forward democratically along the most supported path - it is the American way.
This model was also used throughout scripture - and it always ended tragically. Solomon in all his wisdom, knew how to study the sociopolitical world of the ancient Near East and he made strategic alliances, building an enormous empire in the process. We thus consider him to be a highly successful king. However, in the account of his kingship we see that he broke every single command that God gave to the people through Moses (in Deuteronomy) as to how a king should behave.
Not only that, he enslaved the Israelites! This people, intended to be God’s proclamation of light to the world; meant to be a message that no longer would the Lord stand by as people were oppressed, were now enslaved by their own “godly” king.
Throughout the remainder of their history, Israel’s kings would make strategic alliances and carefully study the market to determine the best course; they modeled decisions on the highly successful leaders of the time, located in powerful empires and every time it lead them down a path to destruction. Even good king Josiah (our son’s namesake) was killed when he made one of these ill-advised (by God through the prophets) political moves.
Church planters face this risk constantly. So often we are out on the frontier with little or no support or reinforcements. There is constant pressure (from without and within) to make concessions in order to establish self-sufficiency and financial stability. This pressure does not typically stem from theological reflection but rather from “what works.” And this is not the place from which we should make our decisions.
However, we also must move from ministry to theology. Planning out our theology in a closet, choosing to remove ourselves from our context (or determining what we’ll do apart from a context) is never going to be completely faithful. The Church exists in time and space and as such we can only deal with the present state that we actually encounter. We don’t formulate theology apart from the Church - for that would not be Christian theology - and we don’t formulate theology apart from culture - for that would deny the Incarnation.
The Incarnation of Jesus was not a new move for God. God walked in the garden in the very beginning, God came near to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God was with Moses, Aaron and Miriam, God heard the cry of the oppressed Israelites in Egypt and through the prophets regularly called Israel to hear the oppressed in their midst. When “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” as John’s gospel says, he did so just as we’re told that God had chosen to dwell and walk among his people (Leviticus 26) and will one day choose to do fully in the creation of the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21).
But though this move is not unique for God, the incarnation of Jesus is a seminal moment for us in so many ways. Not the least of these is that time and space are shown to be valuable to God. Jesus did not appear in a universal form when he came near. It wasn’t just into humanity that Jesus incarnated, it was our way of existing - in a place at a certain time. Jesus took on the cultural forms and language of the occupied Israelite people in the midst of the powerful Roman Empire. He spoke their language, wore their clothes, observed their way of moving about (we saw when the people tried to press in on him and he “passed through their midst” that Jesus could have moved about as he pleased.)
So therefore theology, if it is to be Christian theology, must take into account The Other (God), one another (the Church) and the others (society).
Theological reflection begins with God calling us to ministry in a particular time and place. Our practice of ministry begins and continues in that theological reflection. That tension (and harmony) must be maintained.
Changing Everything and Changing Nothing
The need to move from ministry to theology and theology to practice can be seen in pretty much any issue that we undertake. For our purposes here, allow me to address two particular ones that we've dealt with/are dealing with in our context.
In the midst of conversations about emphasis on and participation in missional church planting we've come to a few conclusions. One is that community needs to be an important value in our life of faith. However, if we conceive of community apart from an actual ministry context it is very easy to romanticize the whole concept. This can lead to a naive love of the idea of community more than the thing itself.
Community is often spoken of as a nice, warm, secure experience - and to be sure these can be among the benefits of community. But the reality is that community is difficult, painful and messy. It requires sacrifice, patience and compassion beyond what we'd often like to give.
Similarly if we take the concept of community without reflecting theologically on the idea we can end up with something that in reality falls short of true community. We may look to facebook, fraternities or social organizations and develop a set a shallow connections to lots of people; good for potluck meals but useless in the midst of crisis or confusion. We may talk constantly about the importance of community, but we couldn't tell you what "it" is or why its important...other than it seems kinda Jesusish.
However, if we start by reflecting on the understanding of God as Community; a relationship of love and mutual submission, an emptying of oneself on behalf of another, we get a more complete view of community. We can understand the "why" - we are created in the image of God and God has been revealed to us in the form of unified community of Three-in-One. We can understand "how" - we submit ourselves to one another, not putting our own desires at the top of our list; we recognize that Christ has a claim on our life and isn't merely a commodity to be added to our already busy schedule. The specific "whats" can then be worked out in our context.
Similarly, as we deal with a missional approach to church planting we seek to connect with disconnected people, reenter our neighborhoods as agents of God's Kingdom and encounter God through participation in relationship rather than passive receipt of goods and service. We offer a needed (and hopefully loving) critique to models of "church" that fail to emphasize the call to be transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others. We talk about spiritual formation for the purpose of joining God in the ministry of reconciliation in our community.
In the midst of our fervor, we may set about changing everything and end up changing nothing. We may move to a house church model, we may begin meeting in a bar or coffee shop, we choose not to meet corporately at all. And yet if all we change is the location where we passively receive religious goods and services, we've changed nothing.
It is easy and tempting to focus our critique and call for change on things like structure because they are tangible aspects which are easy to see - and they may very well need changing. Even so, we need to think theologically about what it is that really needs to change. We've talked before about the disappointing possibility of merely changing our emphasis on "church as place" in the sanctuary or coffee shop to "church as place" in the living room.
Must change occur? Yes, I believe so - or at least, it needs to continue occurring. But change needs to happen in our assumptions about the purpose and function of "church" and what it means for us individually and as a community to give our life to Christ. If my concern is what my personality needs for worship; if our focus is making everyone happy then we still need change...regardless of where we meet.
If we're able to "do church" without feeling the pinch of Christ's claim on our busyness, finances, choice of leisure activities or commitment to the oppressed; if our change only affects our formal (or apparently informal) gatherings without calling us out on the rest of our lives then we haven't changed anything.
This doesn't mean that there aren't practical issues of form and structure which can and should be considered - only that those issues come out of the deeper issue of who we are being transformed into.
In the final two posts of this short series, I would like to consider some of these practical issues. Specifically I want to sketch not only a working definition, but a somewhat tangible description of what “missional” and “incarnational” life may look like, and then I want to address the issue of “sustainable models in ministry.” Neither of these posts (and not even the series of posts) can possibly come close to saying all that needs to be said about these topics. My desire is to provide, for some, a starting point and for others, a place to continue the conversation.