Over the fifteen years since the publication of Darryl Guder’s landmark book The Missional Church, North American Christianity has become enamored of the word “missional.” This is no bad thing, but Mike Breen observes in this post that the future of missional may not be quite as bright as we hope. Could it be that in the next several years “missional” will sound in our ears much the same as “seeker sensitive” does today? Perhaps.
That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.
Breen points out something that congregations often overlook: mission and discipleship are interdependent. Discipleship that fails to participate in the mission of God in some practical way isn’t really discipleship. Mission that isn’t rooted and sustained in Christ-centered community isn’t really mission at all.
The real problem in today’s church is that we’re not at all sure how to root our lives in the presence of God and in Christian community. Skye Jethani notes:
Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.
As we engage in mission, it is critical that our minds and hearts be connected God through a life of vital piety.
It’s often assumed that evangelicals do not have the theological resources necessary to provide a foundation for missional discipleship. In the Reformed tradition, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin’s central critique of the monasticism of his time was not it’s practices, but that it was limited to a select few (see Boulton, Life with God 2011). Calvin saw the church as company of believers united around Word and sacrament and whose lives were marked by the intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines used by monastic communities. The difference–Calvin’s Christians were “monks” in the world and it was not a peculiar calling, but one that is universal to all believers–the democratization of the monastic spiritual disciplines.
In order to be missional in an authentic and sustainable way, we need to recapture Calvin’s sense of our being monastics in the world–people practicing the presence of God in the midst of our secular callings. Only then can we successfully integrate mission into life without simply burdening ourselves with another project for God.
Protestant churches—especially evangelical ones—typically sing their theology. In the absence of a formal liturgy hymnody carries the weight of theological formation. Scripture shapes our beliefs about God more in the theory than in reality. The average Christian spends little time exploring how the confessions interpret Scripture. Instead, our sung worship songs shape our beliefs. Their influence comes by virtue of their memorable lyrical quality. It takes less effort to memorize a song (sung regularly) than a catechism that is ignored.
That’s why I was so disturbed by the recent decision of the committee compiling the forthcoming Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God to omit the song, “In Christ Alone.” You can read the story here. If hymnody is sung theology then what does this decision say about the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
This decision is troublesome for several reasons. First, the committee weighed two ways of conceptualizing what a hymnal is. They asked the question: Is it a collection of diverse hymns reflecting a variety of theological views present in the church? As such, any commitment to a unified theological vision would be downplayed in favor of representation of various views or styles. Their should be no problem including this popular song.
They also asked: is a hymnal a “deliberately selective book” that emphasizes some views and excludes others on the basis of its “educational mission” (I prefer “catechetical mission”) for the church? This requires some degree of theological unanimity.
The prevailing view of the committee was that a hymnal has an educational message, which requires rejecting some theological viewpoints that no longer comport with the view of the church.
This is an important consideration. I agree with the decision of the committee to envision the hymnal as something that is consonant with and advances the theological vision of the church. The problem is that in making this decision the committee has emphatically set aside a theological vision that comports with my own. In the rush to be inclusive the committee has, in actuality, excluded a theological vision that has inspired many Christians over the centuries, not the least of whom is John Calvin.
As God’s missional community, we are to embody that truth as we pursue the various callings God has given to us (father, mother, husband, wife, etc).
We are also to verbally communicate that message as God gives us opportunity. We do so through organic, authentic, respectful conversation.
As a result we live with a tension in deciding which parts of our message and faith are culturally-conditioned or culturally-determined.
Four major ways to handle the tension
This tension between message (gospel) and means (practice) has been addressed in at least four ways by the contemporary church.
Change neither the means of communication nor the message itself. This is the traditional church that continues to speak and act as if it was still 1950. A traditional gospel is preached using traditional religious language, and in the context of a program driven church with a very traditional worship service.
Change the means of communication, but not the message itself. This group includes many new reformed churches associated with the Acts29 network, a fewer number of emergent/ing communities, and generally those who are associated in some way, shape, or form with the center-right constituency of the missional movement. I’d even include a church like Redeemer New York (and its daughter churches) that assume a non- or post-Christian audience. The essential meaning of the gospel message remains consistent with the church’s traditional formulations. The language is updated and much insider language is jettisoned in favor of verbal symbols that connect with contemporary hearers. Context is king and so some of these churches embrace older, more liturgical forms of worship and some embrace what could be called “contemporary” Christian music (contemporary having a range of meanings each specific to the decade in which the preponderance of the congregation became believers).
Change both the means of communication, and also the message itself. I’d include in this grouping the majority of the emergent/emerging conversation. It’s clear to me now that classical theism doesn’t describe the views of many of the proponents of emergent/ing. Many would object to (or at least downplay) doctrines like: God’s impassibility, the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, and God’s foreknowledge and/or foreordination of that which is to come. Since these concepts (often thought to be cultural accretions owing the Greco-Roman origin of the early Christian church) seem to many emergent/ing folk to be insufficient to addressing our contemporary world they are essentially jettisoned. As with group number two, these folk work hard to create worship experiences that are participatory, aesthetically rich, and transformative.
Change the message, but not the means of communication. You might be tempted to think that this should be an empty category. It’s not. Most of the mainline churches have essentially revised the gospel message to be accessible to their conception of what (post)modern people want. However, few have changed the form of their worship beyond including ethnically diverse hymns in their hymnbooks and editing out masculine language.
Faithfulness requires innovation in practice
These are the four options most Christian churches pursue. It is my belief that the path of Christian faithfulness requires innovation in almost every area of the church’s life. My preferred means of innovation is breathing new life and forms into classical Christian worship as it existed prior to the Great Schism of AD 1054.
Faithfulness sometimes requires restraint
Any innovation must be severely restrained (even chastened) in terms of the way in which the church talks about God and the gospel.Our talk about God does not exist in a cultural vacuum–it is anchored to and flows from God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus, in the Word of God written, and in the church’s theological reflection on these over time. This is a limiting factor on the extent to which we can speculatively formulate notions of God and gospel that are “acceptable” or “palatable” to our present cultural moment.
Those are my thoughts–what are yours?
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The gospel teaches us that the Church is the one and only foretaste of heaven now because she alone has a real participation in the life of God on earth…. This divine reality of foretaste and first fruits is the key to understanding the Church’s power and relevance.
Scot Sherman, “Why the Church?” in Looking Forward: Voices from Church Leaders on Our Global Mission. (MTW, 2003).
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that (for Christians) marks the beginning of our 40 day (excluding Sundays) journey toward Easter. I grew up in a culture with a significantly greater appreciation for Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) than for Lent. I knew the word, but it was virtually devoid of meaning.
I have come to love Lent–in fact to view it as a significantly overlooked gift–because it provides a period of focus and, perhaps ironically, of freedom. Most associate Lent with refraining from something. Some associate it with adding a practice, perhaps as a substitute for the thing given up. This practice is almost always popularly depicted as a miserable, punitive experience.
This hasn’t been my experience of Lent, however. I find that Lent offers me the perfect time to make some deliberate recalibration to my life. Doing so has been profoundly freeing in a number of ways. So much so that I often anticipate Lent because it gives me a natural context to press the reset button.
Here are some things I love about Lent:
Forty days is long enough to create pretty significant change, but it’s not long enough to be demoralizing.
Lent may be the only time, other than at funerals, where we even try to take our frailty seriously.
Lent places Easter in sharper focus. The events of Easter unfolded because of God’s deep love for humanity that is wracked by sin.
Lent provides social reinforcement for a changed practice.
This year, as in years past, I will step away from Facebook for Lent. I will still blog and those posts will still be automatically posted to Facebook. I will not, however, be checking Facebook or replying to any content posted there.