Michael Hanegan, a student in our missional leadership program at Rochester College, has invited several of us to synchronize our blogposts this week to topics related to the missional church. And since I have a missional church lunch box, I feel it is my duty to participate. So, today, some reflections on why the missional church conversation is important to Churches of Christ.
When I was young, I used to hear preachers say things like, "the New Testament is a seed, that when cultivated in any soil produces the same plant." This was our way of saying we had restored the NT church. To do that, we had to flatten both the Bible and our understandings of culture. The cultural soil made no difference in what kind of plant was produced, either in the NT or in the contemporary world.
Beyond the massive naivete concerning the ways even this reading of the NT is culturally conditioned, this approach yields a bucketload of problems when it comes to mission. For now, let's just point out that it makes the tasks of reading and responding to cultures a fairly insignificant enterprise. And if I'm convinced of anything these days, it is that we live in a time of rapid and discontinuous cultural change. A church that marginalizes cultural engagement is setting its feet in concrete.
So, the missional church conversation is important for Churches of Christ because it takes seriously the need for a new and ongoing cultural engagement. Now, the missional church folks are not the only ones who are sounding the "cultural" bell, but I think they are doing it in ways that are not only theologically informed, but that also line up with our best lights in Churches of Christ. And here are three reasons why I think that.
First, it pursues a robust ecclesiology. In other words, the missional church conversation is serious about the church. And for better or worse, we've been very interested in the church. I found the missional church literature when the seeker movement was really booming. That "renewal" movement, like many evangelical impulses, runs thin on understandings of the church. In most evangelical theology, all the freight runs through the encounter between God and the autonomous individual. If this is your starting place, then cultural engagement will always look like a consumer science. By emphasizing the church, the missional conversation has the potential of charting a real alternative that nevertheless takes the various cultures in which we move seriously.
Second, when the church is emphasized, so are the Lord's Supper and baptism. In a tradition that has little in the way of theological scaffolding (we have no formal creeds, confessions, etc), practices serve as placeholders for theological reflection. And baptism and the Lord's Supper keep us close to a potential theology of the cross. I'm for any renewal impulse that would strengthen these emphases.
Finally, this missional church conversation is about social location. While other conversations, e.g. the emerging church, emphasize postmodernity, the missional church conversation is focused on post-Christendom. This makes a pretty big difference, and again points us back to our best lights in Churches of Christ. What's the difference? Discussions about postmodernity focus on how we know things (epistemology), which in turn tends to move the conversation toward aesthetics, usually related to worship styles. When you start with the issue of post-Christendom, the churches social location comes into view. If we're no longer in charge, and clearly in most places we're not, then what is our appropriate social location? This question holds the possible answer that we will identify with those who are not in positions of privilege or power--that we will learn to be culturally relevant by finding the Kingdom of God with the "least of these."
I'm a big fan of that part of our tradition. Call it the old Nashville strain or whatever. But it brought together the Kingdom of God, eschatology, grace, and ministry with the poor. We are quickly losing that part of our story. My Lutheran friend, Pat Keifert, who admires us in many ways, used to say when he would drive onto ACU's campus, "Humility didn't build this campus." He wasn't saying that we didn't have persons of humility. He was noticing that we had crossed the tracks culturally, that we were pointing to where we were headed culturally, not where we had come from. The missional church conversation has a chance to at least give pause to this enticing way of imagining ourselves.
So, the missional church conversation holds the promise of both continuity and discontinuity. By overcoming our naive understandings of gospel and cultures, it can point us to a new future. But it can do that without stripping us of important and life-giving aspects from our past.