Monday, April 18, 2011

Synchroblog--The Missional Conversation and Churches of Christ

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.

7 comments:

Chris Benjamin said...

This is a good primer for those who need help understanding the genus and species of the various flora and fauna that make up the missional zoo.

Might also help us understand which plants are healthy for us and which berries will kill us dead.

Thanks for filling up the thermos that goes with my missional lunch box.

P.S. Do you have the Missional Church action figure set?

Shannon said...

"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."

There is a humility in this view that is very refreshing. One of my frustrations with evangelicals is the amount of resources spent on defending place and position. The acknowledgement that we are in a post-christian culture might help us focus on the "least of these."

Scott Ferguson said...

"[P]ractices 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."

Good points. The thoughtful practice of both provides an emotional resonance which sometimes seems to "explain" better than our teachings do (if that makes sense).

Mark said...

Excellent discussion. The question for me is how a local church leader can help get feet out of the "concrete" that has been set and already hardened. Most of my teaching and encouragment in these areas only seems to bring on blank stares. Even my Missional Church action figure set hasn't made much of a difference.

newheights said...

Interesting discussion.

I do wonder if we worry to much about getting them to understand concepts when in many ways Churches of Christ are built to do something. They just need help in seeing what that is supposed to be. Too many years thinking the mission was guarding "ancient" circa 1950 practices as you point out in your post.

Scott Ferguson said...

Wish I had a good answer for you on the "feet in concrete" question, because if I did it would mean our leadership has figured it out. We struggle with it, though. As fast as society is changing in many ways, some things stubbornly persist.

Mark Love said...

Great comments friends. There are some congregations that have an investment in concrete, so they're likely to value the fact that their feet are set there.

But most leaders I know are not committed to feet in concrete as a way of life. There are things that can be appealed to that provide warrants for change. Alas, agreeing that we can and should change and knowing how to lead through change are two different things.