–John Howard Yoder [quoted on p. 87]
Kenda Creasy Dean cuts right the heart of the problem with the American church in this chapter:
“Every church is called to be a ‘missional church.’ The fact that we have turned the word ‘mission’ into an adjective testifies to the American church’s frayed ecclesiology. A nonmissional church is not a church in the first place, but in a culture largely void of a theological vocabulary, this language has become necessary to remind us that the church exists not for ourselves, but for the world.” [p. 89-90, bold emphasis mine]
As much as we like to quote the Great Commission as the mission of the Church, I worry sometimes if we “get it.” How easy is it to assume “making disciples” is the same thing as making church members? How easy is it to assume baptizing and teaching are the primary means by which we grow the church? What about the mission of God? Does the Church simply exist for itself and those within its walls?
Participating in God’s mission intrinsically links us to the life of Christ — a life given as a most radical act of grace, a life so bound up into our lives that absolutely nothing can separate us from him — and we’re called to respond by linking our lives to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of this is how we know and participate in the mission of God. And by the way, for the church to be missional, we have to see mission as more than just a trip.
Dean uses the work of Andrew Walls to identify missional values consistent through Christian history. There are two main “missionary principles”:
Indiginizing Principle: Christ made his home among us, accepting us as we are, becoming “one of us,” fully translated in human terms, fully participating in human culture. In this way, Incarnation embodies God’s radical acceptance of humanity.
Pilgrim Principle: God’s radical challenge to us to follow Jesus — we are not merely accepted as we are, but we’re also called to become something new by the power of God. But this transformation requires us to relocate from our comfort zones.
The pilgrim’s job is to confess the good news of God in Jesus Christ. The pilgrim’s life is to become a testimony to the love and presence of God. The pilgrim’s job is to confess, not convince. This really challenged me when I came across this in reading this book. Maybe we ought to spend a little less time grandstanding on whatever the issue of the days is and spend a little more time authentically confessing the presence of God in our lives — a mysterious yet undeniable force that continually shapes us. The truth is, the more we confess, the better we’re able to see what we confess. As we practice looking for God’s active presence in our lives we gain new eyes to see the world around us and, eventually, new ears to hear the call to go further in the journey of discipleship.
Sometimes we’re called to faithfully wait as we hone these new eyes and ears. Being encountered by God is a big deal. It calls for a total life change in response. And this doesn’t happen over night. Even the disciples and gospel writers needed time to process what we heard and saw and how it transcended life as they knew it. As Dean puts it:
“It must have been part of what people remembered, and recounted, when they retold the story of that Easter night. In this moment of grace, of divine waiting…God remains with us. This paradoxical place, where Christ woos us as he waits for us, is marked by revelation, recognition, and rejoicing.” [p. 102]
Confession is not an easy thing. But we can’t get too absorbed by the temptation to convince others lest we forget that we don’t totally “get” when we’re talking about in the first place. It’s but for the grace of God that we’re able to even marginally comprehend what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
Recovering a Missional Imagination
“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the unholy residue of a church that has lost its missional imagination. In stark contrast to institutions colonized by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, missional communities do not exist primarily to perpetuate themselves.” [p. 104]
It’s a mighty bold thing to say the church exists for the world. And in a time of decline across the church, it’s a mighty risky thing to declare that you want to be a missional community whose sole goal is to continually give yourself away for others. Funny thing is, that’s precisely what Jesus did! One of the problems Dean notes is that we, as the Church, teach MTD to young people and while it’s understandable, it’s not very compelling. Handing on the faith to young people is not a matter of “giving them Jesus” [p. 105]. Jesus isn’t “ours” to own and he’s surely not ours to give to others. The presence of God in the lives of our youth is not dependent on us — God is already with them before we ever get there. This is why we believe baptism is a public confession to the presence of God’s grace already at work in the lives of people. It’s our job to help them see what’s already at work in them. And maybe in the process we’ll rediscover that same presence in ourselves.
Making disciples requires incarnation — not cultural adaptation. Being real and authentic about our faith is much more important than trying to communicate using whatever new, hip language tools are at our disposal. Christian communities throughout the ages share certain qualities: we learn from the same sacred writings, pray to the same Triune God, use bread, wine, and water in the same meaningful ways, and we claim to somehow, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be connected to these communities around the world and throughout the ages. Incarnation is not about being relevant as much as it’s about being real — being real about who God is, who we are, and who we long to be together.
This missional spirit — the incarnational presence of God among us — eventually drives us to be more concerned with sending people out rather than roping them in. I suppose that’s the true meaning of Great Commission’s first command to “Go…”