Michael Hanegan (who blogs here) has asked for several ministers and bloggers to do some blogging on the missional church conversation as it relates to the Churches of Christ. I am thankful for Michael asking me to be a part of this. I offer this post as a reflection based on my own understanding, experience, and participation in ministry.
I want to begin by briefly identifying the location of Christianity in the contemporary North American culture. Last week Ricky Gervais wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal titled An (Atheist) Easter Message from Ricky Gervais. In his essay, Gervais recognizes that Jesus’ message included forgiveness and showing kindness. But then Gervais writes:
These are wonderful virtues but I have seen them discarded by many so-called God-fearers when it suits them. They cherry pick from their “rulebook” basically. I have seen such cruelty and prejudice performed in the name of Christianity (and many other religions for that matter) that it makes me wonder if there has been a bit too much selective reading and reinterpretation of the doctrines.
What Gervais is describing is the growing dichotomy that exists between who Jesus is known to be and who Christians are known to be.
In similar fashion, Phil Zuckerman, took aim at white Evangelical Christians in an essay titled Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus saying such people are those:
…who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Christ, who most confidently declare their belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, who go to church on a regular basis, pray daily, listen to Christian music, and place God and His Only Begotten Son at the center of their lives, are simultaneously the very people most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message.
Then of course there are the claims made by the following two recent popular books Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…And Why it Matters and They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations of which the titles say it all.
In each case, the claim is simple: Christians living in North America do not live according to the basic teaching and values of Jesus whom their faith is based upon. Before we dismiss this we need to remember that though perception and reality are never the same, there is always a certain level of truth to the perception.
This is, however, one of the reasons why I find the missional church conversation so desperately needed and why I find Jesus’ teachings on the Greatest Commands so germane to the situation. I am fully aware that for every congregation, the experience will vary according to the localized context. However, we must realize that we are now living in a post-Christian/Christendom culture where our Christian way of life is just one voice among many at the table of public discourse and our voice is one in which others are now skeptical of.
What are we to do? That’s one of the questions of the Missional Church. Though the answer is still emerging and cannot possibly be answered in one essay, part of the answer is a return to the question of how Christians are to live. That is why for me the question of missional church is also a question of missional living.
This gets us to The Greatest Commands. I want to pay attention to these two commands as they are given to us in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark these two commands are spoken of in the middle of a conversation Jesus is having with a scribe. That conversation takes place during the final week of Jesus’ life before being crucified. It’s a conversation that Jesus has after disapproving what has become of the religious life of Israel, specifically in the Temple (Mk. 11.15-17). When it mattered most, in Jesus’ final week (Holy Week), this was the conversation Jesus was interested in having…a conversation about loving God and neighbor.
Since this is not an exegesis of the passage at hand, it will be necessary to simply say that Jesus has demonstratively critiqued the Jewish religious leaders for misunderstanding what being the people of God is about. It is a critique on their understanding of Torah since both commands come from the Torah. Being the people of God is about a way of life that loves God and loves neighbor as self not by completing a laundry list of rules and regulations but by submitting oneself in faithful-obedience to God as a servant to neighbor. Jesus does just this as he is put to death on the cross.
So to the question of what are Christians to do. What are the Churches of Christ to do? What are we to do when we no longer are the only voice at the table and perhaps no longer wanted at the table? What are we to do when we are viewed with suspicion and a certain level of hostility because of perceived hypocrisy? The answer: Learn again what it means to love God and love neighbor as self…then do just that. We’re not far from the Kingdom if we understand this (cf. Mk 12.34). Now we just need to do it.
Forget programs, forget evangelistic strategies, and other connection methods, for they all assume people are listening to us when they are in fact, for the most part, not. Yet there is little doubt that our culture is asking big questions about life but they are not going to give much ear to us claiming Jesus to be the way, truth, and life (cf. Jn 14.6) unless they first see us living that life. That means one thing. We must ask once again what it means to love God and neighbor…then do just that.