This is my second post for the Missional Syncroblog conversation on Missional Church as it relates to the Churches of Christ. I am thankful to be a part of this. I offer this post as a reflection based on my own understanding, experience, and participation in ministry.
The question being asked for this post is what are the challenges that the missional conversation presents to the Churches of Christ. Like any good question, there are many answers that could be given. I simply want to address how I believe the historic understanding of church restoration is strained by the challenge to be/become missional.
Last year I wrote an article titled “The Future of the Churches of Christ” that was published in New Wineskins (you can read it here). In that article I suggested that one of the tenets of pursuing church restoration has been the drive to restore the supposed pattern of the first-century church. This idea of restoration meant restoring the form of the first-century church rather than restoring the function. Though I don’t believe the subject of form versus function is so easily divided as though function never necessitates a certain degree of form, I believe Churches of Christ have too often pursued the restoration of form without ever asking if the form was helping us achieve the intended function.
It is this pursuit of forms rooted in a first-century culture which is very different from our own culture that runs against the missional movement. The missional movement, as I understand, begins with the recognition that Western Christianity has lived in a modern and Christendom culture that is quickly fading and has disappeared altogether in many places. Now we live in a different social culture which is postmodern and post-Christian/Christendom. In his book The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, Alan Hirsch describes this culture shift and its consequences for Christianity saying
…this shift from the modern to the postmodern, or from solid modernity to liquid modernity, has generally been difficult for the church to accept. We find ourselves lost in a perplexing global jungle where our well-used cultural and theological maps don’t seem to work anymore. It seems as if we have woken up to find ourselves in contact with a strange and unexpected reality that seems to defy our usual ways of dealing with issues of the church and its mission (p. 16).
The question is what will we do with the new culture we find ourselves in? There are two options that are unexceptable to me. Those options are to either hide-away and pretend that one day things will change again or to dogmatically and stubbornly resist the changes necessary for incarnational mission (while often deriding those who do).
The other option is for church to start learning what it means to be missionaries in their own geographical and social culture by applying the insights of missionary theory. This means asking the deep and difficult questions of how to be faithful to the gospel and yet translate, communicate, incarnate that gospel into tangible and palpable ways that make sense to the new culture. That doesn’t mean watering down the gospel or making it any easier to be a disciple than God makes that task in Jesus and scripture. But it does mean things will be different…the church will look and be different (in a gospel way). Yet that is the sticky challenge for Churches of Christ. Not only have we been occupied with trying to restore primitive forms rather than trying to live the gospel in a contextual manner but we have also developed over the course of our movements history our own church culture (which is a natural by-product of existence).
The problem is that for many Churches of Christ, this church culture has become a static and unchangeable culture equated often as being part of the Apostolic Teaching. Now we are being asked in the missional church conversations to learn how to become missionaries that adapt to the new culture around us for the sake of God’s mission to this world. We have a challenge! However, by God’s grace, power, and wisdom revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, it is a doable challenge.