I’ve been reading through The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church by Alan Hirsch. As expected, I find the book to be very helpful to the ongoing missional church conversation and yet in my view, the book exposes such a huge dichotomy between many of the existing churches I am familiar with and the missional church.
By missional church, I mean a church that understands it’s calling as God’s sent people and live that way as an incarnational people who are faithful to God yet contextually identifiable with the local culture. The church, as the people of God, live this way because it is God who came and lived this way among us (incarnation) in the person of Jesus Christ. In Trinitarian terms, God becomes flesh among us as the God the Father sends the Son by the power of the Spirit. So God risks it all by becoming flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to redeem all of creation, at the cost of being exposed evil and succumbing to death (Of course, God vindicates himself in the resurrection and ascension)…and God did this all without giving up his holiness and righteousness. This is the call for the church to participate with God in this mission by becoming our host culture(s) and exposing ourselves to the risk of such venture so that people may be redeemed unto God.
But here is the challenge. Hirsch insists that this necessitates that our Christology (understanding of Jesus Christ) informs our missiology (understanding of mission) which in turn forms our ecclesiology (understanding of church) (The Forgotten Ways, p. 143). I’ve also heard it similarly stated that our Trinitarian theology forms our missiology which in turns forms our ecclesiology. However we describe, it is theology that shapes mission which in turn shapes church.
So rather than beginning with an understanding of what the church is and then trying to live missionally within that framework, we begin with our understanding of God which shapes how we live as God’s missionary people and then by living as that missionary people we are church as church ought to be. From this viewpoint, the way we become organized as a church serves the mission we are living rather than determining how we live that mission (see Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder, p. 71-72). It would take too much space for this post, but this formation flow of church exists in the New Testament.
Here is why this all matters. There are many local churches with good God-fearing Christians who as an organized local church find themselves struggling and dying. This is not because the people who make up the churches have stopped loving God and neighbor (though that may be the case in some instances, in my experience this is an exception rather than the norm). No, it is so because the way the church organizes itself has determined the way that it lives as missionaries and that is a way that is no longer engaging the local culture in an incarnational way.
By way of example, I’ve been invited to attend a couple of Gospel Meetings (i.e., Revivals) sponsored by a small Church of Christ. The meeting was planned with the intention of attracting non-Christians to come and hear the gospel. The problem is that both times I went, the only people who attended were Christians from other local Churches of Christ. The gospel/revival meeting was an effective way of reaching the American culture during the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries but it is an organizational way of engaging in mission that is no longer effective and incarnational to the contemporary culture. There are certainly other ways that each local established church continues to function which is no longer an effective way of engagement with it’s local culture. What are these ways? That’s a question each church needs to ask.
This all raises some tough questions that need to be answered. What do we want more, to be participants in the mission of God or defenders of a way of being church? What are we more passionate about, being the missionary people of God or continuing in a way of church that is comfortable to us and therefore safe to pursue?
I’m didn’t end this post with any practical suggestions for a reason. We need to wrestle with the idea of what it means to be the missionary people of God and ask ourselves these tough questions before we move on. It’s too tempting to jump to the “so what” in an effort to evade the issue at hand because it is difficult and perhaps unnerving to some.