Re-Think Missional

Vital Congregation?A few weeks ago I went to a forum for everyone who holds a formal leadership position (mostly members of the myriad of committees)  in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The conversations were mostly interesting and fruitful, but I did notice one recurring theme that I found disappointing: most of the discussions of what it meant to be missional - a popular buzzword at this and other recent conference gatherings - were aimed primarily at how to get more people to come to our churches. The watch-word of the day was, "Why?"; indeed, that's the watch-word for the next four years in our conference. But the big "Why?" question that remains unexplored is why are the most interesting things we can think about to make our churches more 'missional' basically directed towards getting more 'butts in the pews'? We would be much more interesting and much more faithful if we concerned ourselves a little more with how we send our members out into the world than how we get more members in. And then, when we do actually get new members in the body, we can actually invite them to join us in doing something other than just expanding membership. Then last week I went to our conference United Methodist Women's fall festival, where I was invited to lead a 'focus group' about how that storied ministry could better reach out to youth and other young people. But most of the ideas that came up and generated excitement had to do with sometimes creative ways of getting youth and young people to one way or another come to their 'circles' or their churches. The thought was that if we could just get more young people to come to us, then we might be able to figure out what to do with and for them. Ideas included inviting local teens who like basketball to come play basketball on the church grounds, or to come to a free community meal and stick around for Bible study. I pointed out that these attempts at outreach were really more like 'in-reach', and challenged them to think about ways they could go out and meet youth on their home turf. Someone commented that youth who come to in-reaches like those listed above probably feel really awkward, and we made the connection that in legitimate outreach it would be the church who would have to surrender home field advantage and meet youth where they already are, and thus bear the bulk of the discomfort.

Also within the last month, as if to remind me that this is not a distinctively Methodist problem, at an ecumenical, community-wide gathering the preacher's basic message was that Christians need to be more bold in their faith. How? By inviting their friends to church. Now hopefully when people come to church they hear Good News about God's great love and mercy, and about his bottomless grace. And hopefully when people come to church they hear the story of how God's love came down to save the world. But the teachers and preachers responsible for sharing that News and that Great Story in the context of a church worship service aren't the only ones allowed to tell people these things. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting if we encouraged Christians to really own and live out their faith among their friends and neighbors? And wouldn't their friends and neighbors be more likely to find the story of God and humanity more interesting if they initially heard about it from a peer instead of from some professional stranger who has no idea who they are? And think about this: if you hadn't heard this Story and didn't know this News, wouldn't it just seem odd to get invited to a place where the central activity is to sit and listen to a guy tell you that you need to invite more people to that place?

All of these stories share the same fundamental misconception about the kind of thing a church is. They all see church primarily as a place or an institution. If church is first of all thought of as a place or an institution, then people associated with that church will attempt to live out the church's mission within its geographical boundaries and institutional parameters. This is actually really comforting to such people, because it takes a huge load off their backs: they can think, "The church needs to do more _____," as if the church were some kind of reality external to themselves that they have basically no responsibility for. Or they can safely avoid risk, discomfort and awkwardness by staying within the safety and familiarity of literal and/or metaphorical church walls by doing outreach that is really more like what I've called in-reach. Or they can through inviting their friends to church take comfort in the idea that they are let off the hook for telling their friends the story of God's love for the world, because that's the preacher's job.

But the church is not primarily a place or an institution. The church is a people shaped by God's story and sent out to show and tell that story for all the world. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then when one realizes that the church needs to do something, they can't avoid a fair share of ownership of the problem and should thus be more motivated and empowered toward a change. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then risk, discomfort and awkwardness are things that all in the church will have to bear together as this people-on-a-mission bears God's love outside church walls to a hurting world. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then instead of the first 'evangelical' move being to invite people to come to a worship service at church, worship services can be about shaping pew-sitters into people who will go out and be the church for their friends and neighbors.

The primary point of church as place or institution is to get more people to come be members. But 'members' here is more analogous to members of a country club than members of a living body. But if the church was really that called out people-on-a-mission for God the Biblical metaphor of the living body of Christ (unified in its mission but diverse in its gift and activity) becomes a more sensible metaphor for our churches. And then, almost as if by accident, churches would actually have become the kind of thing worth inviting people to come and be a part of anyways - not just for a few hours a week, but in every waking moment of their lives.

von Balthasar's Engagement with God

Hans Urs von Balthasar opens his Engagement with God with the observation that, "The world of today, when faced with the Christian Church, is filled with a sense of profound mistrust" (pp. 1). He goes on to claim that the probable reason for this is that people are more likely to "put their faith in the kind of activity that effectively changes the world, whatever the ideological background to this may be," and the church is no longer on the cutting edge of such innovation. So then, considering the wealth of options for political movements across a wide spectrum, if the church understands such action in the world, such 'good works,' as only being possible as works of the church, then "she would be likely to speak of a hidden presence of 'grace', to be discerned wherever men acted in this way, and to describe a man engaged in such activities as an 'anonymous Christian'." (At this point, the sudden and apparently underhanded reference to Karl Rahner made me laugh out loud.)

While von Balthasar appreciates the universal thrust of this line of thinking - for, after all, Christ's salvific ambition has greatly exceeded the boundaries of the visible church - he also wishes to proceed with caution. The gift of this interpretation is that it reminds us that "the Church at heart stands open to the world. But it creates the impression, particularly for those outside the Church, that the visible Church is nothing more than an institution, burdened with a quantity of rules, laws, and precepts as to what is to be believed and how life is to be conducted, whereas the very essence of the life of this institution can equally well be found outside its walls, scattered all over the world" (pp. 2). In other words, once the theory of "anonymous Christians" is widely accepted it becomes apparent that the political fruits of her purported purpose are pursued plentifully outside her walls, leading to the reduction of the church's role to the purely formal, and therefore robbing her of her credibility.

The thrust of his argument, however, is not to leave behind Rahner's concern for the universal, opting instead for the inwardness of the church so as to preserve credibility. Rather, he's going to pursue the "anonymous light" of Christianity exactly in its universal particularity. For von Balthasar, it seems as though this light is none other than the resurrected Christ, one who cannot be re-crucified - but whose disciples can. Thus the theme of Engagement with God "is to ask ourselves the question, what is this power or this brilliant light, from where does it derive, and what is the connection between the source of power that nourishes the Christian and his involvement with mankind?" (pp. 5).

For von Balthasar this quest will involve the fact that freedom, that ever present goal of modern humanity's thought and politics, is to be truly found not in any of its modern manifestations, but in the true Christian. What the modern world seeks so interminably - even restlessly - the church already has in Christ. It is the church and not Marxism, free enterprise, or Enlightenment reason; Christianity and not Freud's or Nietzsche's or deconstructionism's attempts to liberate us that "provides the one glimmer of the light of freedom in a world of murder and senselessness" (pp. 7).

The world's mistrust, as we said at the outset, is a problem, but not one whose answers can be found in the world itself (a move that dooms us to a further loss of credibility). The answers are already with us, in the legitimate freedom found in the person of the resurrected Christ.

I find von Balthasar's notion of 'credibility' intriguing. (I'm wondering if I should have picked up his Love Alone is Credible before this one.) It reminds me of Hauerwas' use of 'intelligibility', though it seems to go a step further. Hauerwas' concern in that one particular word 'intelligible' I think is more basic - he wants to make sure that we are saying something coherent, that the things the church says and does have at least the possibility of being understood by the world, and for that matter, by the church itself. 'Credibility' seems just a touch stronger, requiring intelligibility but then demanding that that which is intelligible be also believable. Hauerwas has a similar concern as well, and I think this is always what he wants to get at eventually when he uses 'intelligible'. He wants Christian witness to be understandable by both the Church and the world so that all might believe. I wonder to what degree von Balthasar's development of 'credibility' will end up differing with Hauerwas here. The emphasis on freedom is so far an attractive addition,

Stay tuned as I try to figure out not only 'credibility', but also how von Balthasar will deal with the universality of extra-church political action qua good works, connecting that to the particularity of the truly free life of discipleship to the resurrected Christ.

Translate? Contextualize? Accommodate?

A handful of Messianic Jews, moving beyond the defenses of their somewhat separate society to attack the intellectual bastions of majority culture, refused to contextualize their message by clothing it in the categories the world held ready. Instead, they seized the categories, hammered them into other shapes, and turned the cosmology on its head, with Jesus both at the bottom, crucified as a common criminal, and at the top, preexistent Son and creator, and the church his instrument in today's battle.

John Howard Yoder, "But We Do See Jesus: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth." The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, 54.

Later (p. 68), in a different essay, Yoder observes that it seems too early to tell whether the whole "contextualization" trend in conservative evangelicalism will be helpful or not, based on the observation that it hasn't been at work long enough for us to see whether it will develop some criteria to discern the line between a faithful "contextualization" and a heretical one. Though it is unclear what year this particular essay was originally written, the collection was first published in 1984. I'm curious, now that at least 25 years has passed since this sidebar-esque comment (and now that I have at least as many liberal or progressive friends that would defend contextualization as I have conservative friends who continue to talk about missions in terms of contextualization), whether or not any of the proponents of contextualization has developed such a set of criteria?

Yoder on the church as a public offer to society

"...the order of the faith community constitutes a public offer to the entire society... It is not that first we set about being a proper church and then in a later move go about deciding to care prophetically for the rest of the world. To participate in the transforming process of becoming the faith community is itself to speak the prophetic word, is itself the beginning of the transformation of the cosmos." (John Howard Yoder, For the Nations, 27-28)