a local, worshiping community (a missiology for the west)

(This is the final post in a series reflecting on David Bosch’s six distinctives for a missiology of Western culture. See the introductory post for a little background.)

in the context of the secularized, post-Chrsitian West our witness will be credible only if it flows from a local, worshiping community.

Of all of Bosch’s six distinctives, none resonates with me more than this one. It seems that there is a great deal of opinion (and tension) over what it means to be the church. The discussions are full of rhetoric as people make their cases for house churches, local parishes, regional megachurches, or no organized form of church at all.

But I think the question is not what structure of church is best, but over how a church community can best engage with its own context. Bosch goes on in this section to quote Lesslie Newbigin: “the only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.” We must perpetually ask ourselves how we can form, and reform, our community so that we can be a living and visible gospel to our local culture.

Bosch emphasizes this:

the question about the feasability of a missionary enterprise to Western people hinges on the question of the nature and life of our local worshiping communities and the extent to which they facilitate a discourse in which the engagement of people with their culture in encouraged. Local church “happens” where believers are involved in what is critical for people and society.

There is a unique challenge we face in our North American metropolitan areas, and I think this is true for both urban areas and suburbia. We are a transient culture. We have few relationships that happen due to our geographic proximity, where we tend to bump into the same people simply because they live, shop and work closeby.

I was challenged a few weeks ago in a conversation with a respected retired pastor who knows the heart of Austin well. I asked him what he would do if he were planting a church today. His response was that he would focus on an elementary school, and do all he could to bless it. In his view, and I can’t disagree, elementary schools are our last remaining gathering points for any neighborhood, where we can interact with people who share our proximity.

If the church is to be a local, worshiping community, then we have to seriously engage with the idea of what exactly it means to be local. Who are the people we can connect with regularly because of our daily life patterns? What does it mean to minister to, and alongside, those that our lives happens amongst?

laity (a missiology for the west)

(This post is part of a series reflecting on David Bosch’s six distinctives for a missiology of Western culture. See the introductory post for a little background.)

A missionary encounter with the West will have to be, primarily, a ministry of the laity.

I suppose one might argue that the laity are being given more opportunities for responsibility in churches now than they have in decades. (Laity would refer to volunteers, or anyone in a church that is not professional clergy.) The emphasis in a lot of my experiences with Evangelicalism is for pastors to be those who raise up lay people for the purpose of leading and running the ministries of the church.

This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I hope we can see the need for more. The laity are equipped to do far more than offer energy and ideas for the ministries of a church. I think Bosch was envisioning much more as well. He emphasizes the importance of the laity for two reasons:

first, the church’s witness will be much more credible if it comes from those who do not belong to the guild of pastors;

From my observations, I’m finding this to be true sometimes, but not always. Some I know avoid stating that they are in professional ministry as much as possible, expecting that such a revelation will immediately shut down conversations. Others I know embrace the role of clergy, and function well with the title of pastor outside of the church building’s walls. (I really appreciate how Kester seems to have developed a persona as a pastor at large for Austin.) I’m finding a happy middle ground by making 2/3 of my income as a professional pastor, and 1/3 doing web design. When I meet someone, mentioning that I do both offers to different routes from which the conversation might proceed, and two different means to gain (or perhaps lose!) credibility with others.

Bosch continues:

and second, only in this way will we begin to bring together what our culture has divided, the private and the public, for the lay members of the church clearly belong to the public and secular world, whereas the pastors belong to a separate, “religious” world.

Dualism in Christianity is a buzz topic for me — I tend to see it playing out everywhere, so I can’t help but see how Bosch addresses it with this idea. An empowered laity is a statement against the spiritual vs. unspiritual dualism that distorts Christianity today. The lay people of a church must be seen not just as resources to enhance programs and ministries within our churches. They are the body of Christ, with opportunities to engage in the every day as sacred agents of the Kingdom of God.

I love this idea, but I must admit it is still threatening to me as well. What does it mean for me to pastor a community of people that are so engaged outside of the church that it can’t be measured? How can we shape a community the celebrates well the stories of what is happening outside of our structured times together?

The fundamental truth, as I see it, is this — the laity are a great asset to a church community not because what they can do “inside” the church, but for what they can do “outside”. The church is the sent people of God, so how can we better honor the sacred vocation of those who are “sent” Monday through Saturday?

Next post: a local, worshiping community

contextual (a missiology for the west)

(This post is part of a series reflecting on David Bosch’s six distinctives for a missiology of Western culture. See the introductory post for a little background.)

We have, at long last, come to the conviction that mission in the Third World must be contextual. We do not have an equally clear conviction about the need for contextualization in the West.

In the decade plus that I did youth ministry in a large church, I was blessed with many opportunities to do some short-term missions trips. I hold dear many memories of those experiences, but there is one lesson that stands above all…

I sat in a church service in a remote mountain village in Jamaica where the organ played while men wore white shirts and ties and women wore hats. It felt like I could be in a church in Alabama in the 50s, and I wondered where any Jamaican culture was reflected. I sat in the balcony at a national Christian convention in the Philippines and was troubled by how much it was like the conventions I had been to growing up in the US. I saw nothing that reflected the Filipino culture that I had been experiencing in the days prior.

From what I understand, missionary methods have changed, but much of the early push in Christian missions exported more American church culture than it did the Gospel. As Bosch affirms above, in recent decades, mission work has been more intent on engaging with a local culture with the Gospel.

Bosch goes on to say that the same needs to happen in the West: Somehow, we still believe that the gospel has already been (has always been?) properly indigenized and contextualized in the West. However, as we now know, the West has largely turned its back on the gospel. Was it perhaps because the gospel was never properly contextualized? Or perhaps overcontextualized, so much so that it has lost its distinctive character and challenge? What, indeed, will contextualization of the gospel in the West involve and look like? I submit that we do not really know. This makes it all the more necessary to reflect on this issue with the utmost urgency.

I am encouraged, and comforted, by these words. They reflect what I hope we are becoming in Austin. A few years ago, I grabbed a hold of the idea that we were not called here to plant a church, but to engage locally as missionaries. I believe that the divide between the church and the rest of our culture is greater than we know. Not all of our current church planting practices are bad, and I am trying to learn from many of them. But, rather than try to replicate church as we have experienced it elsewhere in Western culture, we are praying, learning, and listening in order to understand how we might shape a church that is engaged, that is contextualized, to the unique culture we are in.

We must reshape our thinking about church planting (and perhaps we just need to do away with the term althogether). Too many of our methods focus on creating a Sunday worship gathering out of the best, or at least our favored, practices we’ve seen in other Western churches. But what does it look like for us to patiently listen to our culture, and then begin to see how we can intersect the Kingdom of God with what we hear?

Let me return to Bosch’s words: What, indeed, will contextualization of the gospel in the West involve and look like? I submit that we do not really know.

I agree. And I sure hope I can be a part of helping to find some answers…at least for the context I’m in.

Next post: laity

countercultural (a missiology for the west)

(This post is part of a series reflecting on David Bosch’s six distinctives for a missiology of Western culture. See the introductory post for a little background.)

a mission to the West must be countercultural, though not in an escapist way

I wasn’t planning on spreading the posts in this series a week apart. But, maybe it’s providence, since we had some discussion last night that stirred some thinking for me on this topic.

A few years ago, I sat in one of my core classes at Mars Hill called Faith, Hope, and Love. The lecturer was Dan Allender, and the class served as the foundation for much of the theology (and therapy) that was taught there. In our first session, we watched a few clips from The Lion King that focused on interactions between Rafiki and Simba.

As we discussed the clips, the idea emerged that Rafiki was seen as a fool, yet his words had invited Simba to desire and hope. His folly was a subversive invitation to life. Dan went on to make the following comments (though he said them in the context of therapy, I think they hold true for the church as well):

The work of a therapist is to be a fool. In that foolishness is the breaking and transforming of paradigms. Rafiki has reframed reality and in that has told a deeper truth then what could be viewed as nominative truth. Yet, in play a therapist knows how to play with reality.

In the Old Testament, we see the prophets often acting in ways that seemed foolish to those who heard them…and even to us today. I wonder what it means to have a missional stance of a prophet toward our culture. Not as the angry prophet who denounces all, but as the fool — the voice that is engaged with culture in ways that sound insane, but invites us to abandon our destructive patterns in the pursuit of life.

Next post: ecumenical

ecological (a missiology for the west)

(This post is part of a series reflecting on David Bosch’s six distinctives for a missiology of Western culture. See the introductory post for a little background.)

A missiology of Western culture must include an ecological dimension.

Thanks to my nature loving Grandma, I’ve always had an appreciation for nature that wasn’t really offered in my Evangelical background. Somehow I grew up with clashing ideas that nature can be enjoyed, but ultimately, it will just be destroyed, because the physical realm is corrupt.

In recent years, I’ve been able to reshape these ideas and find that a love of nature and a true Biblical understanding of creation. The works of Athanasius, NT Wright and others have helped me understand that to care for creation is to live in anticipation of God’s restoration of all things, when heaven and earth will be joined again. The physical world is broken, but the shattered fragments still hold glimpes of the glory of God.

This is all true, and all good, but Bosch emphasizes another point. A Western missiology must have an ecological element for the sake of the Third World. He writes, “the current exploitation of the environment in the Third World is often directly linked to the global economic structure that is dictated by the West.” To live with ecological responsibility is to live with the future in mind. But, it is also to live with the present, with the unseen other, in mind.

In Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren quotes Jacues Ellul: “A major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin.” A statement like that, which I agree with, leaves me feeling helpless.

But I am also hopeful, knowing that my individual choices can serve to weaken the collective. Through the Everything Must Change website, I found a site called Better World Shopper which grades the ecological responsibility of corporations in various industries. It’s a list that I’m consulting more and more, and I encourage you to do the same.

Glory be…it looks like I have another good reason to eat at Chipotle.

Next post: countercultural

believing in the future

(This post is the introduction to a series reflecting on David Bosch’s six distinctives for a missiology of Western culture. See the end of the post for links to the rest of the series.)

David Bosch was a missiologist in South Africa who died in 1992. A car accident took his life only a year after he published Transforming Mission — a monumental work which I blogged about last January.

Not long ago, I came across a used copy of Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture. This was an essay Bosch wrote and presented in 1992, and then was published as a short (69 pages) book a few years after his death. (Since Eugene Cho once told me he only reads books by dead guys, I’m hoping he will consider Bosch if he hasn’t already.)

To state it too simply, Bosch says that the church in Western culture must view it’s work as mission in the same way it views mission to other cultures. Chapter 4 is entitled Contours of a Missiology of Western Culture, and I think it is one of the most important chapters I have ever read when it comes to thinking about the church. I had to restrain myself from highlighting too much.

Equally striking was the conclusion, where Bosch touches briefly on six other elements he thinks are necessary to develop a true missiology of Western culture. He was writing ideas in 1992 that are just starting to make their way into mainstream church conversation in the last few years. He mentions that our missiology must be ecological, countercultural (though not escapist), ecumenical, contextual, a ministry of the laity, and it must flow from a local, worshiping community.

I resonate with these ideas so much that I’m going to try to do a series on them in the days, or maybe weeks, to come.

Update — Here are the links to each post in the series:

what do we have to become christians for?

As we call people (back) to faith in God through Jesus Christ, we must help them to articulate an answer to the question ‘What do we have to become Christians for?’ At least part of the answer to this question will have to be: ‘In order to be enlisted into God’s ministry of reconciliation, peace, and justice on earth.’ It should be natural for Christians to be committed to these values. In a sense … there is already very much believing in Western society. What we do not need, then, is to introduce more religion. The issue is not to talk more about God in a culture that has become irreligious, but how to express, ethically, the coming of God’s reign, how to help people respond to the real questions of their context, how to break with the paradigm according to which religion has to do only with the private sphere.” — David J. Bosch, Believing in the Future

transforming mission

Some books read like a light snack…maybe a small package of pretzels on an airplane. Snacks aren’t bad, but sometimes you need a hearty feast. Transforming Mission satisfies the belly and fills the mind with memories and Ideas to revisit.

This book is a classic on mission, and rightfully so. David Bosch traces the history of how mission has been understood, and how that understanding has been shaped by context. When seeing how others have formed their understanding of mission from their context, it helps us to step back and form a more clear image of how we have rightly or wrongly understood mission in our time. This seems like such an important book for anyone in a primary role of shaping a church community, because if you get mission wrong, pretty much everything goes askew.

Here are some table scraps from my reading (heck, some of these could be a full meal by themselves) to whet the appetite of any hungry or ambitious readers out there.

  • We have to distinguish between mission (singular) and missions (plural). The first refers primarily to the missio Dei (God’s mission), that is, God’s self-revelation as the One who loves the world, God’s involvement in and with the world, the nature and activity of God, which embraces both the church and the world, and in which the church is priveleged to participate. (pg. 11)
  • Even so, personal conversion is not a goal in itself. To interpret the work fo the church as the ‘winning of souls’ is to make conversion into a final product, which flatly contradicts Luke’s understanding of the purpose of mission. Conversion does not pertain merely to an individual’s act of conviction and commitment; it moves the individual believer into the community of believers and involves a real — even a radical — change in the life of the believer, which carries with it moral responsibilities that distinguish Christians from ‘outsiders’ while at the same time stressing their obligation to those ‘outsiders’. (pg. 117)
  • There have, of course, always been Christians (and theologians!) who believed that their understanding of the faith was ‘objectively’ accurate and, in effect, the only authentic rendering of Christianity. Such an attitude, however, rests on a dangerous illusion. Our views are always only interpretations of what we consider to be divine revelation, not divine revelation itself. (pg 182)
  • it should be clear that theologies designed and developed in Europe can claim no superiority over theologies emerging in other parts of the world. (pg 189)
  • The Protestant preoccupation with right doctrine soon meant that every group which seceded from the main body had to validate its action by maintaining that it alone, and none of the others, adhered strictly to the “right preaching of the gospel”. The Reformational descriptions of the church thus ended up accenuating differences rather than similarities. Christians were taught to look decisively at other Christians. (pg 248)
  • The Enlightenment tenet that all problems were in principle solvable had an equally far-reaching effect on theology and the church. … Where God was still used as a hypothesis he had become the ‘God of the gaps’. We needed him only for exigencies such as cancer and similar incurable diseases. Step by step, however, our knowledge was expanding; the gaps were being closed. God was pushed further and further back and was becoming more and more redundant. (pg 273)
  • Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission.” (pg 390)
  • The primary purpose of the missiones ecclesiae can therefore not simply be the planting of churches or the saving of souls; rather, it has to be service to the missio Dei, representing God in and over against the world, pointing to God, holding up the God-child before the eyes of the world in a ceaseless celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. (pg 391)
  • Evangelism should never deterioriate into coaxing, much less into threat. It is not the same as (1) offering a psychological panacea for people’s frustrations and disappointments, (2) inculcating guilt feelings so that people (in despair, as it were) may turn to Christ, or (3) scaring people into repentance and conversion with stories about the horrors of hell. (pg 413)
  • Even so, the gospel is not individualistic. Modern individualism is, to a large extent, a perversion of the Christian faith’s understanding of the centrality and responsibility of the individual. (pg 416)
  • Contextualization, on the other hand, suggests the experimental and contingent nature of all theology. Contextual theologians therefore, rightly, refrain from writing “systematic theologies” where everything fits into an all-encompassing and eternally valid system. (pg 427)
  • If it is true, as has been argued throughout this study, that the entire life of the church is missionary, it follows that we desperately need a theology of the laity — something of which only the first rudiments are now emerging. (pg 472)