Saturday, July 19, 2008

Missional Meanings

It seems to me that there are different categories when it comes the missional conversation:
  • Programmatic Community Transformation (Externally-Driven Church by Rusaw)
  • Using Contextualization for Church Effectiveness through cultural relevance (Decoding the Missional Church by Stetzer)
  • The operating around a clear mission for the church (Church Unique by Mancini)
  • Organic, grass-roots church life that has no resemblance to traditional churches (Hirsch, Frost, Cole, Halter)
  • A pure pattern for church life based around pre-Constitinian church life (Hirsch, House Church movement)

I believe that the work we are doing at Allelon is seeking to articulate something different than all of these. We building the communication around the theme of developing a people who participate with God in His life which is incarnational in nature. Through this incarnation reality, God enters our world by the Spirit through the practical act of dialogue between the people of God and the context. 

This is distinct from the development of culturally relevant patterns of church life that will attract people from the context. `This is much more than doing something for our neighbors or sharing the Gospel message. It is the offering of life on life, a relational engagement of a people with people. 

Community Transformation

I have just read a couple of books (Externally Fucused Church, The Intentional Church, and the Church of Irresistable Influence. on how churches can have an impact on the community. Two things stand out to me that are in contrast to the approach we are taking at Woodland. First, there is an emphasis on how to get people assimilated into the church events instead of empowering the church to be brought to life in the mist of the neighborhoods. Therefore, the image is that church is something at the center and ministry in the neighborhood is separate from the "real" church. This seems to fall short of an incarnational model of church life. 

The second thing is that the ministries in the neighborhoods are programmatically driven. The imagination is about how a church can develop (or work with external programs) programs to meet needs in the context. This seems to be driven by the center of the church organization instead of something that arises out of the context. The church sets the table "for" instead of "with" those in the context. It seems that the church has had such a long history of approaching those outside the church in a monologue that we don't know how to enter dialogue. 

This programmatic approach can bring transformation, but it seems to me that in our pluralistic, high change society makes it nearly impossible to develop programs that actually meet needs. The only way is to empower grass-root experiments that develop and grow from the ground up. If this is what these books mean, then I missed the point. But if it is what they mean they should have made it more obvious. 

Minatrea, Shaped by God's Heart

Milfred Minatrea, Shaped by God's Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004)
The imagination that shapes this book is built around a list of nine characteristics of churches that are viewed as missional. While there is nothing wrong necessarily with these nine characteristics, the book implies that if a church develops their ability to do these nine things that they will also become missional. This approach is based upon some assumptions about how churches work and how leadership works in our culture. These assumptions are founded on a modernistic point of view of "analyze, plan, control, and produce." This is a mechanistic view of how churches are developed. But that is not the way things work in the church or in leadership. One cannot attain a list of the top ten characteristics of the most effective companies in America, copy them and then expect to become like those companies. 

In addition, I can imagine an attractional church adopting these nine practices and becoming a better attractional church. Part of the reason is that none of these characteristics are necessarily unique to the missional conversation. Attractional churches have been talking this way for a long time. Basically, a church can use this to create a more improved version of evangelicalism based on the insight of the large "effective" churches cited in this book. 

Stetzer, Breaking the Missional Code

Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006)

This book is communicates well, but what it communicates about the missional church is quite misleading. It speaks well to the current church leadership audience because it works within the imagination of that audience. It operates from a realistic understanding of the pluralistic nature of Western culture. However, what the authors do with this understanding revolves around the question of what it means to be a successful church in this situation. All of the churches cited in the book are large. They mentions repeatedly the need for culturally relevant church services as opposed to doing church services according to the preferences of the membership. and there is a focus on doing contextual ministry to grow churches. Two years ago, I would have thought these things good to promote, but now I see the problem.

There is nothing here about the God of mission or what it means to be missional people. These are assumed under the traditional paradigm of evangelicalism In other words, we already know how to do church, the question is how do we do it in a way that others will want to join us? Therefore, must be contextual. They must find a strategy for growing the church that fits the culture. So if a church is set in a context similar to that of Willow Creek then one should adopt their strategies. 

It seems that this book is primarily shaped by the imagination of using contextualization in order to be an effective growing church. If you operate within a church growth paradigm, this would fit quite well. But this misses the call to participate with God in his mission to enter the context, not just invite those within that context. Ultimately, this book is talking about how to use contextualization to be a relevant attractional church. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, it is not the same thing that shaped the imagination of Lesslie Newbigin and GOCN. This book provides instructions on how to improve what churches already do. This is an option for the future of the church, but if this is the only option then the church in America will be like those of Europe in 25 years. 

Friday, July 18, 2008

McNeal, The Present Future

The Present Future proposes six questions that the church should be asking. These six questions are set in contrast to six standard questions that are typically asked by churches. The typical questions are:
1. How do we do church better?
2. How do we grow this church?
3. How do we turn members into ministers?
4. How do we develop church members?
5. How do we plan for the future?
6. How do we develop leaders for church work?

The proposed questions are?
1. How do we deconvert from churchianity to Christianity?
2. How do we transform our community?
3. How do we turn members into missionaries?
4. How do we develop followers of Jesus?
5. How do we prepare for the future?
6. How do we develop leaders for the Christian movement?

While there is much to be stated in the positive for these proposed questions and even for the material written to support the argument, there is a major flaw in the imaginative paradigm that shapes this book. The proposals offered in this book are a step in the right direction but they do not take it far enough. Let me explain:
  • First, the primary paradigm that shapes the writer's imagination is based on evangelical individualism. This is not surprising due to his tradition, but it must be noted that there is little to nothing in this book about what it means to be a corporate people. Almost everything is about how we service individuals within churches. This is a basic flaw in the church as we know it. 
  • Therefore, because the assumption of individualism is not addressed, the best we can conclude is that this book is talking about how to adjust a church and its life. It is not talking about how to lead a church into radical reorientation. Again this is not surprising because of the author's tradition and his job. There is nothing in this book about the death a church must go through in order to discover a new future.
  • Instead of a death that leads to radical change, the author proposing six questions as if these are THE questions for the future of the church and every church. This is an imagination shaped by modernity whereby the expert knows what the future will look like and provides the tools to get those who listen to him there. He is clear on what the future church needs, but the reality is that for every church to enter into its future, each one will ask different questions. These six questions do not equip churches to ask their own questions, they only replace old questions with new ones--even though these are better questions. That being said, we can conclude that this book is only speaking to adjustment change, not to re-creational change.
  • In addition, the author speaks from a traditional "evangelical" voice which assumes that the church has all of the answers for the world or for specific neighborhoods. While not overtly stated, the implication is that the church is in a monologue with the culture, not a dialogue where it is learning just as much from the "neighborhood" as it is giving. 
  • While the author states that we no longer need to ask questions about doing church better or about growing the church, when I read between the lines, it seems to me that this is still the unstated desire. The primary reason for considering these new questions is because the current church is not working. Church "success" is still what is at stake. And all of the new questions are about what the church can do for people to be a successful church during this time when the church is not working.  Are we really that narcissistic? This seems to be very "church" organization focused in its orientation and misses the reality of the organic life that God desires to develop within his people.
This might seem overly harsh, but my points are meant to delineate subtle differences between what this book is saying and what I believe true about the missional church. There is much to be valued in this book, but I am afraid it does not challenge the church imagination enough and therefore, most church leaders will use this book to simply improve or adjust what they are already doing and miss the call to radical re-creation that only comes through the walking through the land of unknowing. Without this, we will only reproduce what we already know. 

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reaching a New Generation Review

Roxburgh, Alan. Reaching a New Generation: Strategies for Tomorrow's Church (IVP, 1993).

Alan wrote this book about 3 years before I met him in Vancouver. This little book is an incredible introduction to the imagination of those on a missional journey. To be quite honest, I never got this book's message while working with Alan at West Vancouver Baptist Church. I was too arrogant. I thought I knew how the church should operate, how it should work. I had the model down and I assumed that Alan's perspective was just a simple advancement of what I saw as THE biblical way of doing church. 

But getting into the imagination of this book has baptized me into a new view of the Gospel and the purpose of the church in this world. This book challenges the arrogance of the church that is based on the assumption that we know that the world needs, that evangelism is giving people answers to questions whether or not they are asking them. We have a package that is wrapped up in multiple layers of boxes and paper, which we have substituted for the Gospel. Tradition, church practices, models for church success, leadership structures, etc. all are wrapped around the Gospel which generate a sense that we have the answers for those outside of the church organization. We have perverted the Gospel with our church stuff. 

We have failed to actually listen to what is going on in our world. We do not take the time to engage our context and enter into dialogue with those outside the church. And when we do, we go with a "plan for their lives." 

Lord, develop this imagination within me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Boersma on Violence, Hospitality and the Cross

Boersma, Hans. Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004).

This is the second book I have read by a Regent College theologian lately with which I find myself in great agreement. This is refreshing, being that this was not the case while I was there. Packer was stuck in the age of the Puritans and Grenz was still quite baptistic while I was there. And they were just both quite boring and non-constructive in their theology.

Boersma is quite different though. While not opting for being theologically novel, he is generative and creative. In some ways, in his advocating of all the three historic metaphors of the atonement, he wants to have his cake and eat it too. He synthesizes them around a larger metaphor of the hospitality of God. But this is no the open, unlimited hospitality of the pacifists (Yoder, Hauerwas) or of post-modern thought (Derrida, Levinas). Nor is the "limited hospitality" of the Calvinistic tradition. Instead he opts for what he calls "preferential hospitality" seeking a way of understanding the atonement that is historical, corporate and personal in nature, as opposed to the juridicizing, individualizing and de-historicizing that has shaped the atonement tradition of the West (163). He writes of how this is tied to the election of Israel:

"Israel's election was never for its own sake. Not only was election in no way based on Israel's prior condition (whether in terms of numerical size, economic growth, or moral integrity), but also  the purpose election reached beyond Israel. God had in mind more than just he salvation of Israel." (80)

"The surrounding nations could either stand in awe of God's hospitality toward Israel and her response to God, or they could respond in astonishment to Israel's rejection of God's hospitality. The purpose of divine hospitality is ultimately not just to draw Israel into relationship with God but also to restore the intimacy of love with all humanity and with the entire created order." (87)

To summarize: Boersma argues that Jesus reconstitutes (Wright) or recapitulates (Irenaeus) humanity by being the faithful Israel. Jesus did this in his life by modeling for humanity the true way of living (moral influence model) and representing humanity on the cross as a vicarious substitution for humanities sin (penal substitution model reformulated) (see page 167) so as to attain victory over the powers of darkness. "The three models are not unrelated. Christ's victory over the powers is the telos and climax of his work of recapitulation. In other words, the victory is the result of the entire process of recapitulation." (181)

Boersma sees hospitality as coinciding as a part of this eschatological era. God chose Israel and in this particularity set boundaries by not choosing others. In this way there is a form of violence. This violence is not part of the character of God but is a necessity due to the nature of the time. In choosing one way there is a violent exclusion to what is not lining up with that way. As a result, hospitality does not mean "nice."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Centrifugal Community

It has taken me a long time to set up a blog and write my first one. This is weird because in many things in my life I am an innovator. I had to have the first color Mac laptop. It may have weighed more than my four year old son, and the screen was not much bigger than my phone screen now, but I had it. I remember taking it on a plane with me to London, writing my first thoughts about the nature of biblical community. I am not sure what I wrote at the age of 23. I am sure they were profoundly informed. Ha! Even now I feel I am struggling to find words for the call God has on our lives in the church. I feel like a wilderness wanderer who is no longer satisfied with institutional forms of church life, but is still trying to find the new rhythm of being God's people in this age. At times, I have felt like I had a clear picture of what it looks like, but then I realize there is another piece that is undeveloped. 

Recently, I have come to realize how small groups have been used to prop up the traditional forms of church in America. In other words, churches have used groups to become better institutional churches by using groups to close the back door and get people involved in the ministry of the church. Even as I write this, I find it hard to articulate why this perspective misses the point. So much talk about the church and the various mechanisms like small groups is centered around how to make the church successful. In other words, there is an internal focus to all of it. We have been shaped by the goal of "making the church work" and getting people into the programs of the church. I even remember my thoughts about church as a kid, growing up in a congregation of about 50 people in rural North Texas. Every Sunday morning I would walk out from Sunday school and look up at the board to the left side of the front of the church auditorium. This was the place that marked our success as it listed the number that attending Sunday school. I wanted so badly to be a part of a successful church and that meant getting people to attend the primary program of the church.

I transfered this imagination upon small groups. The measure of success became the number of people involved in groups and then the number of groups that multiplied. Attendance at groups and group growth became the measure of success. This measurement was founded upon the belief that if we could just get people to attend groups then we were accomplishing our goal. 

This imagination was about using groups for internal development of the church. This was a centripetal focus. Everything about the church was drawing people into the center, resulting in a static fixed vision that required people to line up with that center. 

I am now seeing that community in group life must be centrifugal, that is directed out from the center. The point of group life is not to prop up the center of the church institution and events. The point of community is to be a people who live as a light to the nations, who are impacting the surrounding context