Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why We Can't Return to Pre-Christendom

Lesslie Newbigin wrote the following in 1963:
"The Western world has had to be recognized once again as a mission field, and the Churches have been compelled in a new way to define their nature and mission as parts of a divine society distinct from the wider society of nations in which they live, and all these factors have contributed to developments in the field of theology in the direction of a missionary understanding of the nature of the Church itself." (Newbigin, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, 12).
I grew up on a farm. While most of our tools, tractors and implements were very basic and some were a few years old, I was trained in the ways of farming that depended upon machinery. I remember the day that my father brought home a brand new round bailer. It was a revolutionary machine because we could form hay into a form that could feed cows for a week instead of the small bails that would only last a day. We were fully dependent upon such machines in our patterns of farm life. 

One could look at such patterns of farm life and analyze the ill affects of industrialization on farming. And they are many. For instance, my farming experience did not get me in touch with the land that much. I rarely touched the earth, the seeds or worked with the life process. The dependance upon machines has removed the farmer from a direct touch with God's creation. In addition, farming is no longer a community process. Before industrialization, farmers had to support one another and entire families were invested in the planting and harvesting of crops. Now the farmer can do almost all the work by himself, with only a relationship with a machine. 

I could look at these affects and yearn for a more simple day when farming operated differently. I could look to another country that has not been affected by industrialization and see how sustenance farming works and wish I were a part of it. I might look into history and try to see ways of reconstructing an early life or I might visit an Amish community and learn from them. 

But there is one truth that I cannot get beyond: I cannot delete my experience as a part of an industrialized farm. And that experienced shaped the way I view life on the farm. As a result I cannot return to some kind of pre-industrialized state of farm life. My farm innocence has been perverted. And once I have been exposed to industrialization there is no going back to pre-industrialization. 

In other words, I must deal with reality, not with a wish-dream of what I would like farming to look like. Now if I wanted to break free from the dependance upon industrialization, I can look to other ways of farm life and learn from them, but the reality is that my experience has been permanently infected that will not allow me to go back to some pure state of what farming is "meant" to be. In addition, the farm systems that have been developed--buying and selling, markets, etc.--fit the system of industrialization. The farmer can no longer operate on his own. 

In the same way, there is a call within the church to "return" to a pre-Christendom pattern of church life. There is a push to find that which worked during the first 300 years of the church and in places where the established church has been forced out, i.e. China. While I do believe that we can learn much from such church experiences, I simply want to say that we don't life in first century Antioch or in modern China. I grew up in the Bible Belt where there is a Baptist church on every other corner and now I live in the upper midwest where there is a Luthern church with equal frequency. I have too much experience with church life that has been influenced by the Christendom pattern to return to some kind of pure form of church life. And the systems of our culture have been too influenced by Christendom to ignore that the patterns of Christendom have shaped the way the culture hears any talk about Jesus, the Gospel and the Church. 

We can learn things from the pre-Christendom church. I believe that we can learn much. But we have to deal with reality and that is the fact that we live in an age of post-Christendom. This means that we have to deal with NOT with a vision for church life that fits a different context i.e. first century Antioch or modern China, but with what we are called to be to be as God's people in this context. What does the Gospel look like that encounters our life today? This is the difficult call of the missionary experience in the West. This means that we don't entirely know what this "divine society" will look like as all we know is a kind of society that has been shaped by Christendom and we have historical notes about what this society looked like in the early centuries of the church. 

To be the church in post-Christendom, we don't need the imagination of an organizational consultant who proposes ways of structuring the church of the future i.e. flat, de-centralized, organic, etc. Instead we need the imagination of a missionary who is equipped, willing and able to enter into a local context and have conversations with people and develop a community that is willing to discover together through simple experiments what it means to be Gospel carriers in this age. This is difficult because our technologically shaped imagination prefers to go with a formal structure of what the church must look like and the vision for the church takes on a structural form. But that fails to understand the essence of the Gospel, the good news, which is alive and active by the Spirit through God's people and in creation. 

It seems to me that the Apostle Paul is less concerned about mobilizing a specific form of church life and more focused on speaking about and living the gospel and allowing that to shine forth in unique ways. If this is the case, then the Gospel can be good news in many different ways. We need not get to some kind of pure form of church life where we do away with our buildings, denominational structures, seminaries, etc. The Spirit is at work in the reality of our lives. The missionary imagination means that we learn to listen to where the Spirit is at work and allow even the smallest of seeds to be planted and take us to new ways of being the church. 

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