When new ideas come along in the church, we get attracted to their novelty and even their benefits and start exploring what it means to adopt those ideas. But new ideas never pan out like we expect. As we move toward something like the idea of being a “missional church” we buy into it but we face stress along the way.
One stress point has been the feedback that the “missional” conversation downplays and even de-emphasizes evangelism. It's common to measure the value of church's vision and strategy by how many baptisms are recorded. And because that way of talking is not an focus of the missional conversation, many jump to the conclusion that those involved with “missional” are really more concerned about social justice issues than people’s eternal salvation.
In times of stress or times when we don’t know how to respond, the natural tendency is to revert back to what we know. In this case, the old paradigmatic battle of whether a church emphasizes personal salvation or social justice causes lures us into answers that we think we already understand. So those stuck inside the imagination of personal salvation/social justice recast the missional around a combination of the two. But this short-changes us from really seeing what’s going on with what it means to be missional.
This “reverting back to what we know” pattern is quite common. On a personal level, if those who have depended upon “comfort food” in the past will toss aside their diet whenever stress hits them. I’ve seen this with small group leaders for years. Those who have been shaped by a Sunday school teacher imagination will start leading a conversational small group that is relational and life giving. But as soon as someone difficult joins the group, the stress causes them to revert to being a teacher so that they can easily control the meetings.
In some ways this is what’s happening in missional talk. We are returning to what we already know how to do and putting “missional” on top of it. Of course we need to lead people to enter into a relationship with Jesus. Of course we need to deal with issues of social justice. We don’t need “missional” to help us do that. But there is something bigger going on we need to see. For this let me quote from my friend David Fitch. He writes:
“From the pretentious ‘Do you know where you are going when you die?,’ we come to the world offering a welcome: ‘to enter the salvation begun in Jesus Christ that God is working for the sake of the whole world.’ We do not characterize salvation in terms of ‘you receive this and this’ if by faith you believe. Instead, salvation is joining in with God in ‘the setting of all things right.’ It is an invitation to extend the reign of God in Christ over your life and into the world wherever sin, death, and evil still linger. The offer of salvation becomes, ‘Come and put your entire life under the reign of Christ for the transformation God is working to make the world right,’ ‘come and live under his Lordship over the world.’ In this way, no new Christian can miss that ‘in Christ’ you are going from living for yourself, out of yourself, in yourself with all the things that you have become entangled in, to living ‘in Christ’ where the entirety of our lives is transformed into the Kingdom politic God is bringing via the Holy Spirit for the whole world.” (The End of Evangelicalism, 152).
Sadly the message of personal salvation and that of social justice has been shaped far too much by the dominant culture of the West. Instead of salvation being about joining God’s world redemption team, it has been made into a message about how we can help people have better lives.
In order to understand the kind of personal salvation that fits within the “missional” imagination we need to let go of our individualized view of salvation that simply helps individuals have better lives. The invitation to salvation is one where we are called to enter into God’s work to put the world right. It is an invitation to join God’s people through whom he is working to redeem all that is evil. Baptism is not just about one's personal destiny. It's about entering into a new way of life, about signing up to be a part of God's world changing team. Yes, personal freedom and a redeemed destiny is part of the package, but that's the residual benefit, not the focus.
If we allowed our imaginations to be shaped by such a view of salvation, how might our church’s change?