Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes in the opening paragraph of his book Ethics that those seeking a Christian ethic "must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the two very questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: 'How can I be good?' and 'How can I do something good?'" His words challenge the notion that the goal of Christian ethics is to find out how an individual can become good or how an individual can change the world for the good by his or her actions. He wrote, "Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good, or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality." (See the translation on pages 46-7 pg Vol 6 in the Dietrich Bonhoffer Works series.)
Practically speaking this means that Christian ethics is a focus on the ultimate reality that "God be known as good, even at the risk that I and the world are revealed as not good." Ethics is not primarily about how good I am or what good I can do. Questions about such are focused on the self and therefore miss the point. It's about the goodness of God and how that goodness is being woven into the world. Yes I can play a part in what God is weaving, but I'm not the center of the action. God is.
These words have caused me to wonder if we have asked the wrong questions about being missional. We write and talk a lot about how to be a missional church. Myself include. I've written about Missional Small Groups and I co-authored Introducing the Missional Church, two titles among many that have come out on the topic in the last 20 years. Now we have missional networks and missional conferences, along with new resources on missional virtues, missional theology, and missional leadership. I'm not disparaging the word, nor these resources, nor the theology. We need to develop a missional imagination. And we need to develop practical ways to engage our world with the Gospel.
However, being a missional church or a missional Christian is not the ultimate reality. When we begin with questions about how the church can impact our neighborhood or how individual Christians can make a difference in the world, we reveal our imagination, one that is shaped by self-focus. In other words, we have an imagination that is shaped by the pragmatic questions like What can we do to impact our world for Christ? How can I minister to our neighbors? What can the church do to become "missional." It seems to me that the church gets caught up in chasing it's own tail, trying to figure out what it's supposed to be.
When we do this, we look for missional models that are working elsewhere so that we can have the kind of success that they have experienced. But this is like trying to teach people to be ethical without rooting them in the reality of God made manifest in Jesus. We look for missional rules just like we look for ethical rules. That's like trying to be a computer programmer without understanding how a computer works. Or artist who paints by numbers without developing an eye for art. Or chef following recipes without any knowledge of how the food will be served.
Being missional (or making a difference or having an impact or whatever you want to call it) must be rooted in the ultimate reality of God's being and God's action in the world to redeem all of creation. Now I know that this is not overly practical and blogging rules call for short posts that provide practical, tangible doables. But that's the problem. When we jump to the doables, we miss the ultimate reality.
Missional must move beyond simply being "doers of the Word." I wonder if we are so concerned about not being doers of the Word that we have failed to really hear it. From my years of experience in the church, I'm not sure that we have a huge problem with NOT doing the Word. I've heard doing the word preached and seen it programmed in just about every form imaginable. I wonder if we need to first "re-hear the Word." We need to re-hear the Word again so that we get captured by the imagination of God's incarnate life in our midst through the Spirit. We need to develop a new set of eyes through listening and engaging God's Word so that we can see what God is up to in us, around us and through us.
This far is more than finding a missional method that will give us strategies for changing our neighborhoods. This is about embracing an imagination that opens up a world so that we can see the reality of God at work. On a practical note, there are a few ways to allow this imagination to develop within us.
First, hear the story, the grand story of the entire Bible. Let the great, huge story of what God was doing through his people seep into your imagination. The Bible is a grand drama, told in five acts (according to N.T. Wright). We need to let this great drama shape and reshape our worldview. Check out Wright's The New Testament and the People of God.
Second, let your imagination be shaped around the climax of the grand drama, that is the full revelation of God, which was revealed through Jesus. The ultimate revelation of his shocking love is demonstrated on the cross. This is what God is like. And this is how God works in the world.
Third, read big chunks of the Bible. Read it like you would a novel. Don't study it. Don't pick it apart. Just read it and see where the story takes you. Imagine that you are a member of a house church in the first century and these chunks of stories or letters or Psalms are being read aloud.
Fourth, practice Lectio Divina. This can be done privately and in groups. There are lots of good resources on this topic, one of the best being Opening to God by David Benner.