Monday, May 19, 2014

Imagination & God's Mission

In Missional Small Groups, I introduced the four stories of small group life, which provide a way of talking about the vision for how we live in community and on mission that gets us beyond church structures and strategies. Instead I identified four common stories that describe typical patterns of life in the church. They are:
  • The Story of Personal Improvment
  • The Story of Lifestyle Adjustment
  • The Story of Relational Revision 
  • The Story of Missional Re-creation
In most of the churches with whom I work, the desire is to experience the latter two, but the reality of most people in the church reflects the first two. There are many strategies that can move us into relational wholeness and missional engagement. However before we jump into the middle of answers related to the question of "What do we do?" it is important to talk about the imagination that we have when we talk about things like community and mission.
I've found that it is quite easy to use the same words and possess quite different imaginations regarding what we are talking about. People talk about the need for community and the call to enter into mission, but we use the words in very different ways. We see community and mission from different eyes. As a result, such words become empty signifiers, full of sound and fury. It's a bit like asking a professional baseball player if they are committed to winning. Of course they will respond positively. But baseball players have different imaginations regarding what it takes to win.

So let's talk about three common imaginations that we bring to the conversation when it comes to community and mission.

Imagination #1: Redeemed Society 
A church with this imagination will see the call to community and mission through the lens of a bounded set experience. In other words, this imagination sees that there are insiders and there are outsiders. Those on the inside possess the truth and outsiders need to see this truth. Such an imagination can see the church as offering community and mission but they see it primarily from the point of view of the center of the church.

It usually comes in one of two forms:
  1. The mission of the church is to be an exclusive group that is open to those who will line up with their beliefs and behaviors. If outsiders are to join they must come into agreement with the truths of the redeemed center. In relating to outsiders the process of relating aims at belief, then moves to behaviors and then finally offers belonging. This probably characterizes the vast majority of churches today.
  2. The church has a mission to accomplish in the world. As possessors of the Gospel truth, they believe that they have a predetermined set of beliefs that they need to offer the world. So they determine their mission field outside of the normal church activities and they go forth to accomplish that mission. 
 The key to understanding the imagination of the redeemed society is that the focus lies on the advancing the cause of the church. The church lies at the center. Maintaining, revitalizing, sustaining, and advancing the church is the priority.

The problem though is that this imagination causes us to misunderstand God's mission in the world. The goal is not the advancement of the church. It's the advancement of the Kingdom. The church is a servant to the Kingdom, but sadly we have assumed to often that the advancement of the church is the same as the advancement of the Kingdom.  

Imagination #2: Redeeming Society 
This view raises the priority of mission. Instead of the church having a mission, the mission has a church. Action, obedience, commitment, radical investment, justice, making a difference and the like are emphasized. This is the "go and do likewise" imagination.

This imagination can be very exciting and compelling. After all who can argue with the call to "go and do likewise"? We are to be "doers of the word and not hearers only." There are numerous biblical instructions about caring for the poor, the widow and the outcasts. And this is exactly the kind of people Jesus embraced. But this imagination has aspects inherent within it that give cause for concern. These include:
  • When the vision is centered on action, behavior can become the gauge by which all others are evaluated. There are those who are serious about getting something done for the sake of mission and then there's everyone else. So those who have a vocational calling to be engaged in a field that is tied to some form of social justice are really series about this vision. But those with normal jobs, not so much. And as a result, those who are less serious tend to live vicariously through those who are.
  • This imagination can wear people out. When the emphasis lies on action, those who are committed to the vision can be so focused on the results that they can easily find themselves exhausted. This is to be expected when the fact is that those in need actually need a lot of help. The needs never go away. And because the needs are so great, how can one limit what God wants to do. However, there is a law of diminishing returns that not only applies to economics; it also applies to mission. There is only so much that can be done before the effectiveness diminishes.
  • To equate mission with action can turn the church into an activist group. And the kind of action required is self-evident, which usually means that it is established on a predetermined set of self-evident human rights. Those with the power know what kind of justice that those without the power need. Why then is Jesus even necessary? Why do we need worship, teaching and the like? If the priority is mission, then why not just become a "go and do society"? Justice, action, and mission can easily trump Jesus and being a people who are called to be Jesus people. 
  • This means that those who are serious about the mission will be willing to do whatever it takes to advance the cause of mission. And if a person is not willing, then they are not committed to the mission.
  • There is also the danger of individualized mission. Everyone can have a personal cause and the church can be a gathering of individuals who are all committed to their own mission. But as a people they are not on mission in any sense together.  

Imagination #3: Redemptive Society
In his remarks about the work of Jesus and the early church, Elton Trueblood wrote, "The world needed a saving faith and the formula was that such a faith comes by a particular kind of fellowship. Jesus was deeply concerned for the continuation of his redemptive work after the close of his earthly existence, and his chosen method was the formation of a redemptive society. He did not form an army (what I call above a "redeeming society"), establish a headquarters (what I call above a "redeemed society") or even write a book. All he did was to collect a few unpromising men, inspire them with the sense of his vocation and theirs and build their lives into an intensive fellowship of affection, worship and work. ... One of the truly shocking passage of the Gospel (the Sermon on the Mount) is that in which Jesus indicates that there is absolutely no substitute for the tine redemptive society. If this fails, he suggests, all is failure; there is no other way." (Alternative to Futility, 29)

To be a redeemed society is about being a community of the saved who gather to celebrate the fact that they have been redeemed. And the goal is to get more to join their redeemed group.

To be a redeeming society is about being a community who acts like Jesus and obeys God. The external is the priority.

To be a redemptive society is to live together in a way that reflects the fact that they are redeemed, as carries of that redemption, embodiers of life. To be redeemed is not the end. To do redeeming actions is not the end. The goal is to be a people of a redemptive way of life.

In such a society, the center is not the weekly gathering where the beliefs are extolled and promoted—as it is the center in a redeemed society. Instead, the weekly gatherings are used to promote the way of redemption in our jobs, families and friendships.

In a redemptive society, the center is not the mission or the actions that result in redemption—as it is the center in a redeeming society. Instead, these actions are ways to facilitate the redemptive way in our everyday lives.

In my next post, I'll talk about some of the implications of these imginations.

Photo Credit: ModernDope (old account) via Compfight

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