Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Cross—The New (Old) Scorecard for Church Leadership

As I survey the landscape of church leadership training—including that which comes from a "missional" perspective, I get concerned about how the focus seems to center around the need to experience some degree of success in church life. By "success" I am not referring to it as an antonym of "failure", which is how we typically view success. I am not espousing some kind of church victim mentality where we revel in failure. Instead, I'm referring to success that we achieve through a form of triumphalism, the kind that comes when we take control and we make things happen for God. The kind that comes when we put the mission of God on our own shoulders so that we can avoid suffering, pain, and deep questions that stir our souls. It's a subtle lie, one that arises when we talk about grace when we preach, but the rest of church is something we as leaders assume is our responsibility so that we can make church work.

The only remedy to this kind of triumphalistic control is the journey we take with Jesus on the way to the cross. The "theology of the cross" was contrasted with the "theology of glory" by Luther. Modern theologians like John Douglas Hall, Jurgen Moltmann and Greg Boyd write of it. And the Apostles Paul and John put the cross front and center. 

“For Paul, Christian identity was determined by the cross, and the cross will inevitably mean a rejection of some culture elements and the purification of others.”[1] This sentence rightly points out the centrality of the cross for how Paul interpreted and taught theology and how he practiced ministry in the local contexts of the churches he started. The cross is the measuring stick against which all aspects of how truth and ministry are evaluated. While the conversation between Gospel and culture is fluid and makes room for adaptation, the cross is the anchor which ties the church and the Gospel to the revelation of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the cross is the "new scorecard" for the church and God's mission in the world. We are not primarily measuring "impact." We are not first trying to measure our ability to transform the culture. Those are secondary measurements. Everything that we do, all of our measurements—whether they are measurements of attendance on Sunday, how we close "the back door", or they way we impact our neighborhoods—must first go through the scorecard of the cross.

In reflecting on 1 Cor 1:22-24 the New Testament scholar, Nissan, “Religious egocentricity will inevitably find Christ crucified a scandal, for in the cross God does the opposite of what he is expected to do; the intellectual egocentricity of wisdom-seeking Gentiles finds the same theme, folly, because incarnation, crystallized in crucifixion, means not that man has speculated his way up to God but that God has come down to man where man is.”[2] From this passage we can conclude that Paul sees the cross is not just part of the message. It is the core of the message. The cross is the defining element of what it means for the church to be a “sign, witness, and foretaste” of the divine reign of God.
Landscapes & Nature
To say it another way, let’s look at the theme of agape love. Paul called the church to live in love as a way of being God’s people (1 Cor 13). In Colossians, after listing various virtues, it reads, “Over all these virtues put on love, which beings them all together in perfect unity.” However, love is an abstract concept for Paul. John held up the paradigm of love in his first letter, but he advanced it further, moving it from an abstract list of characteristics to the story of Jesus. Agape love looks like Jesus hanging on the cross, giving up his life for his enemies (1 John 3:16). The cross defines how we are to live in love.

Much has been written about the incarnational nature of the missional church. The incarnation is used as a contrast to the church being “attractional”. It is said that traditional forms of the church attract and then extract people out of the culture in such a way that it disembodies the church. And while there is merit to this argument, the answer provided by a theology of incarnation is most often incomplete. Basically, the common view of the incarnation could be labeled as “embodiment,” where the church is called to embody the Gospel in the midst of the world reflecting the character and compassion of Jesus. Mission gets turned into a very intense form of WWJD Christianity. We become the agents of the mission as we try to replicate the life of Jesus. We remain in control. We do what we are supposed to do in order to produce the right results. This is a veiled form of triumphalism because "we" become the focus.

When talking about the incarnational life of the church, some refer to the “powerlessness” demonstrated by the Jesus, but it is only one descriptor amongst others.[4] The cross is not one part of the the incarnation. The cross is the climax of the incarnation. It is the ultimate revelation of the character of God. When "powerlessness" is one of the characteristics alongside others, participating in the sufferings of Christ is not primary. It is too easy for us leaders to seek—like James and John—to sit at the right and left of Jesus. We want to be in the seats of power when Jesus demonstrates to the world that he is God.

From a biblical theology point of view the climax of the incarnation is the cross. They way that God shows the world what God is like is through the cross. This can be illustrated from the theology of Luke for instance where there is a clear shift at the end of Luke 9 where Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. The rest of the narrative is a pilgrimage toward the cross. Other examples could be given to support this claim, but it is beyond the scope of this short essay—which keeps getting longer. The cross is the grid through which we can rightly see the nature of God. The cross reveals the nature of God’s love for us. The cross is the defining element that sets Christianity apart from every other religion.

The missio dei is the way of the Triune God who is at work in the world. The church is called to participate in this life of the Trinity—as opposed to merely imitating the life of Christ as the church “pulls itself up by the bootstraps and seeks to make something happen that looks like Jesus.” But what exactly does this participation in the Trinity look like? While there are many facets to this, we must say that participating in God’s Triune mission involves participating in the way of the cross. As much as we would like to avoid it, the way of the cross is the way to the resurrection. We don’t get to embrace a theology of glory and enter into some kind of triumphal mission by trying to bi-pass the cross.

But this is exactly what a ton of church leadership (and missional leadership) literature promises. We are offered methods and models that will reform and resuscitate the church and move the church into a new future of success. The clamoring for triumphal success is causing us to miss the formation that God has for his church in the midst of the journey to the cross. God is shaping the church on the way toward the cross to embrace the cross so that we might be a people of the cross. This goes beyond the fact that we are saved by the cross. The church is the church as it enters into its context and embraces the suffering of the context. Bonhoeffer wrote in his comments on “Blessed are those who mourn”: “As bearers of suffering, they stand in communion with the Crucified. They stand as strangers in the power of him who was so alien to the world that it crucified him.”[5] They way of Jesus, the way of the Trinity, and the way that the Spirit moves today through the church and in the world is through the cross.

[1] Johannes Nissan, New Testament and Mission: Historical and Hermeneutical Perspectives, Fourth Edition (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007), 108.
[2] Ibid, 109.
[3] Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 110.
[4] See for instance, Alan Hirsch and Debra Hirsch, Untamed (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010), 241ff.
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship trans. By Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 104.

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