Monday, August 11, 2014

Missional Church & Being Apostolic

Missional refers to being "sent." It relates to the apostolic nature of the church. The Greek word apostolos means a delegate, envoy, messenger. In other words, "one who is sent." We tend to think of the word "apostle" as a term we have inherited directly from the New Testament, and therefore we think of it terms of a group of early church leaders who were conveyors of Christ's message. "The church is build upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets." (Eph 2:20) We also see it as a function of leadership in the church (Eph 4:8).

But the term apostle in the first century was a everyday word, used by everyday people. Documents outside the New Testament use the term to refer to things like "the sending out of troops" or the "sending out of a ship." (BAGD)
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This can help remove the religious connotations from the reference that the church as "apostolic." We are simply saying that the church is sent out into the world to be what Eugene Peterson calls "a colony of heaven in a country of death." (Practice Resurrection, 12) The church is not called out as an enclave from the world. It is called out in the midst of the world. The church is a gathering people who live distinctively in the midst of the "principalities and the powers of the air." Peterson writes, "Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurted kingom of God in this world."

The church is apostolic in its nature, but what does it mean to be apostolic in its practice? What we are should determine what the church does. And what the church does should shape what the church organizes. (See Craig Van Gelder's The Essence of the Church for his threefold description of the  church as 1. The church is. 2. The church does what it is. 3. The church organizes what it does.) In other words, we must start with the question of what the church is and not immediately jump to questions about how to be apostolic.

But nonetheless, it seems that most of our conversations about the missional church immediately jump to the How questions. We leap to a critique of how the church has failed to be apostolic (missional) and then we develop of strategies that will release the "apostolic impulse."

While I'm in favor of such strategies, the How questions are not primary. We start with the What questions: What does it mean to be missional? What does being apostolic mean in our culture today? What does it mean to be a sent people? However, too often, I find that we try to answer the What questions wrongly. We come to the What questions with an expectations that we will get to the How questions very quickly. We want to know how to be a sent people so that we can obey and do it.

This often results in a lot of good activity, in a myriad of Gospel-looking ministries. We read the Bible about how God has called us to things like evangelism, to social justice, to caring for the poor and the widows, to feeding the hungry, along with confronting issues like sickness, abuse, social inequality, racism, and sexism. So we put our shoulders into the effort and get to work. We are a "sent people" doing what God cares about.

We tend to make missional about fulfilling a list of missional actions that God cares about so we can measure the impact we are having on the world.  We know that the church is sent by God. We know that we are to live like Jesus, to care about what Jesus cared about when he walked the earth. We know that there are great needs in our world and that the church is God's agent to bring the Gospel to those needs. The Bible says so. Let's get busy doing it. 

On the surface this might look good, but we are answering the What questions in the wrong way. It feels like the old adage "running around like a chicken with its head cut off"? On our farm, we would raise, about 50 chickens every year and I got to witness this first hand. It's what happens when the body of a chicken is detached from it's head.

When we answer the What questions rightly, we see that jumping to the How questions can lead to a lot of good stuff but also to detachment from the head of the body of Christ. First we must go to the Who questions.

Mission depends first and foremost of all on the union and the communion we share with the Father in Christ through the Spirit. We do not send ourselves. We do not activate our sentness. A messenger (apostle in the generic sense) of a king is a messenger at all times, but the messenger does not send himself. His ability to be an effective messenger depends upon his relationship with the king. And under no uncertain terms does the messenger ever write his own message. Likewise, the king of the kingdom of God has sent the church, but this requires a living experience of communion with the king within the existential realities in which we live.

It's as if we assume that we have been and are good at being in union and in communion with the the head, the one who sends and goes with the body. We act as if all we have wrong is the fact that we do not act as a "sent" body. As a result, we make ourselves the agent of our mission. Yes, God is a missional God, and yes we have a theology that states how God sends the church, but we are left to ourselves to figure out what it means to be sent. 

Instead of jumping to How questions about how we can be missional or how we can have an impact upon our world, let's put the How questions in their proper place. Missional is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Union with Christ is essential to our mission. Without this, we are left to ourselves, doing mission as if God is a distant being who told us what to do when he wrote the Bible but is not involved in our midst right here and now. 
  • What is the church?: The church is the body of Christ, sent by God to live in the midst of the world to participate with God in the Gospel life.
  • Who sends?: The Father sent the Son and upon the ascension of Christ, the Spirit was sent into the world to continue the work of the Son, as the ongoing presence of God. Our sentness is rooted in our union with Christ by the Spirit. Whatever we do is based in the fact that the Spirit is already doing it.
  • What, when, and where are we being called participate with God in mission?: We answer this question as we learn to discern what the Spirit is doing in, through, and around us.
  • How do we organize what we do?: Again, we answer this question as we develop the capacity to follow the guidance of the Spirit.

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