Sunday, May 15, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Engagement

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about the rhythms of the Jesus way. In the first, I proposed the rhythm of communion with the Father. The second introduced the rhythm of relating to one another. Here I want to introduce the rhythm of engagement with the other.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s masterpiece on Christian community, he opens with words about mission:
Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.
The way of Jesus is found in diasporatic community, not cloistered community. Diaspora is the Greek word used to describe the scattered nature of God’s people throughout the world. And it implies that Christian community is about living in a way that engages the world around us. Bonhoeffer continues:
"According to God’s will, the Christian church is a scattered people, scattered like seed “to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28:25). That is the curse and the promise. God’s people must live in distant lands among unbelievers, but they will be the seed of the kingdom of God in all the world.
God’s kind of community does not happen in an enclave or as an exclusive club. God’s kind of community happens in the midst of life, right in front of those who don’t understand why we worship and love the way we do.

What does this look like in the local contexts where our groups gather? The answer to this question might seem obvious at first. We think in terms of evangelism, relationship outreach, mission projects, service initiatives, social justice involvement, and the like. In other words, we invest in things that we can do for those outside the community of Christ. That which we do for outsiders is set in contrast to that which we do as a church or small group that we classify as insider activity. Insider stuff includes things like prayer, worship, Bible discussion, fellowship, spiritual disciplines, etc. Outsider stuff is what we do for those who are not a part of us so that they will come and do our insider stuff with us.

While I’m not challenging the specific actions found within outsider activities—there is actually great value to them—I think we do need a different imagination when it comes to engaging the “other.” Acts 1:8 tells us that we will become “witnesses” and to be a witness is to put on display the truth that we experience. We do not fully do this when we are doing outsider stuff in order to do outreach. For instance, the way that we pray is just as much a witness as doing a service project in our community, or at least it has the potential to be. The same is true about how we relate to one another in love. Our witness is truncated when we limit engagement in our community to some kind of list of outsider actions.

The challenge that the modern church faces is related to how we break down the barrier between insider and outsider church activities. What does it look like to show people how we commune and how we relate while we are also engaging the other as a part of life as a scattered community?

To address this is much more complex that giving out some kind of list of things that a group can do in order to be more effective at outreach. We have enough of those kind of things. While I'm not saying that such lists are unnecessary, I am saying that more often than not such lists don't really help that much because we implement them within this insider-outsider mentality. We can implement those ideas and put all kinds of effort into them and still find ourselves in the same place.

This is one of the reasons I wrote a chapter in Leading Small Groups in The Way of Jesus entitled “Hang Out.” We need to learn the art of wasting time with each other in the presence of those who need an encounter God’s love. In this way, they can see who we are as God’s children and give them a reason for asking why we do what we do and why we believe that we believe.

Too often we turn outreach or "missional" into another way of being an activist. It seems that we get anxious to make an impact, and we are very proud of the impact that we happen to make on the world. But this turns engagement into getting busy for God while we risk our own souls. God said to go and do and we had better go about doing it. This does not seem to be much of a witness to the ways of Jesus. It's more of a witness to what we can get done. Busy, stressed-out Christians who are trying to win the world and grow the church might look noble, but it's not the Jesus way.

It seems that we are reacting to the tendency for the church to be an escapist enclave. The answer is not found in activism that we might label as "missional. It's found in being with people as we are with God. And there we trust that God will be at work, usually in a much slower way than we would like. Within this mindset we find a ton of practical ways that this can manifest, some of which are very activist in nature.

If there is anything one practical point to make at this point, it is that we need to learn to practice eating together and while doing so, involving others who are not part of the church.

Being God’s witness involves showing people how we love with the love of Christ. This is about life, not just about an outreach project. In this way, we can show people who Jesus is. This is engagement with the other.

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