Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Vol 3:5 Collaboration as Making Space for the Gospel in Participating with God in Mission

This week I reflect further on Craig Van Gelder’s and Dwight J. Zscheile’s The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation.  To reiterate, in this book, Van Gelder and Zscheile explore how the missional conversation has unfolded since the book Missional Church was published in 1998.  The conversation has moved in different directions, many which are indeed not very missional, but reframe perspectives, in missional language, which have little to do with discerning where God is active in the world. 
On p. 144, the authors raise this question: “One key question for Christian communities today is how to pursue their prophetic vocation within society apart from the framework of Christendom.”  This question asks how we are to be missional church without the privileges of Christendom upon which we have become dependent?

Drawing on insights from Lutheran theologian Gary Simpson, in which he expresses that missional communities need to exist at the intersection of public and private life, Van Gelder and Zscheile express that “congregations should see themselves as participants in God’s wider work in the world and society.  This takes place not only through the church but also beyond it in such civil society organizations as social service institutions and charities.  Congregations need to partner, collaborate, and participate in what God is doing in the world” (p. 144). They further clarify this by stating that churches “be spaces where the questions of human flourishing in a given community are brought for critical discussion that leads to action” (p. 144) that foster the common good. 

The nature of this collaboration is different from the kind of collaboration in which churches wrap themselves in a nationalistic identity in order to seemingly have relevance within society – where often it becomes starkly clear that a Christian group is more aligned with an American agenda than a Gospel agenda.  The missional call is a call to be collaborative in society, but not as a community that loses its identity, or sells out its identity, but rather collaborates and partners as a community of character with other societal organizations as a participating with God in mission, who is already active in the world through the Spirit.

In such missional collaborations, there is a making space for the Gospel in society, rather than a selling out or a diminishing of the Gospel in order to be deemed as relevant.  Our relevance is in our participating with God as God is active in the world.  In participating with God, we need to realize that we do not partner or collaborate on our own – but rather in our collaborations, we are conduits for the continuing work of the Spirit of God in re-creating human life, societal life, so that all may be made new.

In making space for the Gospel through partnering and collaborative efforts, we will need to find new ways of expressing the Gospel narrative – it is much more than merely engaging in evangelism telling people that they need God.  I believe it is through evangelism that we make space for the Gospel, but in ways that live out the Gospel rather than only give words to the Gospel – we proclaim the Gospel by actions, as well as words.  As one of my mentors noted – Jesus words are not the only revelation we have in the Gospels, his actions are revelation as well. 

So in our partnering and collaborating as missional communities, we make space for the Gospel – we level mountains and fill in valleys, making a highway for the Lord, so that God has transformational access into people’s lives.  In partnering we reveal who we are as a new community, revealing the Gospel through our actions of advocating for justice, of healing the sick, the blind, of setting the prisoner free, of expressing the year of Jubilee for the 99%. 

Making space for the Gospel is a walking with the Spirit, for the Spirit to have unimpeded access into the lives of humanity.  Making space for the Gospel challenges missional communities to not separate themselves from the world, but to engage the world in relationship, being in and among the world as communities of character, as communities of the Gospel – who live out the Gospel in such as way that observers may express the reality of the Gospel by witnessing the way we live and act for the common good of society. 

Whereas, Christendom gave us a false sense of our privileged status, being missional leads us to be a different kind of community that seeks to love the world as God loves the world, that relates to and engages the world as God does – from a place of servanthood and humility.  As we have eyes to notice what God notices, and in noticing develop collaborative relationships, missional relationships, we partner with God in bringing about God’s redemptive purposes in the world.  Such a posture helps us live into the reality that this mission is not about us, but about God’s love for the world and what God desires and is bringing about in making all creation new.

Dare we be such missional communities of character that make space for the Gospel in the world, by partnering and collaborating with groups, organizations, peoples in whom we see God at work?

If so, we will become a new kind of Christian community in the world – in the world, re-envisioning a new way to be the world because we partner with God who has a vision of a reconciled and recreated world.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Vol 3:4 Can Jesus be our Starting Point for Engaging in God’s Mission?

I am still reflecting on Craig Van Gelder’s and Dwight J. Zscheile’s The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation.  To reiterate, in this book, Van Gelder and Zscheile are exploring how the missional conversation has unfolded since Missional Church was published in 1998.  The conversation has moved in different directions, many which are indeed not very missional, but reframe perspectives in missional language which have little to do with discerning where God is active in the world. 
This week I would like to offer some reflections, perhaps even some questions for on-going study, regarding a critique they have regarding Christology as a starting point for participating with God in God’s mission. 

Referring to Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s ReJesus, Van Gelder and Zscheile express that “Frost and Hirsch fail to realize that the trinitarian understanding of God’s mission they use to frame their Christology is in fact a theological missiology – a missiological framework that defines the interrelationship of God, church, and world.  They choose instead to make Christology [rather than Trinitarian theology] their starting point . . .” (p. 80).

As an Anabaptist this is also a critique I need to ponder since Anabaptists have a Christological preference in expressing what discipleship and mission entails. 

As they continue their critique, they argue that having Jesus as the starting point for engaging in mission “tend[s] to  (1) diminish the role of the Spirit in the life of the church as well as in the world; (2) foster an understanding of church as a contrast community within the world that seeks to emulate the example of Jesus; and (3) reduce missiology to an applied discipline, thus eclipsing its richer biblical and theological assertions” (p. 80).

For me, I believe the only way we can begin to participate with God in God’s mission is through Christ – and therefore, in desiring to participate in the Trinitarian mission, we can only enter into that mission through a Christological engagement and understanding – because as John reveals, Jesus is the only one who has seen God, is God, and is in closest relationship with God, who makes God known to us (cf. John 1: 18).  Likewise, Paul expresses in Colossians 1: 15 that Jesus is the image or the icon of the invisible God.  We cannot know God, participate in God, or participate with God in God’s mission unless we enter into relationship with Jesus and participate with Jesus in his participation in the mission of God. 

Christology, then is key, but perhaps it depends on what kind of Christology we hold.

I believe the starting point for engaging in God’s mission is Christology, but the kind of Christology that is necessary is one that engages us, through Christ Jesus, to participate with God in God’s mission in the manner in which Jesus was involved in mission. 

I think Van Gelder and Zscheile rightly express that this requires more than an emulation of Jesus – it requires more than following the teachings of Jesus in the expression of our discipleship – it requires our participation in Jesus.  What this leads to is our continuing the ministry of Jesus in the world – what Ray Anderson, in The Shape of Practical Theology, describes as christopraxis.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a pastoral colleague a couple of weeks ago.  He is in the midst of writing a monograph on comparing Micah 6:8 with John 14:6, comparing mercy, justice and walking with God in relation to Jesus being the way, truth and life.  Our conversation that afternoon, over coffee, reflected upon Jesus being the way and demonstrating the way we are to participate with God in God’s mission.  This requires more than a mere emulating of Jesus, because mere emulation still leaves us to try and engage in God’s mission in our own ways.  Only as we participate in Jesus do we begin to be integrated in the way of Jesus, in which Jesus is the way.

Such a Christology rooted in participation of Christ – as Christ participated with God the Father in mission, must then be the starting point for our engagement of the mission of God.  Such a Christology does not diminish the role of the Spirit, because the way of Jesus embraces the Spirit of God – all that Jesus did in ministry was by the power of the Spirit – how can we do otherwise, unless we only emulate Jesus and not participate in Jesus. 

Further, such a participation in Jesus, shapes us to live as the incarnate people of God, the incarnate body of Christ within our world, within our cultures.  We are not merely a contrast community, as Van Gelder and Zscheile critique, as if we could separate ourselves from the world – but like Jesus, as we participate in Jesus, we are engaged with the world and in the world – we are instead a new kind of humanity in the world.  In the expression that Stan Hauerwas uses – we are a community of character in the world, demonstrating as Jesus demonstrated, a different way of being human, a different way of being a human community in the world.  Being different is not merely being a community in contrast, we are a community showing a new way of being human in the midst of the brokenness and death narratives of the world.  This also is dependent upon the Spirit of God – for Jesus was dependent upon the Spirit to demonstrate the character of new creation.

And in light of this, such a missional understanding of Christology frames missiology as being no mere applied discipline.  Rather, it seeks to give expression to the way we are a new human community in the world because we participate in Jesus, who participates in the trinitarian mission of God.  Jesus, and Jesus alone, is our entry into participation with God in God’s mission – and so a missional Christology is the rightful starting place – in fact the only starting place for our participation with God in God’s mission.

I realize that what I am expressing here is a quick overview and just a beginning of my exploration of the connection between a trinitarian understanding of mission and Christology – and I realize it requires more in depth investigation, yet, I believe we cannot understand God and God’s mission without a missional Christology. 

So, I invite your reflections as well – that we may engage in theological dialogue together.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vol 3:3 Competing Fictions and the Mission of God

I am writing this week from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, VA in which I am participating in a pastor’s conference focusing on God and Mammon: Reframing Stewardship Amidst Abundance, Scarcity, and Conflict with Walter Brueggemann being the primary presenter. 

Last night Brueggemann said something that got my attention – we live in a society, an empire, that necessitates that its citizenry embraces a narrative of accumulation.  This narrative of accumulation involves a spiritual attraction to money and demands our loyalty.  Our North American empire tells this story so pervasively through media, through advertising, through the political and economic systems, through the military machine, making it so visible that we all want to be part of it.  In order to maintain this narrative of accumulation as the only viable narrative, the Empire states that all other narratives, all other stories are fictions – even the Gospel.

In fact, the Gospel is a fiction, by the norms of the Empire.  The Empire claims that it has the only truth – the truth that perpetuates the narrative of accumulation.

So how do we who seek to participate with God in God’s mission respond?

Brueggemann states that we need to display a different narrative –we need to challenge the epistemology (or way of understanding) of the Empire.  We are called to live out our being human, under the rule of Christ, in missional communities in radical different ways which reveal a different story, a different vision – in fact, embracing God’s Story and Vision, so that in our living, our speaking, our doing of all that we do, what is revealed is that the narrative of the Empire, the narrative of accumulation, is indeed a fiction in light of the narrative of the Gospel, in light of the active mission of God in the world. 

In that the Empire seeks to make its fiction real, God’s missional people commit themselves to partner with God in living in such a way as to unmask the falsehood and deceptive nature of the Empire’s narrative. It is about making a spectacle of the principalities and the powers, which Jesus did by embracing the violence against him and against humanity thrust upon him on the cross.

This involves more than merely declaring that the Gospel narrative is a better narrative.  In the face of the narrative of the Empire, we are being called to live as a community of character (Stanley Hauerwas’ term) that so lives out the Gospel narrative that it puts on display the system of death that is inherent in the Empire’s narrative of accumulation.  It is not merely finding God’s mission in the midst of our culture, but to so participate with God that we demonstrate, in the power of the Spirit, that God’s mission in the midst of culture actively re-creates humanity and creation, so that humanity is no longer subject to the powers of sin and death. 

Perhaps a first step in doing so, as the people of God in North America,  is in confessing our collusion with this narrative of death, this narrative of accumulation, this narrative of the Empire – for we have found comfort in this narrative.  Confessing and living out the narrative of the Gospel – the only narrative of life – in contrast to the narrative of the Empire will be a costly confession, a costly living out of our discipleship.

But only such a costly discipleship will unmask the fictional nature of the Empire’s narrative.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Vol 3:2 The Relational Nature of God’s Mission

These days I am reading Craig Van Gelder’s and Dwight J. Zscheile’s The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation.  In this book, Van Gelder and Zscheile are exploring how the missional conversation has unfolded since Missional Church was published in 1998.  The conversation has moved in different directions, many which are indeed not very missional, but reframe perspectives in missional language which have little to do with discerning where God is active in the world.  In their section on “Expanding and Enriching the Theological Frameworks” they present an important discussion on the relational nature of God’s mission in relation to Trinity.
They make clear, and I agree, we cannot understand or engage in God’s mission unless we embrace a theological understanding of the Trinity.  They express that a major facet of a theological focus in Trinitarian renewal “is the fresh attention being given to the relationality of God” (p. 105).  Which they state, “represents a crucial complement to the sending emphasis so characteristic of the West” (p. 105).

They relate “that theologians such as John Zizioulas have argued that the Cappadocian fathers . . . made a revolutionary move against the backdrop of Greek philosophy by asserting that relational personhood . . .” (p. 105) is an inherent aspect of understanding God as Trinity.  Stating further, “in this view, God’s very being is not an abstract divine substance characterized by certain attributes, but rather is profoundly personal.  There is no personal identity without relationality” (p. 105).  What this means is that Trinity is to be understood more in terms of the relationality inherent within the Godhead – expressed by the concept of perichoresis, than an abstract defining of God by God’s attributes or functions.  In essence, we begin to grasp what it means for God to be Trinitarian when we realize that “Trinity is seen as a community” (p. 105). 

This reveals the relational character of God’s mission in which we, as the people of God, are invited into relationship with God to participate with God in God’s mission.  As the Van Gelder and Zscheile express, “in this Trinitarian perspective, to be a person is to participate in others’ lives, to have an identity shaped by other persons, rather than to be an isolated individual” (p. 105) – each person in the Trinity is in relationship with and involved in each person of the Trinity and God’s mission is an expression of the relationality inherent within Trinity.

One of my take aways from this, in the brief space of this blog, is that for God, the mission of God is not merely a “task.”  Mission is not just something God merely does – as an act outside of the personhood of God – God’s mission matters to God.  Because God is relational, God’s mission involves God in all of God’s Trinitarian relationality – God cannot be any other way.  Mission is something personal for God; mission is something that does not happen outside of God, but involves God’s heart, involves God’s character, involves God’s love.  God enacts God’s mission not as an act outside of God, but rather God is personally involved in bringing about what God is purposing in reconciling humanity to God and recreating creation – bringing about God’s eschatological telos.

This helps me to understand my participation with Jesus in the mission of God.  It has often been said that to be adept in ministry that we need to exercise professional boundaries in relation to those we serve.  To me this is merely an excuse for being impersonal (though I understand that “boundaries” are essential if we are not abuse others – but that is another discussion about a different kind of understanding of boundaries).  The result of being impersonal is that we are apt to exercise our own ministry, but not God’s mission.  To be involved in ministry that participates with God in God’s mission has to be inherently relational and personal.  I believe, ministry to others must not maintain a professionality, but must involve all of who we are as persons, in relationship, taking the risk of being hurt by the love we extend to others and receive from others – ministry, like God’s mission, must be intensely personal and relational.  To minister in any other way is to not participate with God in God’s mission – because to minister in any other way is to minister in ways which are foreign to God’s Trinitarian relationality.

I know I need to develop this line of thinking some more – and so I am open, as always, to your constructive comments.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Vol 3: 1 Participating with God in God’s Mission in the Ordinary Rhythms of Our Lives

For those who do not follow a liturgical calendar, we are entering the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation.” Epiphany is a time of God’s presence being revealed through the discovery by the magi that God has come to be among us in being born as a human being in the person of Jesus.  God being manifested in Jesus reveals God up close and personal to the world. 
God’s incarnation in Jesus is all about God coming to be among us, to dwell among us in ordinary ways – perhaps even in obscure ways.  After all, though the scribes who knew the Scriptures were on the lookout for the coming Messiah, it was not until about two years after Jesus’ birth that astrologers from the east, following a star, asked the question, “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). 

God’s incarnation in Jesus was not meant to shine a spotlight on God so as to garner celebrity status for God in Jesus – though this is what Satan was trying to do through his tempting of Jesus (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).  Rather, it seems that God purposes to be manifest, to be revealed in obscure ordinary ways that permeate the ordinary goings and doings of people’s lives with God’s presence.  God came to dwell among us in ways which those following the headlines would not notice, but only those crying out for re-creation.

The idea of incarnation as an act of re-creation in the ordinary goings and doings of people’s lives is evident in Mark’s gospel as he describes the appearing of John the Baptist.  The word used for his appearing, an appearing which pointed to the coming Messiah is egeneto (root: ginomai).  It is the word for genesis in the New Testament and has multiple meanings depending upon context.  It is a creative word which can mean being born or begotten, to be created, to take place, for something new to happen to someone – and here it means “to appear” – as a creative presence coming onto the world stage in the wilderness to reveal something new that is redemptive, reconciliatory, re-creative of creation – light in a dark world!

John participated with God in God’s mission by pointing to, revealing the coming of the Messiah, through whom God would make all things new (cf. Colossians 1: 15-20).

It is evident from Jesus’ ministry that he lived out God’s incarnation in the brokenness, ordinariness, mundane reality of our humanity.  He hung out where the most of us hang out.  Jesus did not frequent venues that got him noticed by People magazine, but instead was with people in places in which he was called a glutton, a drunk, and a friend of sinners (cf. Matthew 11:19). 

The significance of understanding the ordinariness of God’s incarnation – God living out his humanity in ordinary places, is that God’s mission happens in the broken, ordinary, everyday places of our humanity.  And, in light of that, our participating with God in God’s mission encompasses the ordinary rhythms of our lives, the ordinary places of our lives, the ordinary activities and duties of our lives – as we encounter others doing ordinary things and going to ordinary places.  Participating with God in God’s mission is a low calling – and by that I mean that we are called to the low places, the ordinary places.

For it is in the low places, the ordinary places that we participate with God in God’s mission as Jesus did.  May we discover how to participate with God in God’s mission in the same ordinariness, brokenness as Christ Jesus:

“He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.  Not at all.  When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human.  It was an incredibly humbling process.  He didn’t claim special privileges.  Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.” (Philippians 2: 6-8, The Message). 

And because he participated with God in God’s mission in this way, and enables us through the power of the Spirit to participate with God in a similar way, we worship him who continually reveals and manifests God to us in the midst of our brokenness and ordinariness:

“Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth – even those long ago dead and buried – will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father” (Philippians 2: 9-11, The Message)

May we see more clearly the presence of God in the ordinariness of our lives – because that is where God is to be seen!