Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Sabbatical: Taking a Two-Month Break

In preparation for a month-long writing sabbatical and some vacation, I am taking a two-month break from blogging about Missional Matters.  I will be back again during the week of August 12th, so expect to see a blog that week.

On my writing sabbatical I will be organizing scribblings from a number of years, and doing some fresh research and writing on undoing the violence of leadership in the church (a working subtitle). 

The style of leadership in the church has for too long and still is exercised in directive and controlling ways. This style of leading diminishes the dignity of individuals and the community and I believe does little to advance the missional purposes of God. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Vol 3:21 Understanding Missional: Why is it so Difficult?

For many people missional has come to me what they want it to mean – supporting their view of ministry, supporting the way they have done things, supporting their understanding of God – not necessitating that they need to repent of erroneous views or practices.

Over the past week I have been in an email exchange with another Mennonite pastor who is proposing the use of another term instead of missional because missional has become so misunderstood – the use of the term continues to befuddle. 

In one sense he is correct and has a point – but then again he misses the point – and so I argue the contrary.  Rather than giving up on the term missional, I seek to undo incorrect understandings and appropriations so that we do not lose sight that we have been called and sent by God as the church of Jesus to participate with God in God’s ongoing redemptive mission. 

But why is it so hard for us to understand missional and what is behind missional?

I think in part it is that we are afraid to lose control of the direction of what we deem to be our ministry, our lives, our church, our aspirations, our hopes and dreams – we are afraid of losing ourselves.  Which betrays a certain understanding of how we think God thinks about us.  We may express that God has only the best in mind for us, but when it comes to living in that reality, being open to where God might send us, how God might use us, what God might have us do, or with whom God wants us to engage, we do not really have the courage to risk trusting God.  It is much easier for us to trust ourselves, our interpretations of the Gospel, the setting of our agendas for ministry, than to risk ourselves for God.

We have become too comfortable in shaping our own lives that, though we might cite passages such as Paul’s confession in Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me . . .” or Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1ff – “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” we really do not consider these our confessions.

But if we are serious about understanding missional and being missional, then I propose that these and other admonitions and confessions such as these, need to become our confessions.  Yet to make such confessions, we need to hear the words of Jesus as we never have before: “The time has come.  The reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). 

What kind of repentance?  Whatever paradigm or worldview shapes our lives, gives direction or meaning to our lives – walk away from it, turn around and follow Jesus, wherever Jesus chooses to send us.  It is not only the rich young ruler of Mark 10 who has a hard time with giving up all he held dear to follow after Jesus – we all do!  We all think we have more to lose than gain if we are to follow after Jesus.

I am reminded of a quotation by Jim Elliot, “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”  This is rooted in Jesus’ word to his disciples and to us about taking up the way of the cross: “Whoever want to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).
Being missional embraces all of that!  It embraces losing ourselves in God and in the purposes of God – because that is where we find the fullness of our being human.  Eugene Peterson expresses that “we can’t be human without God” (Leap Over the Wall, 6).  It embraces losing ourselves in God and in the Trinitarian community of God – because participating with God in exercising stewardship of the earth is how we were created.  It embraces losing ourselves in God and in the mission of God – because participating with God is how God is at work in reconciling humanity and restoring creation – through Jesus, and then the body of Jesus, the church, filled and empowered with the Spirit of God. 

In embracing missional, we are called to repentance – a complete turning around from walking in our own ways, to walking radically attached and committed to Jesus, walking with Jesus in the direction Jesus is headed, who modeled for us, not engaging in a ministry or mission of his own, but spoke and did what he saw his Father speaking and doing (read through the Gospel of John – that is how Jesus repeatedly describes his ministry).

Yes, it is difficult to be missional, to embrace a missional way of life because it costs me everything, every aspect of who I am, who we are.  Do we have the courage to repent of our ways, our hopes and dreams so that we might embrace and be embraced by God’s dream for us and God’s mission for us.  That is my prayer each and every day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Vol 3: 20 Misunderstanding Missional: A Response to Ron Adam’s article in The Mennonite – “Bearing Witness to our Missional God: A proposal to replace the word ‘missional’ with ‘bearing witness.’”

Ron Adams, pastor of Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church, is more missional than he realizes as he makes the proposal for replacing the word missional with bearing witness.  In the June 2012 issue of The Mennonite (pp. 16-18), he argues that a new term is needed because we are befuddled by the word missional (p. 17).  Adams has a point and yet he also misses the point. 

First, Adams misses the point, because he expresses an understanding of missional that is more shaped by a paradigm rooted in Church Growth, than one rooted in God’s activity in the world, God’s sending of Jesus into the world, and the Spirit of God being sent into the world to indwell and empower the ongoing mission of God through the church.  Adams expresses a way of appropriating missional language that he defines as “works righteousness” (p. 17).  By this he does not mean that “we will be saved by virtue of [our] goodness” (p. 17), but it has more to do with the Mennonite penchant of needing to keep busy:

“We like to keep busy.  We like to keep prodding things along, making the world a better place.  We work to build the kingdom of God.  We say we are Christ’s hands and feet.  None of this is necessarily problematic.  We have done much good in our pursuit of such goals.
            But underneath it all is a pervasive anxiety.  This anxiety springs from the fact that we are not entirely sure God is willing and able to make all things new.  We do not believe what we pray, that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  So we seek to take control.  We apply the word missional to ourselves.  We presume to lend God a hand, calling ourselves God’s missional partners, by which we really mean we are the ones on whom the work depends” (p. 17).

Adams continues:

“The word missional feeds our anxiety.  It tells us we must find out where God is and what God is doing and lend a hand.  Though missional language [Adams concedes] can teach us to recognize that God is the prime mover, when applied to the church it implies that we are equal partners in God’s work.  Without us the whole project crumbles.  If we don’t do something and quick, the church will fade away, and all will be lost.  The pressure is on, just like it always has been.  We’ve changed the prescription, but the same sick feeling remains” (p. 17-18).

I think Adams’ assessment in one way is correct about how some of us as Mennonites “live out our faith” – it is “our work.”  But that reveals something about us, rather than God’s intention in being a missional God and sending a missional people. 

For some Mennonites, it is about following the teachings of Jesus and it is our responsibility to enact these teachings – yet, there seems to be very little participation with the living Christ – as if Jesus is a “dead” teacher.  Stanley Hauerwas has made the observation that too many Mennonites are not Christocentric enough, seeking to rely upon concepts of peace and justice and upon ourselves, rather than the One who is peace and justice.  Rather, in being Christ-centered we are called to rely on the leading of the living Spirit of Christ in our lives. 

Adams’ befuddlement betrays that he is seeking to understand the term missional through a Church Growth mindset which is all about taking control, shaping our future, shaping the church, making things happen for God.  Church Growth develops vision and mission statements, develops five and ten year strategic plans, because it believes that the church has a mission to fulfill – to somehow advance the purposes of God in the world.  Without the church, Church Growth expresses, God’s purposes will not be accomplished.  It is indeed a “works righteousness.”

In our congregation, being missional is not about our being anxious, not about our taking charge, not even about setting goals; it is about discerning where God is active in us, in our community, in our ministry context and growing in being sensitive to the leading of the Spirit so that we may participate with God in what God is already accomplishing all around us.  As numerous proponents of missional church have expressed, “it is not that the church has a mission, it is that God’s mission has a church.”

And here is where Adams has a point.  In proposing the term bearing witness he is expressing what it means to be missional – but being missional embraces something more than the term bearing witness is able to express.  Missional expresses that the church is part of something larger than itself.  Church Growth has made the ministry of the church about itself, but understanding the missional character of God is to see that the church is part of God and God’s mission.  The church is part of the same sending of Jesus into the world, the same sending of the Spirit into the world, because God is a self-sending God in order to make all things new. 

“To send” is what missional means – and is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision in which he responds to God’s call of “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” by declaring “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).  Also, Christ Jesus before his ascension, declared to his disciples: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).

And though bearing witness is a key part of being missional, it does not fully embrace the church’s participation with the sending or missional character of God.  There is no bearing witness without being sent.  Bearing witness, as Adams rightly expresses, is an aspect of our being missional:

“In fact, bearing witness . . . . means keeping awake to the movement of God in the world.  It means having eyes to see the redemptive work of Christ all around us.  It means keeping watch for the always active Holy Spirit.  It means being witnesses to what we have seen” (p. 18).  But bearing witness is only one aspect that reveals that God is missionally active in the world.

As Alan Roxburgh expresses, the church is called to be “. . . a sign, witness, and foretaste of God’s dream” for the world (Introducing the Missional Church, p. 103).  He states that God’s “people were to be that sign” of God’s dream in the world for all humanity to see (cf. p. 102).  Similarly, Lesslie Newbigin and others have expressed that the church is “a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s present and coming reign.” 

None of this suggests that the church wrests or takes control of God’s mission away from God.  God is the sole initiator and completer of God’s mission in the world in which God is making all new.  Yet, in being a sending, a missional God, God seeks to demonstrate God’s mission through a chosen people – first Israel, and then the church – what God purposes for the making whole of humanity and creation (cf. God’s promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through his being chosen and sent – Genesis 12:2-3). 

The church never has the right to usurp God’s mission – and to the extent it does (perhaps as it has done through the Church Growth paradigm), it ceases to be the church of Jesus Christ; the church can only participate in God’s mission which God has initiated and which God is bringing to completion – “the church does not have a mission, God’s mission has a church.”

Also, that more than bearing witness is necessary for understanding our participation with God in God’s mission, has much to do with understanding the perichoretic nature of the Trinity.  Perichoresis is similar to the Greek word for dance, and it well describes the Easter Orthodox notion of the divine relationship within the Trinitarian community.  Rather than the Trinitarian relationship being hierarchical (as in Western theology), it is more representative of a dynamic relationship within the Trinity – as if God were engaged in a dance.  This is a relationship for which God intended humanity to participate in (not in becoming divine, but to partner with God in exercising stewardship of the gift of the earth) (cf. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 44-45). 

Therefore, in light of the perichorectic nature of the Trinity, the church as the new humanity in Christ, is invited to participate in the self-sending of God to participate with God in God’s mission as collaborators (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9) with God in being a sign, witness, foretaste, and instrument of God’s present and coming reign. 

So, rather, than replacing the term missional, we need to uncover the masks and lenses that lead us to think that ministry is about us and our efforts, our anxiety to wrest away from God what we think God is unable to do.  It is not first and foremost about what we are doing in the world, which diminish our seeing and witnessing to God’s mission in the world. 

Instead, we need a greater understanding of what it means for us to be a missional people who participate with God in God’s mission.  In so doing, we come to recognize it is not about us, it is about God and what God is doing and completing.  As we do, we will come to a better understanding of our calling and our participation with God as a sign, witness, foretaste, and instrument of God’s present and coming reign – with what God is doing in the world in order to make all things new.