With the growing concern about the church's decline, there's been a welcome return to mission to our culture. Missional has become a new buzz word. However, buzz words run the danger of becoming aerosol words - they get sprayed around a lot, smell nice but quickly evaporate into thin air. Suddenly everything is missional - missional church, missional leadership, missional jeans, missional haircuts... However, if mission is everything, mission is nothing. If mission is to mean something for us, then it needs defining.
Mission to our culture is often taken to mean that the church needs to reconceive itself around being relevant to our culture. The implications are often that we need to stop our holy huddles and actually go and do mission. There is much truth in this. This return to mission has seen the growth of many excellent new and creative missional responses.
However, if our focus is only on doing something, church comes to have little meaning in itself (other than a pep talk). As James McClendon says: “When the church's defining character becomes church growth, its highest goal the making of converts, then church may be perceived as of little worth in itself; the church exists only as an extrinsic instrument, a means to something it is not. Then the church preaches a grace it cannot honestly confess because it does not itself embody that grace.
"Put a little differently, if the goal is to win others who will win others who will win others, an infinite regress of mere recruitment has taken the place of any real (or realistic) understanding of the point of evangelism. Recruited to what?”
I want to argue for a better balance that emphasises that the church is not just called to do something, we're also called to be something, God's new gospel community, and that being the church is central to mission.
Evangelicals are rightly passionate about mission. However, we often shout about mission but whisper about church. Much of our talk about 'Missional Church' is actually not about church at all, it's about mission. Church can often be seen to be a hindrance to mission.
Again, there can be some truth to this. However, for mission to flourish, we must understand the significance of the church as not just the agent of mission but the embodiment of mission – God's new community. Understanding the nature of the church will help us to understand the nature of mission. The church by its very nature as God's new community is mission.
Daniel Migliore writes: “The end for which the world was created and redeemed is deep and lasting communion between God and creation, a commonwealth of justice, reconciliation, and freedom based on the grace of God. While flawed and always in need of reform and renewal, the church is nonetheless the real beginning of God's new and inclusive community of liberated creatures reconciled to God and to each other and called to God's service in the world.”
In this broad definition, the church is not just called to do something, it's called to be something – a witness to God's intentions for all things. The church is called to be God's contrast community that embodies, in its common life, God's redemptive purposes for the entire world. In this vision mission is not merely something we do, it is something we are – the new and redeemed people of God.
We are called to be God's radical contrast community, and this is a severe vision. It asks questions of us that we would not otherwise ask.
For example, the vision of the church in the New Testament is the community of the different, so why are our churches so often communities of sameness? Why are our churches so segregated when God longs for them to be as culturally varied as the train to Britomart? There's nothing miraculous about a community of likeminded, well-adjusted people getting together each week, this happens in most parts of our society. However, there is something miraculous about God breaking down the walls that divide us one from another to create a community of the wonderfully different who are made one through Jesus and the Spirit's power.
Paul Fiddes, a Baptist theologian, goes so far as to say: “There is only truly church when the assembly is made up of the old and the young, employed and unemployed, male and female, black and white, healthy and handicapped.”
The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians that the church, by its very nature (as the community of the different made one through Christ), witnesses to the powers and the principalities of God's redeeming power. The church exists as a radical contrast community. A community where fear, hatred, separation, segregation and suspicion are overcome by love, faith, justice, forgiveness and trust. The church's mission is not only to do something but also to be something – the community of the gospel.
So what could this radical contrast community look like? Undoubtedly it will vary in each context. However, we will get our bearings from the radical call of the gospel in the New Testament to love God and to love our neighbour. Below are some of my tentative thoughts on what a radical contrast community could look like (this structure initially came from a presentation that Mike Goheen gave at Laidlaw College):
• A community of Jesus Christ in a world of pluralism
• A community of forgiveness in a world of debtors
• A community of 'enough' in a world of acquisition
• A community of selfless giving in a world of selfishness
• A community of repentance in a world of 'sinlessness'
• A community of grace in a world of envy
• A community of hope in a world of disillusionment and consumer greed
• A community of joy and thanksgiving in a world of entitlement
• A community of justice in a world of economic and ecological injustice
• A community for all in a world that favours some
• A community of koinonia in a world of individuals
• A community of substance in a world of superficiality