January 17, 2017

Further Background

Note: You may want to read this post before what follows.

I couldn't help myself. After what I wrote last week, I simply felt there was more background to be stated. But the Church has been around for a long time, so please forgive my quick dash through what, I believe, the architects of the term "missional" were reacting to through the history of the church up to our current situation.

Further background
From the beginning of the missional conversation, the theologians that would become the architects of missional theology were openly critiquing dominant assumptions about Christendom. They were not, from my vantage point, intending to be seditious or unorthodox. Out of a desire to be faithful and devoted these academics articulated what they did. Nonetheless, they were deliberately challenging commonly held notions.

The critique of missiologists was leveled at the colonizing habit of Anglo-centric Christian traditions. No matter what theology was articulated, actions communicated that mission was intended to take the gospel to places God was not present and that collusion with the state was necessary to conduct such a mission.

This may be a harsh and simplified history of the cross-cultural process through much of Christian history. Nonetheless, it is honest. Much good came from the expansion of the western Church. Yet, that good has to be held in tension, for example, with slavery and often the eradication of ancient cultures and languages, supposedly for the sake of God's mission. Until a few decades ago, this mode of missionary expansion was presumed to be the mission; spread the gospel around the globe. Yet, while an increasing majority of the world was connected to western, "Christian" civilization and culture, western culture itself was beginning to appear less "Christian."

Something was broken.

David Bosch called it a "crisis."

Over the last couple of decades, this missiological critique has evolved accordingly. It's aim has not simply been towards the historic Anglo-centric expansion methods of the western church but contemporary practice as well. With the broad shifts occurring in western culture, globalization was contributing to a changing relationship between western and non-western branches of many Christian traditions. From low-church to high-church traditions, an increasing number of denominations were making attempts to be more equitable in their structure, allowing non-western offices to self-govern and influence the whole. As this has happened, missiology needed to critique not only the past but present practice as well. This has gravitated toward criticism of a particular western church habit: consumerism.

More and more churches of the west were beginning to experience decline. An era of "secularization" began. At the same time, a new phenomenon was catching stride: mega-churches. Not unlike the impact of super stores amidst the strip malls that line our highways, which effected the viability of smaller “mom-n-pop” markets, the mega-church phenomenon of the late twentieth century appears to have had an inverse relationship with traditional western congregations. I'm not attempting to take issue with mega-churches per se. Rather, I am attempting to point out that mega-churches exposed a growing emphasis on what many have referred to as "religious goods and services." Alan Hirsch articulated it this way:
"The problem for the church in this situation is that it is now forced to compete with all the other ideologies and -isms in the marketplace of religions and products for the allegiance of people, and it must do this in a way that mirrors the dynamics of the marketplace - because that is precisely the basis of how people make the countless daily choices in their lives. In the modern and post-modern situation, the church is forced into the role of being little more than a vendor of religious goods and services. And the end-users of the church's services (namely us) easily slip into the role of discerning, individualistic consumers, devouring the religious goods and services offered by the latest and best vendor."
Was the mission of the gospel to develop faith communities, located in varied cultures and contexts, that increasingly looked the same and whose aim was simply more? While this did appear to agree with a post-Constantinian church, European colonizing church and western consumer church, for these missiologists it did not appear to agree with what was envisioned in Acts or Paul's epistles or the early church of the first three centuries. As David Fitch would write, "In short, numbers, on their own say nothing qualitative about what is going on in the church when viewed as the body of Christ."

There is so much more to say about this but now, we have to stop and ask another question: How did these theologians come to these conclusions?

The answer is actually quite simple: through the study of Scripture.

All of us read Scripture with a particular perspective. These missiologists were arguing that through their reading of Scripture, the gospel was the goal, not the church. Further, that the gospel didn't belong to the church, it belonged to God. What is more, an emphasis on more could easily slip into an abandonment of devotion, or more clearly: discipleship.

Next up, I will talk about a missional hermeneutic (or a missional reading of the Bible), which I believe shapes the practices that we've come to call "missional."

Until then, some more reading:

The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings
The Cross-Cultural Process of Christian History by Andrew Wallis
The Story of Christianity vol. 1 and vol. 2 by Justo Gonzalez