plotting mission

August 12, 2011

In many ways what I’m going to write will create a few artificial categories or “shifts”, and I will have to simplify things in order to speak. Simultaneously, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in conversation with church leaders to find out that our thinking about mission has already been simplified. What I’d like to do is take a few arguments for a “shifting missiology”, drawing on a number of very specific conversations that I can think of from the past few months, to produce something of a map of where we are. With “we” I’m thinking about white middle-class churches and theologians, because that is what I know, and that is where I come from. In plotting I’ll be drawing primarily on David Bosch, since his overview is what I know best, and since everyone, basically no matter which shift you are arguing for, like to quote him at some point.

1. From saving souls to saving bodies

Remember the time when if you’d ask a Sunday School class what the church is supposed to do, and they’d answer you that the church should “tell people about God”… well, those times are this times for the white suburban church. Somewhere in our DNA we still struggle with the idea that the primary (and at times exclusive) task of the church is to save the souls of heathens. When we do a soup kitchen, our primary objective is to “soften them up for the gospel”. In Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he point to writings from the very early colonialist period, where one of the pro-slavery arguments was that slavery gave black people a chance to become Christians, and thus their souls will be saved for eternity. The idea that “at least their souls will go to heaven”, either in it’s hard form, where that is all that matters, or in it’s softer form, where that is the primary concern, and any attention to the real life issues of people is reduced to second place at best continue to be very much prevalent in white churches today.

This is the shift many church leaders find themselves in: how do we move people from a focus on saving souls to saving bodies. It is the shift from handing out a bread in order to get an open door to “share the gospel” (already reducing the gospel to a spiritual message), to handing out a bread because that is what we believe the gospel to be. In the writings of Bosch you can look at his reactions to the 1974 Lausanne covenant to see his reactions to the idea that what was called evangelism is somehow the “primary” objective of mission. For Bosch there could be no exclusive or even primary focus on “saving souls”. This shift is important. But it’s not the only important shift happening.

2. From charity to development

“Don’t give a person a fish, teach them to fish” we like to say in our middle-class white congregations. If we keep on handing out food, we’ll be handing out food till kingdom come, we should rather develop skills in order for people to be able to find their own food. It is a shift which start to recognize that there are people in society who simply isn’t “sharing in the goods” as we are, and building on the belief that we should be saving bodies, and then continuing to say that we should not only save bodies, but save societies, we will argue for starting elaborate development projects. Education. Job creation. These are the answers for our society, this is what mission is about, and this is what the church should be about.

In a sense this is always a rediscovery. This colonial Western churches always has a strong emphasis on “developing” the “underdeveloped” nations. At some point this task of development was handed over to the state, with mission hospitals and mission schools being funded, or totally taken over, by the modern nation-states developing in Africa. But, at the moment we do see a re-emergence of a shift “from charity to development”. To find the arguments for development in Bosch you will have to turn to the chapter on “Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment”. Reference to the move from charity to what in Transforming Mission is called the “comprehensive approach” can be found in chapter 10.

3. From development to liberation

In all the talk about Bosch in my own church, what still remain a theme seldom discussed is Bosch’s critique on the development model. For some (although this is not common at all) in the white middle-class suburban church, Bosch’s thoughts under the heading “The Challenge to Progress Thinking” (p 356-358 of Transforming Mission) formulate the shift they suggest. Bosch doesn’t waste words, and if these 2 pages are taken seriously, for those in the white suburban church who doesn’t already find themselves in the midst of this shift, it might feel like participation in mission is impossible. Because this shift seek to destabilize the power relations, become suspicious of “solutions” provided by the rich which continue to keep the rich the rich.

When those of us in the white church start talking about this shift, then it imply a serious self-critique. It is a move away from the idea that we can somehow bring salvation (by saving souls, handing out bread, or teaching skills), and are in need of salvation because of our own indebtedness to the systems of power which has formed us into being white. For those who are rich and white, and moving from development to liberation, the move might best be illustrated by Bosch’s own move from thinking about the “church for others” (Witness to the World), to the “church with others” (Transforming Mission).

Two reasons caused me to point to these movements. The first is as a reminder that simply because we find a shift in the mission theology of a congregation or church leader, doesn’t imply that we have “arrived”. Sometimes the discovery of a gospel which is not merely spiritual, or of a gospel which not only talk about charity towards the poor, but about a comprehensive approach of upliftment, give rise to the idea that we have finally found “the answer” to what the gospel is about. These shifts are important, but the conversion of white Christianity will require a long and tedious process, and we’d do well to remember that our shifts are, for the moment at least, en-route. It is part of a long process of exorcising a gospel which for centuries taught us that we are the main beneficiaries of the gospel, and the answer God gave to the world.

The second reason for pointing to this is as a reminder to myself that I won’t be making this shift on my own. Shifting my own mission theology, which remain in a process of shifting, will require an extensive process of listening, primarily listening to those voices from what was created as the “Third World”. While every movement illustrated is important, and we should be applauding congregations which make whichever is the next shift that they need to take, in the long run we as the white church will have to face the fact that we won’t be saving ourselves. Others will help us in converting from the privilege and power which we were born into. The last shift is not the final shift, but it is a necessary shift if we are to find any hope of moving beyond a liberation approach (which had it’s own problems).

A Generous Orthopraxy?

August 3, 2011

Yes, that is a play onto McLaren’s well-known book which gave rise to fingers being pointed towards heresy, but this post has little to no reflection on McLaren’s book.

A few years ago conversations on “orthodoxy and orthopraxis” was quite common. The parts of the conversation which I enjoyed basically boiled down to the idea that orthopraxis (“right living”) was more important than orthodoxy (“right doctrine”). Obviously critiques came in stating that orthodoxy shouldn’t be read in such a narrow fashion, not to mention the various critiques from those who believed that the correct doctrine (narrowly defined as the thoughts we have concerning God) was indeed the most important part of being Christian. I generally found myself comfortable with voices arguing that in reading the gospels our lives as followers of Jesus seem to be more important than getting the facts and details right (thus the orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy argument as it was popularly formulated).

In the meantime the conversations has evolved, suddenly everyone went missional, the emerging label died a silent death to a certain extend, we have American’s teaching Africans about postcolonial theology and what have you more. But I experience a certain amount of tension growing with this newly discovered orthopraxis. More and more it would seem like we get a form of Christian boastfulness where some are “more missional” than others. “I feed more poor people than you” seem to be the new scale along which God’s favour for certain groups are to be measured. The idea that “we have found the real radical Jesus while you are still struggling with the old institutional Jesus” end up not very far from the many debated which we’ve seen over the past two centuries where various groups have declared themselves to be the true bearers of the correct faith, only now, the correct faith is equated with the correct way of fixing the world.

Annemie Bosch once shared a story of what David Bosch used to say during Apartheid. She gave permission that I can share it, although she hasn’t read these words, so mistakes in this paragraph are my own, but nonetheless, it goes something like this:

During Apartheid David Bosch would often say that in the struggle against apartheid, and in the work of transforming the mainline church and it’s relation to apartheid, we need to voices of Carel Boshoff, Johan Heyns, David Bosch as well as Beyers Naudé. Those who aren’t able to listen to the one, might listen to the other, and although they are voicing seemingly contradictory opinions, each in his unique way is contributing towards the end of apartheid and a just society.

This is no generous orthodoxy (in the strict popular interpretation of the word), but might rather be described as a generous orthopraxy. Tony Jones wrote a brilliant piece a number of years ago where attempted to describe a broad understanding of a changing orthodoxy where all role-players (I believe in a blogpost on the paper he used the words “from Benny Hinn to the Pope”, although I can’t find it) co-determine the definition of orthodoxy, and we remain open to the possibility that our consensus might change.

Within the complex reality of our world today it might be important to remain skeptical of the person with the “perfect plan for poverty”. Within the broad discussion of those who believe in justice for all we might want to recognize the role played by everyone from American short-term mission teams to Africa right through to Marxist analysts. Working with a fluid orthodoxy assume a robust debate, but it is a debate where we remain generous on who we consider to be a “legitimate voice” within the ongoing discussion. In our quest for justice, for ethics, I’d suggest we remain generous on who we consider to be partners on our quest for “right living”. This will require a robust debate, a clashing of ideas, but it assume that those I differ with are a necessary voice, and more important, a necessary body, in our quest for justice.

Annemie Bosch kindly rewrote the story to better reflect what was actually said, and agreed that I could add it here:

During Apartheid, David Bosch maintained that in order for us to attain justice for all in South Africa, we needed, in the Afrikaans-speaking section of our nation, the voices of Beyers Naudé, David Bosch, Johan Heyns, Carel Boshoff and Andries Treurnicht. Each of them was, in his own way, campaigning for a just society and for true equality and equity. Those who, because of their background and upbringing, could not hear what Beyers said, would perhaps be able to hear what David said – and so on, all along the line, up to the stance which A.P.Treurnicht took. So each one of these people, and others like them, were contributing towards a change in South Africa so that we could have justice and peace for all…. Which, even up to this day, we have not achieved. So once again we need the voices of many people at different levels of “the Stuggle for Justice” in the New South Africa. Let’s not write off those who differ from us in some or other way. Lets rather use our energy to do what our hand finds to do, and do it well. Let’s take hands and stand together against that which is wrong in our society – and especially in THE CHURCH – which is so much bigger than our little part of it!

Edit (3/8/2011)

In the introduction of Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he recounts the story of two neighbourhood missionaries visiting his God-loving-Jesus-following black mother on an evangelistic mission. In classic hit-them-hard evangelism they entered the yard on a mission, with various possible interpretations of this word fitting for the sentence, and, believing that they were on God’s mission, were entirely focused. So focused were they, that they never stopped to find out whether this women had any connection to the church, not to mention that she was the heart and soul of a local Baptist congregation. At one point his mother interrupted them to share the good news that she indeed was a God-loving-Jesus-following kind of person, but this only temporarily had them loose sight of their mission, before they continued with their pre-recited speech…

It has become customary to create caricatures of these kind of scenes, an exercise which I have participated in in the past. For the moment however, I want to move past this scene. By sharing some version of this scene, and then rejecting it, we might be falsely cleansing our names from being carriers of the white middle-class messiah into a world where messiah of the poor has long been awaiting us. I believe that the danger of middle class Christians carrying a rich messiah into a world, without noticing their own need for salvation has not ended.

Many would call this the “age of mission”. We quote writers who talks about the “missio Dei”, and we even find ourselves in this weird almost middle-ages kind of place where churches are starting to use this Latin phrase in church communication. This is the age in which we are rediscovering the so-called long-lost ideal pre-Constantinian church on a God’s mission. Now, don’t get me wrong, this might be one of the most important developments in the history of the church, although far better descriptions should be given than the previous sentence, but there is a very real danger when the white middle-class church re-position ourselves as the center of this rediscovery.

Note: when I use mission in the next paragraph or two I thinking primarily of mission as development, as Bosch described it. Although Bosch himself rejected this idea, my observation is that this remain dominant in much of what is being called mission within the white middle-class South African church. The coming paragraphs is only relevant as far as this approach remain dominant. The question of whether this is indeed dominant rests on a lived theology, rather than what gets written. The test is not whether you can quote the emerging paradigm of mission, but whether what you are doing has broken with the notion of mission as development.

The problem arise when the very thing which we claim to be the element assisting the white middle-class church in breaking with white middle-class Christianity with colonial Christianity, is that which is keeping it in place. Mission become a kind of fetish keeping the privileged white position in place. In stead of radically challenging the systems which keep the poor poor, the church attempt to contribute by working within this very system and making it “better”. Our mission does not serve to end the oppression of poverty, but rather serve as a vehicle to allow white middle-class Christians not to face the fact that our own privilege is inherently tied in with the oppressed position of others.

In short: I do mission in order to continue my existence in an unjust world. I do mission so that I do not need to face the fact that who I am is tied in with the oppression of others.

Now I come to the “danger” part. The moment we go on “the missio Dei” (see this classic picture from a number of years ago), our mission gets elevated above critique. Similar to the neighbourhood evangelists, we cannot hear when we are told that our very mission is keeping injustice in place, rather than working towards the dismantling of unjust systems. Mission might make us immune to the fact that the most important task of the white middle-class church is listening to how we are embedded within a system of injustice, is our own conversion.

Note: I do not for a moment deny that their is something even worse that mission as development: namely the very injustice which I claim this form of mission might be hiding. Neither do I deny that even worse forms of mission (mission as exclusively the salvation of souls, or mission as charity) exist, and function in the same way as described above, with even less contribution to the very real lives of people. I do however worry about a rising notion of mission which promise a salvation for the world which frowns upon radical transformation of systems which are responsible for injustice, and which are embedded within a theological framework which seems elevated above critique.

What I’m about to write is not radical. But it’s not ordinary either. There is people doing radical stuff in church today, and I like many of them. But there is some pretty ordinary stuff that we argue away which might be some of the most radical actions to take. I don’t want to over-simplify things, I firmly believe that what really change the world lie on the level of the systemic rather than the personal (although I don’t think we ever have systemic change without a large amount of personal changes which developed habits which might make these systemic changes possible). I think this is ordinary since you don’t really have to look very far to see that this has been at the heart of church all along. I think this is radical because I really find it difficult to do just this. So after dozens of emerging books, and years of reflecting on some of the most brilliant theologies written, I want to ask this: what would a local congregation look like is we just did this:

1) Adopt kids

The early church was radical because it had a different view of children. It rejected the patriarchal idea that children could be thrown away, and we also have stories of how Christian actually picked up and cared for the kids who was thrown away (which contributed to the growth of the early church, since these children then tended to grow up as Christians). In South Africa the number of orphans is growing into the millions, and many more live in houses where social workers need to take them away.

I want to dare say that the most radical and most significant missional thing a local congregation can do today is to create a culture where children is adopted. I know this is a difficult process, but imagine a congregation where the whole congregation is structured to support people who have adopted and are adopting orphans. In our mostly affluent congregations we might even have a greater responsibility towards this.

2) Share meals

It’s no secret that meals play an important role in the gospels and early church. In one of the most radical ideas in the gospel Jesus suggest that we shouldn’t invite the rich and famous to our parties, but the homeless and poor. Jesus himself crossed some serious boundaries when he ate with certain groups. In our time when many progressive voices are reflecting on the importance of “third spaces”, we might want to rethink the importance of sharing our “first spaces” (our homes) with others.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy. As I’m typing I’m thinking of a whole bunch of stories of people who started trying this, and found it to be quite difficult. When we prepare food for others, we share something quite intimate, when we sit around a table, we are forced to speak longer than we might have wanted to, with people we don’t really know what to way to. But imagine a congregation where everyone is sharing meals with each other, with strangers, and with people they generally wouldn’t have spoken to, on a regular basis.

3) Live a simple life

The call towards simplicity has been at the core of Christian ethics throughout history. Simply being able to not do stuff just because everyone is doing it, or because you need to display your wealth. In our time it is becoming of critical importance that we find a way to live more simply, and from this tradition of millenia of practicing simply living, we might contribute.

Imagine a congregation where everyone is just seeking to live more simple. Smaller houses. More shared spaces. Less debt. Driving cars for longer before replacing them. Constantly reminding each other what “enough” imply. As I’ve said before, simplicity might be one of the most complex questions facing us, but just imagine a congregation where this is at heart (and I’m thinking now of congregations which traditionally would award affluent lifestyles, since this is the context I know).

What would happen if we just took one of these and just did it? What would you add as very basic ideas which the local congregation, any local congregation, might engage in which is both ordinary and radical?

The idea that has been working in me for the past year or two could be explained as the conviction that ideas which is not unpacked in all its complexity in the actual material (I’m starting to sound like those literalists who put 4 descriptives before the word “resurrection” just to make sure that you definitely agree with in the minutest detail with them) reality of our existence, then we should be very skeptical as to what the real intent of that idea is. I know that many in philosophy and theology has unpacked this much better than I have, but nonetheless, I need to write to get my head around this.

Even on ‘n popular level we have always claimed that the idea and its application should exist together. When it doesn’t, we make statements such as “practice what you preach”, and we talk about the hypocritical nature of the church. We especially love to talk about the church, although I believe the same should apply to most of modern liberal society. Because who will ever claim that what we should do is exploit the poor? Yet those in power participate in exactly this on a constant basis, whether Christian or not.

But rarely do we measure on what we actually do. In reality we have all this guards which we’ve employed so that no one could ever really know what I’m doing. So if you’d dare to make blatant racist comments, or claim that the plight of the poor should be of no concern, or that the destruction of the earth is not something which we should put energy into stopping, you will find yourself with a lot of harsh criticism. But if you choose to move out of a suburb which is attracting more and more black residents, spend your money in a way which will never be accessible to the majority, or consume products in a way which is not environmentally sustainable, little will be heard, except from a few radicals which we’ve worked out of mainstream conversations. So long as you make the right noises about all the good things you intend, and keep from braking these rules in the most blatant ways, you’ll be left alone, even considered a moral citizen whom are contributing to the social well-being of society.

And then we get those who follow Jesus, or those who follow Marx, that sit at a coffee-shop and discuss this new world where the first will be last, and where we should not wait to be served, but serve others, or where we dream of a world where the workers will not do work which they can’t afford to buy (and how many waiters can afford to sit at coffee-shops and be waited upon?). (and yes, I was sitting with Christian friends with Marxist inclinations at a coffee-shop in the past week)

And while the simple non-participation in the coffee-shops of our day might not lead to any kind of revolution creating a new world, we simply fail to notice that when ordering a Latté we are participating in keeping this system of unequal distribution in place. We have these nice ideas, but the true conversation towards our own ideas, that conversation which actually change our material reality in much more dramatic ways than by challenging our participation in coffee-shops (which can really be said to be an arguable example), that is what it is about.

However, it’s about more than hypocrisy. The skeptical view which we need to engage in the church, is that not only are our good ideas not reflected in how we construct our lives in this world, but our good ideas might actually be what keep us from constructing our concrete lives in a way which reflect the vision we claim to have of society. It is exactly because we can sit in church on Sunday mornings and dream about a society where all are equal that we can go out during the week and participate in a society where equality is a continually fading dream, always knowing that on Sunday morning a preacher will believe on our behalf that this dream is actually true, and thanks to this rhetoric we will be able to continue one more week.

So, since I have to go now for a meeting with fellow pastors at a local coffee-shop, and to prove that I’m don’t have in mind the typical examples of those who preach a heaven one day or something blatantly non-material as that, I’ll conclude with what I’m thinking about but still has to unpack more: is all this talk about mission actually changing the church, or is it exactly because of all this talk about mission that the so-called postmodern church is able to continue without actually changing.

I sat in church one morning as the preacher was sharing a story about Shane Claiborne. Suddenly a mass of thoughts kicked in which sprang from this one insight: this preacher doesn’t really want me to follow Claiborne! Why would the preacher propagate the example of Claiborne, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba… (Jesus?) and various radical voices if I shouldn’t follow in there footsteps? This is the post I’ve been meaning to write for many months. The one I maybe never should have written.

Youth ministry has a way of becoming a kind of barometer for what is cooking within the church. Here is the very simple test: In the church we like telling stories of Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Shane Claiborne (whom I mention because a story about him started this reflection in many ways) and many radicals. But what would the middle-class church do when we take these examples seriously? If we make them normative for youth ministry? What if youth ministry become a place where we tell children that they shouldn’t worry about getting a job and good education, but rather give up money and possessions in order to live among the poorest of the poor? And what if the children of the congregation would follow through on this? What if they were to literalize our examples, understanding our sermons and the examples we use as something which should actually be followed through?

Reinhold Niebuhr wasn’t the world’s greatest fan of the Mennonites and other radical church-based ethics. But maybe he can help us in understanding this fascination with the radicals. In the classic Christ and Culture Niebuhr himself have to acknowledge that there is a certain fascination with these approaches where what they say and what they do actually come together. When we find these voices embodying a radical non-violence, actually living with the poor, we have a certain kind of respect for them. Niebuhr himself didn’t seem to consider the Christ Against Culture approach, where he would list the examples of Mennonites and other radicals, to be really helpful, and most mainline voices would probably be more comfortable with some of Niebuhr’s other approaches. Our continued use of example of radicals might therefore be out of respect, but I’m thinking something more sinister is at work here.

In line with liberation theology 101 we should begin to be skeptical when we see how these radical voices is being used. The overused quote from Dom Helder Camara enlighten us on this topic: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” In the middle-class church we seem to like telling stories about the saints. But then the saints from Camara’s quote. Religious people. Those who give food to the poor. Those who practice Christianity in applaudable ways. We ignore the fact that these voices are calling into question the very existence of the churches in which we are quoting them! Because all of them, Claiborne, Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba (I have to add him at this point because of the frenzy running at the moment), Jesus, were not only the saints from Camara’s quote, but also the communists from Camara’s quote. They all called into question the middle-class white Western status quo (except for Jesus obviously, although it was another white Western middle-class that he was challenging). So maybe we like quoting saints. Not even the radicals from Niebuhr, those putting action into words, but those who participate in high-profile acts of compassion. But maybe something more sinister is at work here.

This obviously bring me to Peter Rollins (well maybe not so obviously, but it does). In one of Rollins’ parables (32 min into the conversation), he tells the story about the business man who lost his faith thanks to the preacher who prayed for him. This business man was using religion to define his being, while his material reality was that of being a corrupt business man. He could continue with his corrupt ways because of the religion of which he was part, which he could use as lie to tell himself that actually his corrupt ways doesn’t define him.

But let me go somewhat deeper, into an argument which I believe might underlie Rollins’ story. In Zizek’s A Plea for Fundamentalism (at 25 minutes) he shares the insight of Agnes Scheller. Scheller was in a concentration camp in the 2nd World War, and observed that the largest group of people became a kind of “living dead”. They lost life, not even fighting for existence. Another group however resorted to a kind of egotistical life or death struggle. Everything was allowed in order to continue living. Lie. Steal. Fight for life in the most ruthless ways. But among this second group there was always (emphasize always) the idea that there is someone somewhere in the concentration camps that were able to remain a moral person. Should they however find that this doesn’t exist, they would become part of the living dead. The paradox he states: In order to be this total egotist, you had to believe that there is someone who hasn’t become this egotist which you are.

Zizek continue to talk about how religion keep capitalism in place. But at this point I want to move away from him, since the example he use is of religion that advocates a disconnect from the material reality which help us to fully participate in the capitalism reality (which is beautifully illustrated in Rollins’ parable). But in some mainline liberal environments the examples we use is exactly those who critique the same things Zizek critiques, who might agree completely with Zizek. We use these examples, the radicals actually living that which they say (or at least we believe that they are living what they are believing), but with the understanding that these examples are not to be followed.

Is it not that we share these stories to tell each other that “there is someone who was able to actually live the Christian life, and my identity is determined by being a Christian, not by what I am busy with daily”? Ghandi we obviously use in the church as a kind of Jesus-follower, ignoring his Hindu background and focusing on the fact that he liked the sermon on the mount. We call in these people and name them examples for how we are supposed to live, but there is a collective understanding that these examples shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although they should be considered part of the tradition which we are part of, they are Christian, we are Christian, and therefore we are part of those who actually live this radical life (although our very existence as middle-class church are shouting against this idea).

My fear is therefore that the sinister reality is that we call in people as examples in order that we can continue never to follow these examples. When do they move from being an example to becoming the soothing voice telling us that it is OK to continue on the path that we are on, since they have lived the radical path on our behalf.

On a side note I have to clarify why I have Nelson Mandela on this list next to Mother Theresa: Isn’t our reactions to health of Madiba a reminder that we have used him as a soothing voice for our own non-commitment to reconciliation? If Madiba was truly the inspiration we claim, then we should be able to let him go in peace, since a whole country would have taken over that which he claimed to stand for. Is the idea that Madiba shouldn’t die not the ultimate reminder that when we loose this icon of reconciliation, we (and I’m speaking primarily from the white community) would have to face the reality that we have not committed ourselves to reconciliation? (In similar fashion to Rollins’ parable and Zizek’s example from the concentration camp).

And then we need to go to the end of the list. Jesus. When Nolan writes:

“On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christian or not. There are some remarkable exceptions, but by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God”

Why then do we call Jesus in as example? Is it because we think he should be followed?

I’m not against Mother Therese, Ghandi or Jesus. But if we use them to keep in place that which they were fighting against, then the faithful act might be to reject them.

I guess the missional reawakening being experienced at the moment can be described as something of the following:

Mission isn’t simply going to faraway countries with nice beaches or forests and preaching the salvation of souls to naked natives (and teaching them not to be naked in the process), mission is asking “what is God up to”, and joining this in my life day to day, and for those Christologically inclined something about the Kingdom of God need to be added.

I guess this is not a bad definition, and Ive preached it myself. Telling people that “life” is mission. It’s about the way I approach my job (no, not about smiling to the secretary, but hopefully about considering whether the work I’m doing is oppressing others, or freeing them), my relationships, you name it. And there is something beautiful about this, if the evangelical in my comes out I’ll say something biblical about this. Live your whole life in the face of God, and participate in the work of the triune God every day. Really beautiful.

Almost too beautiful. But I’ll go with this kind of talk for the moment, obviously assuming that you’ve used you’re “God-given rational mind” and all the tools of analyzing the context and trying to find out what would be “good”, since I confess that God is the source of all that is good.

In this same vein, you find this notion that “God has placed our congregation in this place, and we are called to serve God here”. Again, really beautiful talk. I love it. With one problem: God didn’t put you there.

OK, listen me out before you report the blasphemy.

Did God create the townships? The suburbs? The racially segregated areas in South Africa?

Did God put all the rich people into one security village, and did God appoint those in power who make sure that the beggars don’t bother the taxpayers?

No matter how you interpret “that which we call God”, Christian theology would say “no” to the above questions. This world is broken.

Although I applaud this broader understanding of mission, there is a warning that needs to be heard: God didn’t place you in the suburbs*, in most cases Apartheid did. Mission then becomes the questioning of the systems which give us this nice privileged suburban life, while making sure few enough people have access to it, so that we don’t spread the little capital available too thin. Sometimes mission will imply that we ask whether we should even be in this context.

We might even want to remind ourselves of the old-school missionaries. Those who didn’t accept the context in which God had them to be born, but who felt the call to a different context. Please, let us not imitate them too closely, that the mission of the church has committed it’s own evils is a well-known fact by now. But they might be a nice corrective to those who found that God called them to the suburbs, and understanding mission as keeping this status quo in place.

A third way might be in order: Neither the going to faraway countries with nice heathens and learning them western manners, nor the simple acceptance of the suburb where “God has placed me”. Our task might be to critically ask whether this context should exist, and challenge the structure which create oppressive contexts, not simply fix small issues we encounter within some particular context.

* I’m not on a suburb-bashing mission (no pun intended), but I do believe that serious questions need to be asked about the development of suburbs. Furthermore, I use this example because this is my own context (I live in the suburbs, attend church in the suburbs, preach in the suburbs).