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).

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I must say that I haven’t followed the new quest for the missional church as closely as I maybe should have over the past few months. But I have wondered how long it’s going to be till the old evangelism vs. social justice thing flares up within the new missional conversation as well. That tension would probably still remain for quite some time. It’s been with us in the form of evangelicals vs ecumenicals in the past, I believe it it was partly responsible for the rift to form in the emerging conversation last year, and it might be visible in the missional conversation as well.

Dan Kimball talked about missional a few months ago, but seemed to identify this with evangelism. iMonk talked about missional just now, but seem to contrast it with evangelism,

Kimball:

As I think of the future, I want to focus on the reason I got into the whole emerging church world. It was about evangelism – as in seeing “lost” people (using that word in a healthy way) come to a saving knowledge of Jesus…

I am using “missional” more these days, although that term has different meanings too and knowing human tendencies that will prpbably go through definition changes.

iMonk:

If I ever get fired and I have the opportunity to go somewhere that there actually are some church choices, my first interest will not be liturgy or the Christian yearc. It will be “Is the church evangelistic?” My second will be “Is it missional?”…

Yes, I know about context, so go read the posts yourself.

Both work with Matthew 28. I was sitting reading chapter 2 of Transforming Mission just a few minutes ago, in preparation for a discussion on Thursday, which discuss the gospel according to Matthew. Bosch has unpacked this in a lot of places, but we need to get over the emphasizing evangelism over against other parts of mission, and vice versa! I still want to see whether missional can really become a conversation that use this broader vision of mission that Bosch unpacked in Transforming Mission, or whether some would again want to in nostalgic fashion grab onto the evangelical visions of the mid-20th century (see an earlier post on the Lausanne Covenent) and earlier and let this fill the meaning of what missional is about (obviously the same can be said about grabbing back to the ecumenical visions).

stop marketing the church!

November 30, 2008

It’s one of those things some of us just instinctively know. We should stop marketing the church! We can’t say why, but we juts have this deep conviction that the church should not be marketed. Maybe we are wrong, and I can tell you that I have no idea how I would ever communicate to a church council that we can just as well stop all our marketing, whether on out website, the billboards we put up, whatever. So, if you are convinced that the church should we shrewd like the unjust stewert (Luke 16), and that we should therefore use every business trick in the book (this is a very very bad interpretation on that piece of scripture), then I don’t know what to tell you. But if you for some reason also has this deep conviction that, although all this marketing looks very nice, something is really wrong, then you gotta read this quote.

It’s from An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, which I’m currently reading. It was written by Heather Kirk-Davidoff, whom I have no idea who she is, but I would like to tell her, she put into words what I’m also thinking:

Whether we come from a mainline Christian of an evangelical Christian background, evangelism has most often focused on recruitment. As I’ve spoken about evangelism with other emerging church leaders, I’ve marveled that our different paths have led us to the same conclusion: recruitment kills relationship. Even if your theology is great, even if your church is wonderfu, even if your community os the best group of people on earth, as soon as you approach soneone with the intention of recruiting them into your theology or church or community, you become a marketer and the other perso is the target of your marketing. While GenXers have had a wide range of experience with religion or church or community, we share the experience of being targets of marketing from our earliest days of watching cartoons with product tie-ins. We can spot a sales pitch from a mile away, and we never confuse that with an offer of genuine relationship.

Reading work of Storrar currently, and he talk about the work of Forrester a lot, I wrote something about Forrester here. And he use the word evangelical a lot. Basically, as I can understand, it boils down to the following. When we as Christians, theologians or the church, take part in public conversation, we do it as exactly that: Christians, theologians or the church. We take part because we have a unique contribution to make. If we try to become just another politician, loose our destinctive ways, then we loose the right to take part in the conversation. Why do we take part in the conversation at all then? We are not needed then.

So, we take part, but what we point to is towards the way of Jesus. Although public theology would then probably way we do it in such a way that the other participants in the conversation do not neccesarily commit to the way of Jesus in order to hear what we have to say, but that we influence the public opinion from our own view of the way of Jesus. Is this also a way of sharing the good news? Is this a crucial part of our ministry as Christians? Is this enough, or should evangelism also be part of what we do as public theologians? If we do, how do we do this? What is the good news that we need to share in the public sphere?