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Associate Professor of Christian History and Director of the MDiv In-Ministry program at Tyndale Seminary

September 2010

Volume 3

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Introduction

For many years the evangelical church in Canada has seen itself as passionate about mission. We have sent large sums of money overseas to support international missions while at home the local church seldom moved outside of its own walls. Domestically, the church developed programs designed to invite those who had drifted away from the church to return. In addition fundraisers generated money for parachurch work among students, the inner city poor and new immigrants. In recent decades, however, as the local church began to suffer, funds allocated to overseas work have dwindled. In order to justify the funding cutback the local church developed a “missional” focus.

The missional church movement argued that mission can only be understood as actual engagement. Without action our global engagement is reduced to cheque writing or altruistic tourism that lacks transformative power. Missiologists are therefore asking how domestic missiology can lead to global involvement. They pose a vital question that is usually overlooked in the ongoing conversations of the missional church movement. This article will endeavour to suggest some starting points from which to address the issue of a truly global missional vision.

The First Step

As a first step we need to agree on and clarify what we mean by the “missional church”. In essence we need to define the nature and mission of the church. Without a clear understanding of who we are and what we are meant to do, the church will be prone to unthinkingly follow cultural trends. We therefore need to be particularly vigilant against pure pragmatism or simply re-branding existing programs using fashionable, culturally relevant language.

Learning to Follow Networks

In Matthew 28: 18-20 and Acts 1: 3-8 we learn that the flow of mission is from Jerusalem to Judea, then Samaria and finally to the rest of the world. The apostles model this movement in the book of Acts and we are called to emulate their pattern. It calls us to engage our neighbour before moving out into foreign territory.

For the 1st century church moving from familiar environs to the gentile world was extremely difficult. In the 21st century we, however, live with the legacy of Christendom which gives rise to different concerns. We are more apprehensive about engaging those around us with the gospel than going to unfamiliar areas. Consistent character is vital if we are to invite our neighbours to watch our lives. Such a calling competes with primary cultural values like individualism and privacy. As a result, our preference is to simply bypass our neighbours. The Christendom assumption that local evangelism is simply reclaiming backsliders therefore has tremendous appeal. In this context mission is reserved for crossing a border and both local and overseas outreaches are approached by means of appropriate programs.

Mission, however, works best when we follow networks. Rodney Stark argues that Paul’s primary mission strategy was to initiate a contact and then nurture the networks that developed as a result. “Although the very first Christian converts in the West may have been made by full-time missionaries, the conversion process soon became self-sustaining as new converts accepted the obligation to spread their faith and did so by missionizing their immediate circle of intimates” (Cities of God, 14). As a result of this strategy, Paul was free to advise and mentor while local amateurs led the church. In these early years of the church we see no reflection on missiology as such. The process was always one of being sent out and entering into the lives of others.

We see this strategy continue into the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Nowhere is an intentional missionary program evident. The good news was spread intuitively but intentionally as people went out, proclaiming and enacting the gospel. For this approach to work the character of those announcing the good news had to match the message. Records indicate that the counter-cultural freedom, justice and joy witnessed in the lives of the converts attracted people. Origen wrote that people joined those early communities because Christians were attractive people. “The churches of God which have been taught by Christ, when compared with the assemblies of the people where they live, are as ‘lights in the world” (Contra Celsum, 3:29). Justin Martyr reports that people’s hesitations were overcome “by observing the consistent lives of their neighbours, or noting the strange patience of their injured acquaintances, or experiencing the way they did business with them” (1 Apol. 16).

These observations were made in the context of significant disincentives to convert. Some of these pressures came from the larger society that viewed the Christian communities as illegal and imposed serious penalties on them. Other demands were self-imposed to discourage cheap conversion. Because there was great concern for the way believers lived, converts were required to take part in a lengthy catechetical process by means of which their character was formed in conformance with the gospel. The goal of the catechism, Hippolytus writes, was to form people whose lives “may shine with virtue, not before each other [only], but also before the Gentiles so that they may imitate them and become Christians” (Canons of Hippolytus 19). In addition, the objective was to keep the believers to their commitments to “attractive deviance” (2 Clement 13).

Learning new Skills for Decision Making

I believe that to accomplish its mission in the 21st century the church will need to give up many of the traits adopted from the modern era. At the heart of this task is releasing the desire for control, symbolized by reliance on long range strategic planning. Rather, planning needs to be grounded in a capacity to listen to God collectively. The task of the people of God then becomes learning to discern what God calls us to and to become a group of people who are sent out and who enter into the lives of others in order to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Under these circumstances the move outward occurs very naturally because the focus is on God.

Tim Dickau of Vancouver has developed a way of reflecting on mission based on a series of trajectories (these are from a forthcoming book). His work examines how the discernment process might work on the ground. The first trajectory moves from isolation to community and finally to radical hospitality. We understand the first step, but the last one is more difficult to grasp. Hospitality in scripture is always two-way process, involving both giving and receiving. We like to give because it allows us to maintain control. Jesus, however, received as well and usually from the most marginal and despised in the society. The second trajectory concerns moving from homogeneity to diversity to integrated multicultural living. Opening our communities makes sense to us, but we expect that they will become communities of diverse backgrounds where ultimately the newcomer will become like us. Learning to live in a way in which we are truly receptive to the gifts brought by those who join us is much more challenging. Thirdly charity needs to turn into friendship and advocacy, finally leading to freedom in Christ and seeking justice for the least. We have long lauded cheque writing as valid mission. Our next step is to move into deep personal involvement and speaking on behalf of the least, in particular the enemy. Finally, Dickau describes the trajectory of confronting idolatries and repentance leading to pursuit of deeper participation in the work of God. We too often get caught at repentance because we fear what we think might be the arrogance of living in partnership with God. The intentionally cultivated trajectories that Dickau describes actively engage the stranger and alien, redefine the neighbour and draw us into global networks.

My experience as a pastor corroborates Dickau’s theory that if we are fully committed to local mission we will eventually engage globally. It is, however seldom a smooth transition. During the 1980s our congregation started building relationships with refugees from Somalia. As friendships grew and became more reciprocal, we found ourselves beginning to pray for and help support their families in Somalia and in the refugee camps. Eventually members of the congregation began to travel to Somalia to live among and care for the communities from which our friends had come. In the process our congregation was transformed. Local friendships led to a deeper awareness of a vulnerable marginal community in our backyard which in turn generated global engagement as we followed the networks inherent in these relationships. In order to sustain this type of work we started having conversations with missions groups with experience in Somalia thereby expanding our local connections.

As I mentioned the transformation did not proceed smoothly. As we discovered the need of the local Somali community we began to re-allocate funds from our global projects which initially diminished our contribution to international missions. As the congregation however began to travel and build relationships overseas, global engagement received a new level of buy-in and financial support started growing again. The process took time and required patience but it resulted in a much deeper commitment to mission in general.

Conclusion

There needs to be intentional wrestling with tensions between local and global missions to overcome the tendency toward tribalism that lurks in our hearts. Fear of the other is increasing in our Canadian cities and the Church too seems to favour homogeneity. As we, however, intentionally move out into our neighbourhoods we have an opportunity to practice radical hospitality that welcomes the stranger and alien, breaking down the walls that separate us. As we build deep relationships and follow the networks they draw us into, we will find the line between domestic and global missions blurred and come to realise that a truly domestic missiology must by its nature be global.

Bibliography

  • Stark, Rodney. Cities of God : the Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. San Francisco, CA : HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.

For further reading

For some working definitions of the “missional church” visit:

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