The fundamental distinction of the missional church is one that begins with a particular Christian community that is focused on and lives for God’s purpose in the world. On this point, some may say, “Of course, aren’t all churches focused on God’s purpose in the world?” Not necessarily.
First, God’s purpose in the world must be understood in the light of His kingdom. The gospel or “good news” proclaimed by Jesus was the announcement of God’s penetration into the fallen world—God the Father sending the Son and the Son sending the Holy Spirit—thus the missional nature of God.
The biblical gospel is the reality of God’s grace-giving response to our otherwise hopeless condition, a condition cast in humanity’s rebellion that has corrupted all of God’s creation. The good news is that God has not just prepared but in fact initiated His plan for the restoration of His creation through the atoning work of the Son and the coming of His kingdom. This kingdom, brought forth by the Holy Spirit through the church, has been spreading across the planet for nearly 2000 years, bringing salvation, peace, hope, and justice.
Not sure? Ignoring the fact that more than one-third of the world considers itself Christian, ponder briefly the brutality and evil common to the ancient world. The time before Christ was characterized by oppression, injustice, poverty, sexism, and depravity of every kind. Infanticide and human sacrifice were practiced the world over. Granted, the modern descent into abortion-on-demand is equally horrific so one might still be skeptical of any alleged social improvement.
However, abortion is a twentieth-century aberration that contradicts nearly 1600 years of Christianized Western values and two, abortion is hotly debated precisely because it remains a moral affront to so many. This was not the case in the ancient world in which the murder of children was unlikely to elicit any concern. The Roman historian Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46-120) writing about the Carthaginians, whom, he wrote, “offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan” (Moralia 2.171D).
Both the Greeks and the Romans (the pinnacle of civilization at the time) legitimized the practice of abandoning unwanted infants and there is no expression of guilt or remorse in any literature of the era. The gladiatorial games occurred for more than 300 years illustrating “completely the pitiless spirit … of human life lurking behind the … cultural pretensions of the great imperial age” (William Stearns Davis, A Day in Old Rome [Boston, MA: Allyn and bacon, 1925], 389). Writing in the nineteenth-century, James Dennis showed that infanticide and human sacrifice were not uncommon throughout pagan Africa and “well known among the Indians of North and South America” (James S. Dennis, The Social Evils of the Non-Christian World [New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1898], 69-70). The pre-Christian world, mired in spiritual darkness and ignorance, was simply indifferent to human suffering and depravity.
Almost every virtue and benefit that we in the West—in particular and the world in general—takes for granted owes their origin to the coming of Christ and His kingdom. From modern democratic governance, elevation of human dignity and equality for women to free market economics and scientific progress; the spread of Christ’s kingdom has brought unrivaled social, cultural and personal benefit to mankind. We have stood so long in the light of the kingdom that I fear we, even in the church, assume these benefits are the natural result of inevitable human progress rather than God’s particular redemptive work in the world.
Beginning in the first century, it was Christians gathered together into a community distinct from the surrounding culture that God used to bring light into the darkness. These communities adopted conduct and values that bore witness to God’s reign come into the world. Their lives, in community, radically challenged the social norms of the day. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female lived in a new kind of relationship with each other in which those distinctions that formerly divided people were nullified in Christ. These people established common treasuries, mandating the sharing of all earthly resources so that those in need were cared for. They did not take each other to court but instead managed their disagreements internally and they disciplined each other for the sake of their witness. The church, throughout history, has been the sign of God’s kingdom that has come and is coming into the world—setting to rights what sin has set wrong.
Beyond being called together, Christians are also sent into the world to press and proclaim these kingdom values whenever and wherever they encounter pride, selfishness, injustice, suffering, and depravity. There is a social, cultural and personal dimension to the kingdom that the church is called to represent and assert in the world. In addition, the church proclaims the message of the risen Christ as the only means by which one may enter and partake of the kingdom of God. When taken all together, it is the missional church as community, servant and messenger of the kingdom that reshapes the surrounding culture. Compromise any one of these three expressions of the gospel mission and the witness of the church begins to fade.
Certainly, many Christians still embrace the responsibility to confront evils but the modern approach—all too often—is severed from any demonstration of these virtues within a particular community that is all that distinct from the world.
The early Christians did not succeed in transforming the evils of the ancient world through political activism and grassroots efforts. They succeeded by first demonstrating a radical and ultimately superior alternative to the surrounding culture within their respective communities. The church was a community characterized by love—people who were in the words of Stanley Hauerwas willing to “risk being peaceful in a violent world, risk being kind in a competitive society, risk being faithful in an age of cynicism, risk being gentle among those who admire the tough, risk love when it may not be returned, because we have confidence that in Christ we have been reborn into a new reality” (Stanley Hauerwas, Against the Nations, [Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1992], 210-11). Hauerwas eloquently describes the upside-down nature of the kingdom as revealed in Jesus’ kingdom parables that we are called to follow faith through grace. Historically, Christians better understood the implications of the kingdom, that following their conversion they were to live under the rule and reign of God and no longer for themselves.
Next week, we will examine some modern ways of being missional and how the contemporary organizational structures of the Western church are almost entirely oriented toward the service and maintenance of the church itself rather than the missiological community, servant, and messenger of the kingdom.