When I defended my dissertation, an examiner at the defense asked a question concerning the end of life: suppose a person, a baptized and faithful Christian, with severe Alzheimer’s is in a nursing facility; how do you understand their vocation to witness? The question came as a surprise, and it raises a good critique of missional theology. As I understand the question, the critique has to do with the intrumentality of Christian personhood implicit in missional theology. Let’s frame it this way: Missional theology insists that vocation, that is the vocation to witness of the Christian community and all baptized Christians, is essential to Christian identity and God’s work in Christ. In Christ, God gathers, upbuilds, and sends.
But if that is the case, then how do we understand the Christian identity of those who are, perhaps, not able to bear witness? To take extreme cases, the person with severe dementia or even in a vegetative state? This became question personal to me last week when I visited a member of my congregation in a nursing home. I had not seen her in several months, and on this visit she had no memory of who I was — nor any recognition of the church she loves, or of anyone save her daughter.
So how do we, understand her vocation to witness, and thus her Christian identity?
First, I am not ready to dismiss y friend’s ability to bear witness. Though her memory is gone, her smile, the light in her eyes, and the warmth of her spirit persists; these continue to bear witness. But at a deeper level, I think the answer to the question lies in shifting the focus from the individual to the individual-in-community. The call to bear witness always belongs, first and foremost, to the community and then to the individuals within the community. There will always be within the community a shifting cast of people who take leadership in witness, people who pass through seasons of strong witness and into seasons of lesser witness. The end-of-life is an extreme example of this passing. Still, the witness of the community continues from generation to generation.
If we consider a person with severe dementia in isolation, only as an individual, then perhaps we would say there is no exercise of vocation there. Yet, when we consider the individual-in-community, there is indeed the exercise of vocation, and it involves that person. As the community continues in relationship with this one who nears death, as the community remembers the one who can no longer remember them, the community bears witness to the love of the One who knows us before we know him and remembers us even when all is forgotten.
Thus, the witness continues, as the individual continues to be a part of the community’s witness, even though the individual is no longer an active agent or instrument. We are not individual Christians first and then part of the Christian community; we are first members of the Christian community , in which we find our individual Christian identity.
One of the better books to come out recently about “being a missional church” is Creating a Missional Culture by J.R. Woodward. The book has three salient parts: 1) a four-part description of a missional church culture; 2) a proposal for something Woodward calls “poly-centric leadership,” which seems to be a fancy term for team leadership or communal leadership; 3) five functions of leadership, based on the five-fold ministry Paul describes in Ephesians 4.
Here’s a more lengthy review: http://jonathandodson.org/2013/10/book-review-creating-a-missional-culture-jr-woodward/
Overall, I think this is an excellent book and one that gives a pastor/student a very good introduction to what “missional” means and good ideas about how to become a missional church community. Woodward speaks from practical experience; he has a good cultural anthropology in his work; and he has a good theology of a diversified ministry, rooted in scripture and for the equipping of the church. The only critique I have is that the book might read too much like a “model” or “how-to” for becoming a missional church. If a pastor wants to apply these insights, it’s going to be a lot more messy and organic than “five environments” and “five equippers” might lead one to think.
So, if you want a solid book on moving toward becoming a missional church, buy this one!
They say that once you say something, or share something, you really know it. If you want to learn a story, tell it often and it will become a part of you. If you want to learn a joke, tell it often and you’ll get the lines and timing down pat. When I preach on Sundays, the sermon at 8 o’clock worship is often “still in development”— I haven’t preached it yet, and it’s still taking shape and I don’t know it as well. At 10 o’clock, though, I usually know it cold—and it’s a much better sermon. Likewise, I teach three sections of Speech Communication at the seminary each week, and each section is the same lecture. The first lecture is still a work in progress, and by the third class it’s locked in.
Now as ordinary as this sounds, the realization of this truth actually leads us into some interesting philosophy and theology. For instance, Calvin Schrag, a postmodern philosopher teaches in his book Resources for Rationality that “articulation” is central to any rationality. Only by speaking or writing our present grasp of a situation or idea can we enter into a full understanding of it. An example of this is the common experience of solving a problem by “talking it out;” at the end of the conversation, we understand a lot more. When it comes to theology and faith, we find a similar truth. The faith that lives in the heart only comes to full life when it is expressed through words, through speaking or writing. The heart and the voice are closely connected (Romans 10, and John 12). Once a person finds words to express what they believe, their faith takes on new life, it is deeper and more closely held. More importantly, when we find words to express the faith we believe and feel, our closeness to God and experience of God’s presence and love is much richer. I believe this is what Paul means in Romans 10: we experience salvation in Christ through the expression of the faith we believe. (For more on Schrag, Romans, etc., see David Lose’s discussion of “articulation” in Confessing Jesus Christ.)
In the life of a church, this is why testimonies are so, so important. Testimony is the “old word,” and some churches call is a “minute for mission” or “sharing.” No matter what you call it, it’s the public articulation of personal faith, usually by one who is not ordained . At the church I pastor, we’ve recently been having a series of speakers in worship who are giving “minutes for mission” as part of the annual stewardship season. Each person is sharing their faith, and particularly how they live out their faith as part of the family of our church. These speakers are interpreting the mission of the church, but they are also creating and nurturing faith. By God’s grace, their testimony is creating faith for the one who shares, and faith for those who hear.
Often as preachers it’s hard to give up the pulpit for lots of reasons, but in my experience it’s always worth it. The most powerful services we have at my church in any given year are testimony services. They awaken and deepen faith, and strengthen the church.
So perhaps as preachers we can go of the culture of expertise, and realize that preaching is not solo thing? Perhaps our preaching ministry will find new life if we intentionally empower those in the pews to share what God is doing in their lives!
This is the front of the sanctuary at the church where I serve as pastor. We just recently rearranged it to look like this. Before, the pulpit was in the center, the table was on the floor directly in front, and the font was over in the corner out of sight. Theologically I like this arrangement much better! Here’s why: the important symbols are all there, front and center, in visual focus. The pulpit, the font, and the table; the book, the bath, and the meal.
Most “traditional” church architecture and furniture has gotten a really bad rap of late, and I get that. There’s nothing theologically necessary about choir robes, or brass candles, crosses, and plates, or large imposing pulpits, or even stained glass windows. In the history of the church, much of this furniture was simply the technology or style of its time imbued with theological meaning. The pulpit was the original sound system; stained glass windows were the renaissance-age projection technology; pews were the most efficient and cost effective way to seat folks; and the organ was the only instrument which, by itself, could produce enough sound to carry singing and fill a large space.
You can find theological meaning in them, but then you can find theological meaning in lots of things.
In many churches, especially newer churches, the stool and music stand has replaced the pulpit as the furniture of the preacher. The projection screen, showing photography and video, has taken the place of sculpture, painting, and glass as the artistic media; chairs in the worship space are more flexible in use and more affordable than ever before; and with the aid of sound systems, a band — or even just a couple instruments — is perfectly capable of carrying the singing of God’s people.
All that is to say, much of traditional furniture in Christian spaces is theologically neither here nor there. In Calvin’s phrase, it is adiophora — it doesn’t really matter whether you have it or not.
But, that is not true of the the Bible, the Font, and the Table; or, in Gordon Lathrop’s memorable phrasing, the book, the bath, and the meal. These are the essential symbols of God’s mission, and of God’s missionary people. These are the symbols of what is at the core of the mission of God, and the gifts God gives to nourish and sustains God’s people in their life in Christ.
The Bible is God’s Word written, an infallible guide to faith in God and life with God. The preaching of the Word, as God’s Spirit speaks through the ancient Scriptures, awakens and builds faith in the living Word. The Font, or the baptistry, symbolizes the waters of new birth, where we are born from above into the household of God and gifted for life in Christ. The Table is the meal that nourishes God’s people in this age, centers us in the gift of the Cross, and points us toward the heavenly banquet in the age to come. Taken together, these three symbols are the touchstones of the mission of God and God’s missional people.
Whatever furniture is in a worship space, traditional or contemporary, fancy or plain, it doesn’t really matter — it’s preference and context. But these three symbols count for everything, they are essential. They draw us visually into the core story of God’s mission in the world.
For some reason I’ve read several authors recently, all online blogs, who use the “attractional model” to describe where “the church is now,” and “missional model” to describe where it needs to go.
I’m not sure what the attractional model entails in terms of operative ecclesiology, but it seems to be roughly this: the church is an organization, rooted at a particular physical address, that attracts people into participation and membership through a variety of programs and services that meet their real and/or perceived needs.
On the other hand, the missional model — in terms of operative ecclesiology — seems to be something like this: the church is a community, scattered in a larger community and culture, that demonstrates the gospel/kingdom-life through its words and deeds and invites others to participate and believe.
Now, anyone who is on board with missional theology can see immediate problems with the attractional definition. The church is a community, not primarily an organization or — worse — a building; the church is sent into the community, and does not exist as a static entity that draws people to it like a magnet; the church is about life in the kingdom of God, not running programs and services. Etc., etc., …
But setting up an either/or, move from this to that, doesn’t make sense of the complex reality of a church community, or what it means to be a missional church.
A missional church is an attractive church. A Christian community is, at some level, an organization and needs organization. Nearly any church that grows and matures at some point becomes tied to or identified with a physical address, simply for practical necessity. The kind of nuture, education, care, and service that a missional church provides will need to take an organized structure and pattern; that structure and pattern may look a lot like a program — especially if it continues beyond its initial iteration of leaders. A community that is demonstrating the gospel in words and deeds will meet people’s needs, and that may be what draws people into the community at first. In other words, a missional church can and will share a lot of features with the attractional church. And looking at this like the missional church replaces the attractional church, and becomes a different “model,” is misleading.
I think it is better to think of it like this: a missional approach reforms and deepens an “attractional” model. Specifically, a missional understanding of the church situates the attractional model in the missio Dei, and makes the sending and witness of the Christian community a core piece of the church’s identity. For instance, as an attractional church becomes missional, it could be that Biblical discipleship becomes more important, daily witness becomes more important, intentional community becomes more important, compassion and care for the other becomes more important, the life of the church in the broader community and away from “campus” becomes more important.
Indeed, this missional reframing will and should change the way the typical “attractional church” operates — it’s language, priorities, budgeting, structure, strategy, values, expectations, vision, you-name-it. But it’s not an either/or, from this to that. It’s a deepening and reforming of what is already there.
To me, one of the interesting parts of the article I posted yesterday relates to how this “missional megachurch” is changing their understanding of worship. Previously, as with many megachurches, they had an attractional model of worship that sounds more like evangelism. They poured tons of energy, resources, and excellence into “weekend services” that would attract huge crowds. In moving to become a more missional church, this was one of the big changes. Investment in the weekend “show” went down, and investment in “Go Communities” went up. They moved to an “attractional” and “missional” approach to worship that would prepare people more for discipleship outside the weekend gathering.
Now if you’ve ever worked in a megachurch context, you know exactly what these folks are talking about in terms of investment in the weekend show. It’s a rat race wheel that never stops. And I absolutely salute the move toward more discipleship and less pizazz. What strikes me, though, is that this church is still missing a theology of worship. Before they were doing weekend evangelism services; now they’re doing weekend discipleship services. “Where’s the beef?”
Christian worship is the praise and adoration of the Triune God. As such it’s focus and intention is fundamentally toward God, and this happens especially through song and prayer. Through preaching and sacraments God communicates with us and equips us to be God’s people, so that we may better worship, serve, and bear witness. But what God does for us in worship is always secondary in the scope of worship and always an act of grace. Worship is the praise and adoration of God.
Missional churches need to get this. Because good works are exhausting, and living in kingdom of God is challenging. Megachurches that are tired of pumping people up for good living in a consumer-model weekend service are going to be quickly tired of pumping people up for good works in a service-model weekend service. A life of discipleship is only possible with regular worship, where we encounter the Source of Life who is outside of ourselves and through God’s grace are strengthened and renewed.