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.