Mission after Christendom: beyond the incarnational-missional paradigm

As you will be aware if you are not a complete stranger to this blog, I strongly hold to the view that a narrative-historical hermeneutic, informed by good work being done in New Testament Studies, gives us a much better understanding of the New Testament than the theologically driven methods of interpretation that the church generally relies on. The big question, then, is what is the church, with all its practical commitments, supposed to do with it? Well, here’s one suggestion. I have been arguing that Acts frames the mission of the early church narratively, both as the fulfilment of Israel’s story and as the beginning of a new story about YHWH and the nations. It is not our story—it happened 2000 years ago, duh! But we face similar uncertainties about the future, and I would argue that how we tell the story of our own crisis is becoming an essential part of the renewal of mission.

1. Over the last couple of hundred years in the West we have seen the progressive collapse of Christendom—the broad Christian social, cultural, intellectual, ethical, political and religious consensus, sustained and directed by the institutional church, that had been in place in Europe since the conversion of the Roman empire to the worship of the God of Israel.

2. The church reacted to the disintegration of this social paradigm in different ways, some better than others: revivalism, liberalism, the modern overseas missionary movement, crusade evangelism, evidence-that-demands-a-verdict apologetics, conservative cultural agendas, and so on. What happened, basically, was that the social paradigm was replaced by a personal paradigm. The mission of the church was to proclaim a gospel of personal salvation, and I rather suspect that we would not be here today arguing about the deficiencies of the paradigm if it had not done so.

3. The success of this adaptation in the period after the Second World War, especially in America, led to a church-growth paradigm and the era of the mega-churches. Personal salvation was still central to the strategy, but almost without anyone realizing it, the attractional, big church, show-business experience itself became the driving force.

4. The now more-or-less defunct emerging church was a precursor to the missional-incarnational paradigm. In the US this appears to have been largely a reaction against the impersonal mega-church and seeker-church phenomenon. In Europe it represented either a last-ditched attempt to reverse the decline of the established churches or an escape from the isolationism and fluffiness of the modern evangelical-charismatic movement.

The missional-incarnational paradigm has reversed the process that had dominated the modern response to the decline of the social paradigm. Mission is no longer understood as bringing more and more people through a doorway of personal salvation into bigger and bigger churches.

Rather it is understood as the church—at scales where “authentic” community can be maintained—moving outwards to love a broken world, generally with a view to catalyzing social transformation, loosely under the banner of the “kingdom of God”.

5. While the missional-incarnational movement has its detractors, it seems to me to be a big step in the right direction, a crucial stage in the renewal of the people of God after Christendom. But I would argue that there is a further development needed in the direction of a narrative or prophetic paradigm, for two basic reasons.

First, the missional-incarnational reading of the New Testament, in my view, is not much better than the modern evangelical reading of the New Testament. There has been an important recovery of the social dimension, but the hermeneutic still works backwards: it imposes its own pragmatic agenda on the texts, at the cost of historical meaning. For example, “kingdom of God” is not New Testament short-hand for “a program of social-action that will change the world”—anymore than “gospel” means “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”.

Secondly, the Bible strongly suggests that the people of God must always make sense of its existence narratively, not least at a time of crisis. A biblical people is a prophetic people, and biblical prophecy always presupposes a past narrative by which the present is explained, and a future narrative by which hope is given expression. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in The Age of Extremes in 1994:

The destruction of the past… is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in. This makes historians, whose business it is to remember what others forget, more essential at the end of the second millenium than ever before.

If that is true for western society generally, it is no less true for the western church. A major part of the renewal of mission will be the church remembering its past—perhaps for the sake of western society—and re-envisioning its future on that basis. The gospel is a narrative construct—it is a proclamation about what God has done in the past or what he will do in the future, for the sake of his people. My reading of the New Testament suggests that the church in the West will not have a cogent gospel—and therefore will not have a cogent mission—until it learns to tell its story.

Billy North | Tue, 07/29/2014 - 15:45 | Permalink


Thank you for your post as always.

You state: “Rather it is understood as the church—at scales where “authentic” community can be maintained—moving outwards to love a broken world, generally with a view to catalyzing social transformation, loosely under the banner of the “kingdom of God”.

Can you describe more specifically what an authentic community would look like and be based upon? Would it be centered around affirming particular doctrines and creeds? Would the loose banner of the kingdom of God be inclusive of differing religious views?



Andrew PerrimanBilly North | Tue, 07/29/2014 - 17:57 | Permalink

In reply to by Billy North

Billy, these are good questions, but I don’t really have time to attempt a proper answer—even if I knew what the answer was! I suppose, though, as a starting point, I would suggest that authentic community must be a conscious participation (the meaning of koinōnia or “fellowship”) in a shared story. Newbigin argues that even the dogmatic practice of churches can be a powerful critique of society, but notice how important the historical narrative of the Russian and Lutheran churches is:

It is important to remember in the first place that there are situations in which the basic dogma in its starkest form is the most powerful critical agent in society. The celebration of the divine liturgy in churches of the USSR for the seventy years in which Marxism has ruled public life, and the faithful preaching of the word in Lutheran Churches for forty-five years in the German Democratic Republic, have been—as we now know—immensely powerful in creating a space in which the total claims of the state were quietly set aside in deference to one who is Lord of all states and kingdoms. (Truth to Tell, 67)

As to what constitutes “authentic” rather than “inauthentic” community—well, we know that, don’t we?

Hi, very interesting analysis, and very well articulated.

I would be very interested to know what you think about the Pope apostolic exhortation about the mission of the Church, Evangelii Gaudium.

Could it be that the protestant/evangelicals movements will eventually merge with the catholic church, after a “parenthesis” of a few centuries?

Thank you for this caveat: “…perhaps for the sake of western society.”

As theologians in the developed West articulate a much-needed narrative approach let us not forget our story in the East and the “developing” world. 

Kent Haley | Fri, 08/01/2014 - 03:37 | Permalink

Andrew, I not aware of anyone describing the kingdom Of God as “a program of social action that will change the world.” I think most theologians and bible scholars whatever their stripe would be open to diverse ideas as to what the kingdom of God looks like. However, I think most would agree that the kingdom is God’s rule through his people who are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  I don’t really think it is fair to cast incarnational thinkers as those who teach that the kingdom is a program for social action. 

If i may say so, your strictly narrative historical view also seems to impose a agenda as you insist that the kingdom is limited to Christendom. I would say this view limits your interpretation of the NT as much as any theological view limits others scholars. There is much to appreciate in your perspective — I think the church could benefit from many of your insights.  But I am wrong in saying that you also bring to the text some preconceived notions as to what the NT may be trying to communicate? Yes, we need to view our existence from a historical perspective, but doesn’t our history (including the biblicsal narrative) tell us there is much to consider theologically?

I dont see how we can take the narrative seriously if we dont deal with all the philosophy and theological implications of that history. 

One example: a church-plant in Sweden profoundly conscious of the very poor reputation of the church in the country, of the forces of secularism, and increasingly of the change to society and mission being brought about by immigration, trying to imagine, through theological reflection and missional practice, a different future for God and for his people in this context—and learning to tell a different story about itself. I have my friend Marcus to thank for this one.

Thank you.

I’m very early in working my way through A Secular Age, but it seems Taylor’s notion of the “imaginary” dovetails with your comments on the church telling its story. As your example seems to confirm, part of that storytelling will involve repentance for the church’s variform sins, followed by the prophetic announcement of what those sins entail and what forms both repentance and renewal might look like.

I pray by God’s grace that through such practices and reflections as in your example, our currently depleted imaginary can be restored for what lies ahead.

Andrew PerrimanAndy Catsimanes | Thu, 08/07/2014 - 15:38 | Permalink

In reply to by Andy Catsimanes

I sometimes quote Taylor:

…it is a crucial fact of our present spiritual predicament that it is historical; that is, our understanding of ourselves and where we stand is partly defined by our sense of having come to where we are, of having overcome a previous condition.


Sorry to be so slow following up on this. Been away.

These are good questions, Kent.

It seems to me that there is a strong tendency for people pursuing incarnational mission to be drawn towards a position where they are engaging with social issues (feeding the homeless is a standard one) without a very clear sense of why. It’s not mission in the modern evangelical sense. One justification for the practice would be that this is a way to change society more broadly, and since we can’t really call this evangelism, we call it extending the kingdom of God. I hear this regularly. I certainly don’t suggest that all incarnational thinkers promote this line of thought or that it is the only way of justifying or explaining incarnational mission—we might associate it more with an “emerging church” progressivism than with the missioinal-incarnational movement. Not sure. But the argument is out there.

I would say this view limits your interpretation of the NT as much as any theological view limits others scholars.

This is a tricky one. I agree that I have taken a rigorous position on the narrative-historical reading, not least because it seems to me that too much New Testament interpretation is a matter of re-reading the texts in the light of later theological developments and commitments.

Clearly I’m stuck with having to read from my own perspective or from within the developing perspective of a certain stream of New Testament scholarship. But I would argue that hermeneutically there is a distinction to be maintained, albeit a difficult one, between reading from within the historical frame of the New Testament and reading with historical and theological hindsight. It is simply a matter of asking what would make sense given the historical constraints of context, religious literary culture, and outlook presupposed by the New Testament writings. My argument is that if we do that, then a rather circumscribed and narrowly focused historical narrative emerges.

The point to stress is that I try to bring prior hermeneutical convictions to the task of interpretation, not preconceived notions about how the narrative actually works, what it actually means. I assume that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament thought like first century Jews, used the scriptures as the narratives of a historical community not merely as sacred signs of the coming messiah, thought within the natural historical horizons of the first century, and so on. Those hermeneutical commitments then, it seems to me, give rise to the sort of account of the development of “theological” content that I argue for, and I think that it is only a matter of hermeneutical consistency to say that the ending of persecution, the vindication of the churches, and the conversion of the nations to the worship of the God of Israel constituted the proper historical fulfilment of New Testament eschatology.

But then I agree—if I have understood you correctly—that we have to deal with the philosophical, theological and moral implications of that history. But we have to do that anyway. On any reading of the New Testament the history of the church is an embarrassment. Our theology is part of our story. I just don’t think we should be foisting it on the New Testament.


Thanks for the response. I agree there is a difference between reading within a historical view and reading with the hindsight of theological and historical developments of the church.   I appreciate that your perspective has the ability to change the way evangelicals look at the NT — something which I think is desparately needed, at least where I sit in the Bible belt of America. I think my concern is that if we read scriptures exclusively from the narrative perspective, then modern evangelicals will be left with very little to based their  praxis and morals upon. It is the much older traditions such as Rome or Eastern Orthodox (the direct beneficaries of the conversion of the nations) that have developed praxis, liturgies  and morals to sustain the faith community,  much of which they inherited from the Jewish roots of our faith. If we begin to read scriptures historically, should we then return to witness of the church fathers and the wisdom of the traditional church for our guide on praxis and morals?

Interesting blog, but I was wondering what you think would happen if everyone stopped believing in Christianity? (serious question). What happens if Chrisitanity goes the same way as the thousands of other religions the have come and gone during the course of human history?

It’s an excellent question, at least in the western context, and one which the church needs to take very seriously. It gets at the heart of the missional task in historical terms. Globally, though, I don’t see much likelihood of Christianity disappearing in the foreseeable future.

Thank you for this Andrew

I wonder what a discipleship course that emabraced a narrative-historical hermenutic might look like? 

Does one exists in any form or is this a task waiting to be completed?

Maybe the problem is thinking that this can be solved with a discipleship course, if you don’t mind me saying, James. I think the first need is to define and grasp the seriousness of the challenge that faces us. Jesus’ disciples were “trained” to fulfil a clearly defined task. Paul’s churches were taught how to remain faithful, despite severe opposition, through to the day of Christ. Once we know what the historical task is, then we can work out what we need to learn in order to achieve it.

Yes, that was carelessly expressed. Gentle rebuked accepted. I guess I’m looking for confidence in seeking to authentically articulate a consistent historical-narrative hermeneutic within a parish context.

Yes, it’s a challenge. In the church that we’re involved with here in West London a big part of it is persistently telling stories—the biblical story as a matter of history, but also the story of the church in the West, if only in very broad terms, as a way of asking questions about why we’re here, what state we’re in, what might lie ahead of us. It frames everything differently, from worship to discipleship to social engagement to mission.