The practical question that I’m trying to answer here is: how do we assess the effectiveness or validity of missional activity when the “product” is more qualitative than quantitative? Church growth models are proved effective if they result in larger churches or the multiplication of churches. The “incarnational” modes of missional activity that have proliferated over the last twenty years tend not to grow much. They expect to be judged, instead, by the impact that they have on a local community. But how do we measure that impact?
In part 1 we looked at the mission—strictly, missions—of the church in the New Testament. I suggested there were two parts to the task: 1) knowing what God was going to do in the future—first in relation to Israel, then in relation to the nations; and 2) announcing what God was going to do—first to Israel and diaspora Judaism, then to the pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world.
The success or effectiveness of these missions could, accordingly, be measured in three ways:
- Did the envisioned futures for Israel and the nations eventually materialise—decades or centuries later? Did God do what he said he was going to do?
- Did those who believed in the new futures fulfil the geographical and temporal scope of the mission—to the ends of the Empire, to the end of the age?
- Could something of the new futures be seen already in the corporate lives of the churches? Were there signs along the way that they were on the right side of the God of history?
Finally, I made the point that we now find ourselves at the boundary between two ages, much like the church in the first century only on a much larger—arguably “anthropo-geological”—time-scale. So there is some justification for taking the New Testament template and directly applying it to the mission of the church today.
Where is God in this?
Over the last couple of hundred years global humanity has undergone a massive shift in consciousness. We used to live in a sacred or enchanted world; we now live in a godless, disenchanted world. We used to be vulnerable and fearful in the world; we have now acquired the scientific knowledge and the technological means to dominate the earth. We devise massive solutions for pandemics, for example. We used to think that our anthropology was given to us by the gods or by God and immutable; we now take it upon ourselves to determine what constitutes appropriate human behaviour.
At the highest level this has come to be viewed as a transition from the natural Edenic order of the Holocene to an era of humanity’s domination of the natural order known as the Anthropocene. We enter this new age faced with the prospect of ecological catastrophe, but we are driven nevertheless by the sense that everything is in our hands. We have created the problem, we will fix it.
Where is God in this?
You would think that if the living God had something to do with the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions of Israel or the the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Titus or the defeat of classical paganism (not to mention the flood!), he would have something to do with such a profound and disruptive transition in the human story.
So to apply the model, we first need to know what God is doing. We need to tell a story about God that is congruent not only with scripture but also with the historical circumstances that we face. The biblical God is not an abstraction—neither the unchanging abstraction of traditional Western theologies nor the changing abstraction of process theologies. He is the engaged creator God who manages the existence of his priestly people in history, most evidently at times of crisis, for the sake of his glory.
So we have to answer the question: How is he doing that right now? What is God up to in these “last days” of the Holocene?
For what it’s worth, I think that our God is putting pressure on the church to become a focused, resilient, credible, prophetic witness in the event that the ecological-climate crisis has an overwhelmingly destructive impact on global society in the decades to come. I am also inclined to think that the crisis must be understood as a manifestation of the “wrath” of God—to use the appropriate biblical terminology—against the hubris and excess of modern global humanity. Beyond that, things are still a little murky.
What is the message?
As the vision becomes clearer, so too does the message.
For the followers of the crucified Jesus in Jerusalem the good news was that YHWH was about to judge and reform his rebellious people, in devastating fashion, as it turned out. For the churches in the wider Greek-Roman world the good news was that God was about to bring the age-old corrupting hegemony of classical paganism to an end and set up, in its place, a new political-religious order in which the nations would worship one God and confess the Son at his right hand as Lord.
I think that we should expect the good news that must be proclaimed by churches today to conform to the pattern: the living creator God is about to do some negative thing for the sake of some positive thing; he is about to tear down and build up, judge and reform.
That message obviously needs to be worked on, but, biblically speaking, this is where the “gospel” is to be found—not primarily in the offer of personal “salvation” but in the proclamation of what the living creator God is doing. The euangelion is always the public announcement of the historical action of God to put things right.
So a key measure of the effectiveness of the prophetic missional church must be: are we clearly communicating the good news that God is actively engaged in the ecological crisis at the dawn of the Anthropocene? The answer, at the moment, is probably not.
What are the eschatological signs?
If we are clear about the message, we may then ask what the likely signs will be that this thing really is happening, that this contemporary story about the living God really is playing out. How will it be reflected, in measurable ways, in the life of the church? How will it be evidenced in wider society? If, for example, speaking in strange tongues was a sign of judgment against refractory Israel at the end of the second temple period, or the healing of a lame man was a sign of the forgiveness of the sinsof repentant Israel, what phenomena might be signs today that God is fully behind the message of the prophetic church? I have some suggestions.
1. Hallowed be your name
In biblical terms, God acts in history in the first place for his own sake, for the sake of his glory and reputation among the nations. So one measure of the effectiveness of the church’s mission would be whether the name of God is hallowed in the Anthropocene.
Generally speaking, God is absent from public discourse, and the church has mostly resigned itself to the fact. Any attempt to introduce his name back into the conversation is likely to be met with ridicule. The proposition, for example, that COVID-19 is in some way an expression of God’s displeasure with modern society will be treated as a barely intelligible, narrowly religious opinion that must be vigorously excluded from the sphere of scientific-political policy making. So best not to take any chances.
But if we are doing mission on behalf of the God who made the heavens and the earth, who always was and is and is to come, I think we should expect to see the name of God taken more seriously in the public domain, even if we are not at all sure what that might sound like.
I have more or less come to the conclusion that, historically speaking, the conversion of the Roman Empire was the reconciliation of rule in heaven and rule on earth envisaged in a text such as Colossians 1:15-20. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come, he had in mind a similar historical expression on earth of God’s intention to judge and restore his people.
So the end-of-the-age missional paradigm, incidentally, may also lead us to think that both the ecological crisis (judgment) and any positive behavioural change in response to it (repentance) are concrete expressions of the will of the living God being done on earth as in heaven. Amen.
2. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for creation righteousness
The church is a monstrously diverse and conflicted thing. One part desires the salvation of all people, another desires prosperity, another desires the restoration of traditional family values, another the recovery of political influence, another racial justice….
The presence of a growing body of believers who are deeply conscious of the eschatological moment, who mourn over the destruction and excess, who repent of their participation in it, who groan with a groaning natural order, who hunger and thirst for a creation righteousness, who dream disturbing dreams and see disquieting visions of a great and terrible day of the Lord… that would be a compelling sign of the validity of an “anthropo-geological” prophetic movement within the wider church.
3. The Lord added to their number
I get the impression (I could be wrong) that the incarnational-missional church has rather given up on attracting large numbers of people to its cause. There may be good reasons for that. On the one hand, the model doesn’t really work when the numbers are scaled up; on the other, a prophetic movement is almost by definition a fringe phenomenon. Still, the small number of disciples in Jerusalem were held in high esteem by the people, and many were persuaded by their message (Acts 5:13-14; cf. 2:46-47). If then, why not now?
4. Theological renewal
The old way of thinking is woefully ill-equipped to register and respond constructively to the interrelated crises that are ushering in the Anthropocene. “No one puts new wine into old wineskins,” Jesus said. “If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22). The leadership of the church in the age to come will need to get to grips with a new theological paradigm, consisting (I boldly suggest) of such key components as:
- The relegation of the person-centred salvationist paradigm. The biblical priority was never the salvation of individuals from their personal sinfulness; it was always the strategic management of the presence of a dedicated priestly people, in the midst of the nations, under changing historical conditions, culminating in the real triumph of the God of Israel over the nations of the ancient Mediterranean world.
- Recovery of the engagement of the living God in history to the extent that large-scale historical developments may be regarded as being of central theological importance.
- An expanded notion of “proclamation” as the church speaking “prophetically” on behalf of the God of history, which is also only the recovery of a biblical understanding.
- A reading of scripture that foregrounds the contingent historical perspective of the biblical communities.
- A narrative trinitarianism that resists metaphysical closure and emphasises the continuing eschatological or crisis-management work of Father, Son and Spirit.
Shifts such as these—no doubt many others could be identified—are a measure of the fact that God has not absented himself from the arena of history, for better and for worse.
5. The renewal of religious language
With the recovery of a prophetic vision comes a reinvigoration of religious language. The poetry of the Old Testament prophets and its intensification in Jewish apocalyptic are clear demonstrations of this. So too the parables of Jesus, the dense argumentation of Paul, the kerygmatic story-telling of the Gospels and Acts, and the rampant intertextual allusiveness of the book of Revelation. Strong evidence for the validity of the mission of the prophetic church would be the renewal of evangelical discourse. And not before time.
6. Communities of the age to come
Again, let’s start with a biblical example. Paul said, in his usual unequivocal fashion, that the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who sleep with men as with women, brazenly effeminate men, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, abusive people, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. In other words, the churches were to exhibit then the ethical values of the age to come (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Homosexuality features prominently because in Paul’s mind it was, in some manner, a hallmark of the pagan Greek-Roman worldview that he believed would soon be overthrown (Rom. 1:26-27; cf. Acts 17:30-31). For more on this see my book End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission.
We are in a very different place today. Christendom has gone, a very different understanding of nature prevails, a new anthropology has emerged, and it certainly cannot be said that same-sex relationships are the defining characteristic of decadent Western culture.
The prophetic missional church, therefore, needs to pursue an ethic appropriate to the challenges and opportunities presented by the chaotic transition into the Anthropocene. Of course, the corruption of sexuality and human relations remains a problem, but there are probably other categories of unrighteousness to be considered—other groups of people who should be excluded from the community now because they will have no good part to play in the age to come.
Conversely, churches that gather locally, discourage flying, reduce in appropriate the weight of their footprint on the planet, that celebrate life and not only the redemption of life, may be seen as positive signs of the abiding presence of the living God in the age to come. This is how we do hope.
7. Gifts of the Spirit of new creation
Pentecost was not the beginning of the church. It was the empowering of a small community of eschatological witness within Israel to continue the prophetic mission of Jesus to Israel. Drunk with the Spirit, the disciples declared the “mighty works of God” in the languages of the Jewish diaspora (Acts 2:11). But the mighty work of God that was specifically in view was the coming “great and terrible day of the Lord,” when YHWH would judge his people. The whole diverse, unprivileged community was gifted with the capacity to prophesy as Jesus prophesied, to dream the dreams that Jesus dreamed, to see the visions that Jesus saw, and to call Israel to repent and be saved from the catastrophe that was coming upon the nation.
This is why Paul prioritises prophecy: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy… the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:1, 3). The churches existed for the sake of the future; they were an eschatological movement; they were sustained and encouraged and edified by the reaffirmation of the hope that eventually every knee would bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord.
Probably then, we should expect the church today to show itself as a charismatic movement impelled by the prophetic vision of a coming great and terrible day of the Lord. From that would spill out the abundant gifts of the Spirit: healings, renunciations, reconciliations, rethinkings, pilgrimages, protests, symbolic actions, worship, poetry, art, and so on. That would be a highly appropriate biblical measure of its validity.
8. Righteous outsiders
Jesus affirmed the faith of the centurion and the Canaanite woman without offering them inclusion in Israel (Matt. 8:10; 15:22; Mk. 7:24-30; Lk. 7:1-10). They remained outsiders, but their faith was a sign of the judgment and restoration to come. He angered the Jews gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth by observing that Elijah was sent to a foreign woman in Zarephath and Elisha to Naaman the Syrian (Lk. 4:25-28). Righteous Gentiles who did their best to relieve the suffering of the disciples as they went about their mission could expect, at the parousia, to gain a share in the kingdom of God on account of their good works (Matt. 25:31-46).
Paul, as I understand him, believed that when the judgment of God came upon the ancient world, a significant number of Gentiles would gain approval because they had in practice kept the Law, putting Jews of the diaspora to shame (Rom. 2:12-24).
So perhaps it is now a proper part of the prophetic mission of the church to identify or associate with or affirm “righteous” outsiders, those who either not part of the problem out are part of the solution. So we say to the climate activist, “Nowhere in the church have I found such faith.” We say to the homeless person, “We need to be more like you”—after all, our Lord said to one of the scribes, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
Well, it’s a start…
This hasn’t got us very far in defining the measurable characteristics of churches that are trying to respond to the current crisis of humanity’s existence on the planet in the same ways as the early churches responded to the crisis of the end of the age of second temple Judaism. But it seems to me at least that the basic congruence is valid: the living God is the God of history; he is present with his people not least at moments of historical crisis; the mission of his people is, in the first place, to foresee and proclaim as good news the future might work of God; and concrete evidences will attend that missional activity.