The books I’ve been reading on “missional church” have a couple of key objectives in common: to describe the progress of the Western church towards a new “missional” paradigm, and to map that paradigm on to an expansive reading of the biblical narrative. It’s an obvious, perhaps inevitable, methodology, so let’s have a go at it. Nothing very thorough or polished—just thinking out loud, really.
The missional shift
The “conservative” response to the collapse of Christendom, roughly speaking, has been to shore up the faith of individuals and, if possible, to add to the number of people who believe by doing personal evangelism. One half of the conservative church has endeavoured to appeal to the mind by defending a theological model centred on the believing individual. The other half has endeavoured to appeal to the heart by exploring the experiential and “irrational” dimensions of the spiritual life. The distinctive identity of conservative churches is determined by the narrow theological focus: they are an aggregation of saved individuals with the purpose of maintaining adherence and increasing adherents, perhaps with the long-term ambition of reconverting society.
More recently, in many quarters, the narrow focus on personal salvation has been relaxed. Stefan Paas comments in his excellent Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society (2019): “it is fascinating to see how in the twentieth century almost all major Christian traditions have come closer together in their discovery of what is often called koinonia ecclesiology” (197). We understand much better now that salvation is the “restoration of community.”
It is then, probably, only a small step from salvation as the restoration of community to mission as the restoration of society. In any case, it appears that “evangelicals” (setting aside the grotesque political distortion of evangelicalism in the US) have been on a journey from mission as the saving of the lost to mission as social transformation, with churches of all denominational and post-denominational types scattered along the road.
That seems to me to be, on the whole, a good and necessary development. In a limited and imperfect way it begins to recapture something of the immense relational, social, ethical, and political scope of the biblical witness. It is clear enough that what the Bible gives us is not an account of the sin, salvation, and eternal hope of individual people. But there is another crucial dimension to the biblical witness that the standard evangelical paradigms still fail to grasp—the historical dimension, the turbulent existence of a community over time.
A priestly-prophetic new creation people of God
The point of this can be demonstrated by thinking through the three components of the definition of God’s people as a (1) priestly and (2) prophetic (3) new creation people, which is becoming my preferred “missional” paradigm. We like to arrange things systematically or statically or geometrically, but really these are narrative-historical developments, they are grounded—as memories, as liturgies, as fictions and visions, as fears, as hopes—in the lived realities of ancient corporate life.
First, in response to the towering menace of a pagan-humanist imperialism, God invites Abraham to be the beginning of a God-honouring new creation in microcosm, a people of shalom in the land promised to them. They will be blessed with the original blessing of the creator God, they will be fruitful and multiply, and they will fill the land. By their very presence in the world they will transmit the goodness and wisdom of that blessing to others.
Secondly, God delivers them from oppression in Egypt and confers on them the status of an exceptional priestly people in the midst of the nations:
if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exod. 19:5–6)
The prospect now is that this blessed new creation people of shalom in the land will also function as a priesthood, mediating between the surrounding nations and the living God, of whom they are only dimly aware. Paas makes the point:
This two-sided, mediating role of the priests—worshipping and sacrificing in one direction, teaching and blessing in another—is found everywhere in the Old Testament. But we can easily lose sight of how special it is that in Exodus 19 this role of the priesthood was given to all Israel. … But if all Israel is a ‘priest’, then what is the meaning and direction of this priesthood? Whom are they priests for? The answer seems obvious: their priesthood is meant for all humanity. (178)
Thirdly, the devastating clashes with pagan empire from the eighth century onwards bring a new and rather disruptive dimension to Israel’s self-understanding. They become a prophetic people.
On the one hand, the successive political-religious crises need to be interpreted and hopes of restoration generated. With the destruction of the temple and deportation from the land, Israel in exile has lost the concrete symbols of its election as both new creation and priesthood. Prophecy compensates for that loss.
On the other, the narrative of vocational failure, suffering, and renewal gives rise to the quite extraordinary belief that eventually Israel’s God will judge the hostile pagan empires and establish his own rule over the peoples which formerly served them. This is the message of the proto-apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7, for example: the four beasts of ancient empire are judged, the most violent and blasphemous of them is destroyed, and government of the nations is given instead to the “one like a son of man.”
Mission in space and time
The hard lesson of history, therefore, is that Israel’s “mission” cannot be defined only spatially as the effective presence of a priestly new creation community in the midst of the nations. It must also be defined temporally or historically or eschatologically. Israel has become—almost despite itself—a vehicle for, a sign of, YHWH’s engagement with the nations over long periods of time.
The two-part prophetic response to crisis comes to a head in the story of Jesus. First century Israel is far from being an irresistible new creation priesthood in the midst of the nations: the vineyard of Israel is badly mismanaged, the temple has been made a den of robbers, the unclean presence of Rome is met everywhere. So the prophetic voice still dominates, but again in two stages.
First, Jesus addresses the failure of Israel, warns of an impending catastrophe, embodies in himself the future suffering of the nation, and makes available a narrow path leading to the life of the age that will come after the final loss of land and temple. Those Jews who follow him are pretty much only an eschatological-prophetic community. Their “mission” is to carry on the work of their master: to address the failure of Israel, to warn of impending catastrophe, to embody the suffering of the nation, and to walk the narrow path leading to the life of the age to come.
Secondly, however, out of this Jesus-story of suffering and vindication, judgment and renewal, there emerges the tantalising vision of political-religious régime-change across the pagan world. The prophetic community of Jesus’ followers, as it snowballs into a hybrid community of Jewish and Gentile believers, becomes a sign not only of the forgiveness and healing of Israel but also of the eventual conversion of the nations and peoples that formerly served Rome.
So here’s my narrative missiological model. The basic purpose of the people of God, and therefore of the church, is to be a new creation and a priestly people in the midst of the nations. When that arrangement fails and the people is overtaken by crisis, the new creation and priestly functions are severely restricted, and a prophetic function takes over in order both to sustain the hope of the people and to challenge the hostile powers behind the crisis. When social-political-religious stasis is restored, as it was with the establishment of the Christendom order, the new creation and priestly functions are regenerated, and the prophetic voice is hushed—until the next crisis.
In our own day, the public role of the church as a priestly new creation people is again severely reduced, but the need to tell a compelling story, to make sense of historical change, and to imagine new futures is becoming more and more urgent. Without this prophetic voice, I suspect, the church will struggle to renew its mission.