I think I would be right in saying that much “missional” theory these days accepts that in our post-Christendom and post-modern cultural context there is likely to be a significant transitional period between first serious exposure to the “gospel” and conversion. People don’t simply get saved. They set out on a journey. This seems to me to be true to the extent that, in many instances, we have to reckon with large numbers of people—communities almost in their own right—who are attracted to Christ, even to the life of the church, but who remain fundamentally uncommitted.
In the New Testament context these were the “God-fearers”—Gentiles who were drawn to the ethical monotheism of synagogue Judaism but for whom it was a step too far to become proselytes. We would probably call them “seekers”, and we get frustrated with them after a while because they never seem to want to find what they are looking for.
Perhaps we underestimate the importance of such people. We have some friends working in a difficult missional context in Europe who, for the time being at least, have made it their goal not to seek “conversion”—whatever that might mean under these circumstances—but to teach people that good fruit comes from good trees. It has become something of a mantra for their ministry. They want to help people to see the connection between what they do and who they are. A bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree bears good fruit. Simple, but very practical and very relevant.
We recognize the imagery from Jesus’ teaching. He warns the disciples to look out for “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves”. They are to be recognized by their fruits: a healthy tree bears good fruits, a diseased tree bears bad fruit. The diseased trees will be cut down and burned. The false prophets will suffer the judgment that is coming upon Israel (Matt. 7:15-20).
Jesus, presumably, has borrowed the idea from John the Baptist. John reproached the Pharisees and Sadducees when they came to be baptized: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Joining the queue for baptism would not save them from the horror of war and the destruction of Jerusalem. They had to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”, because the axe of divine judgment was already laid to the root of the trees; every tree that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and burned.
John started a movement of repentance in Israel with which people publicly associated themselves through baptism. He was not the messiah; nor was he the judge. A much more powerful figure would come after him, who would baptize Israel with the Holy Spirit and with the “unquenchable fire” of divine judgment. But that does not at all diminish the value of John’s role. He was the prophetic catalyst at the centre of a dynamic, far-reaching interim community, which recognized the seriousness of Israel’s sin and waited on God to act to judge and restore. He challenged people to live differently: to share what they had, to work honestly, to resist the temptation to exploit the weak and vulnerable (Lk. 3:10-14). It is not at all a bad thing to challenge people to be good.
It seems to me that our friends are doing something very similar to what John the Baptist did. I don’t want to suggest that the New Testament gives us a strict precedent or mandate for building communities that fall short of baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—the context is very different. But if this is the direction in which the Spirit is leading them in their especially challenging circumstances, then the analogy may be instructive. We may also find that it has a wider application.
Our models of mission currently fall roughly into two categories: we aim either i) to build communities of believers through the proclamation of the gospel or ii) to serve society in ways that demonstrate the love and justice of God. Or perhaps we try to do both at the same time. But what our friends are seeking to do, in effect, is to build around themselves as followers of Jesus a loosely organized community of “good” unbelievers—or of unbelievers who are learning what it means to bear good fruit.
It seems to me that their missional activity can be understood in terms of two central biblical roles. The first role is that of the prophet. Like John they are calling people to disengage from an unhealthy way of life, to repent of certain deeply ingrained destructive patterns of behaviour, to reach out for righteousness and wholeness, in the hope that God will at some point intervene in their world and make new things possible.
The second role is that of the priest. Our friends bring into the life of their community their own experience of the living God. Through their service, their teaching, through their faithfulness and integrity, through their love, through their determination, they model a very different “religious” life. They make grace available to people who mostly cannot break through the external and internalized constraints of their culture. They disciple a community of repentance and hope.
As prophets they call people out of a dysfunctional past. As priests they raise the possibility of a different future. The circumstances are such that any different future remains a long way off, but in a way this is exactly where we should be in mission: we are a prophetic and priestly people for a world that will never be converted.
So I would suggest that the prophetic church today should provide a public rationale and setting for people to “repent” of, disengage from, express profound dissatisfaction with, the vain, shallow, acquisitive, consumerist, hedonistic, celebrity-obsessed, brutal, dehumanizing, anti-social, and godless lifestyle that, to whatever degree, characterizes modern western culture, and which may yet bring the “wrath of God” down on our heads. I would even go so far as to suggest that the prophetic church might administer some manner of “baptism” of repentance, as representing a break from an unhealthy and unethical way of being, whether or not it is followed by baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time the priestly church mediates the presence and grace of God to those who yearn for transformation, freedom and goodness, but who cannot—for whatever reason: intellectual reservations, social pressure, religious constraints—fully identify with Christ. The priestly church cares for and disciples such people, teaching them how to live well in the space created by the ministry of John, in the space around the synagogues occupied by the God-fearers, in the spacious courtyard of the Gentiles, which made the temple not only a place for Israel’s worship but a house of prayer for all the nations (Mk. 11:17).