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.