I have two “passions”—as far as my work goes. The first is the narrative-historical thing. I think we understand the New Testament best when we read it essentially as a prophetic-apocalyptic narrative about the concrete historical experience of the Jesus movement in the first century. What this means is that we cannot understand either the person and purpose of Jesus or the mission of the early church without factoring in their historical horizons: the war against Rome and the collapse of classical Greek-Roman paganism. The “good news” is that God is doing something constructive and transformative about these two very different situations.
Such a reading of the New Testament then obliges us to take very seriously the real historical outcome—the long era of Western Christendom and its global expansion. We tend to look back on this development from our modern perspective as a spiritual and moral catastrophe, a travesty of authentic New Testament Christianity. But if we think that scripture gives us a credible account and interpretation of the activity of the God of history, who manages the existence of his people over long periods of time, not only leading up to but also after the events of the New Testament, it seems to me that we have no choice but to see Western Christendom as the realistic—and, therefore, inevitably flawed—fulfilment of the apostolic hope that Israel’s crucified messiah would eventually rule the nations (Rom. 15:12).
The massive historical edifice of Christendom, however, is now in ruins, like the Jerusalem temple before it; and we are all wondering what happens next. We are not going to rebuild it, that’s for sure, so how are we going to survive—let alone work and flourish—in a landscape that is being reshaped by powerful cultural, social, and ethical forces.
That brings me to my second “passion”: how, in practical terms, do we remain faithful to the whole storyline—and to the God of the whole storyline—as we re-imagine and reconstruct the life and mission of the church in the post-Christian Western context? The churches, projects, and most of all the people that I’ve got to know over the last twenty years through Communitas have provided inspiration and insight into the profound challenges that we face in doing mission in a culture that thinks that Christianity is a thing of the past—just as classical paganism became a thing of the past.
All that by way of rather theoretical—and no doubt debatable—background to a new partnership between Communitas and King’s School of Theology here in the UK. We are running a six week online course on Understanding and Practising “Missional Church,” starting February 24th. You can find out more about it on the KST website, with a detailed outline of the course available in this Google document, but here’s roughly why we have in mind:
The aim of this six part course is to explore both the theory and the practice of ‘missional church’. It would be primarily suitable for church leaders and members who are beginning to ask some hard questions about how their churches relate to a changing society. What doors are closing? What new doors are opening?
The word “missional” has become rather fashionable in some contexts, but does it really mean anything new or original or useful? We think that it does. We think that it helps us to grasp a significant shift in the way the church understands its relationship to society and its God-given purpose, especially in the increasingly post-Christian, increasingly “secular” West.
Can I encourage you to have a look at this, see if it would work for you? I’ve taught a life of Jesus module at KST over the last few years. I love the people and the ethos and the enthusiasm. And I’m excited now about the opportunity the course gives to stretch ourselves both biblically and missionally, both theoretically and practically—to work out what it means to bear effective witness to the living God of the biblical narrative in an age of ascendant global humanism, beset by immense global challenges. It’s historic!
Would it be possible to take this course if you are in the US? Sounds fascinating.
I’m in Canada and was able to sign up using the PayPal option for payment.
Yes, even people in the US can participate—as long as the time works for you.
Ah, yes, just figured out the time difference. Not sure 2:30am is going to work for me. :-)
I echo Kevin Holtsberry’s question.
Also wondering whether “missional” as a label has too many connotations from the history of church proselytization agendas.
My present guess (strongly informed by P.OST, but a tendency present during decades of observation of the tensions within US Ev-ism) is that the ‘mission’ of the churches is to persevere as a different, YHWH honoring, way of being human in the midst of a world that is not that way. The Body’s primary task is to care for itself. If it’s done well, it will be attractive to outsiders, but that isn’t the primary task.
See my answer to Kevin’s question.
Some useful thoughts….
I agree that “missional” is a problematic term—being “sent,” even in whatever fashionable nuanced sense we attribute to the term, isn’t really what it’s all about. Being “present” would be more appropriate in many ways. Mission simply gets you where you need to be.
But it seems to me worth keeping in order to plug into where the energy and innovation are, and to capture something of the post-Christendom feel of the term. It identifies a need for reform, but it also brings a pragmatism to the task. Still, it’s true that “missional” is going to mean different things to different people in different contexts.
I agree with the “different, YHWH honoring, way of being human” bit. That’s what it means to be “new creation.” But it’s overlaid with a priestly-prophetic paradigm, I think, which suggests an active and self-denying mediation between God and humanity—a responsibility to do something, to engage, to share, to “bless.”
Thank you, Andrew; this is helpful.
I’ve become so pre-occupied with the problems of the US Ev movement that the reality of a priestly/prophetic stance toward the ‘outside’ has been eclipsed by the problems of internal reform. Thanks for this reminder.