Not to put too fine a point on it, the church in the West is facing an existential crisis. Most of the remedial effort has gone into doing things differently—trying new approaches, developing ways of operating that restore confidence, find favour, get attention, etc. Much good theological thought is birthed in the renewal of practice, but it seems to me that the crisis calls for a different type of theological response—to step back and see the big picture.
Jesus, the church, and the story of Israel
Arguably, the most important development in biblical studies over the last century has been the reconnection of the story of Jesus and the early church with the story of Israel.
Until quite recently, the assumption was—and still is in many quarters—that Christianity began with Jesus as a new religion of salvation, with atonement at its centre, which was given its definitive dogmatic expression by the church fathers. A quite simple story was told: the Triune God created all things good; the first couple were disobedient and were expelled from the presence of God; the eternal Son descended from heaven to die for the sins of the world; those who are saved gain eternal life; they are given the task of proclaiming the good news of salvation to all people; and in the end there will be a final judgment and everything will be put to rights.
In this account of things use is made of the Old Testament in limited ways: 1) it gives an account of the introduction of sin into God’s good world; 2) it sets out the religious legalism of the Jews as the dark counterfoil to the doctrine of justification by faith; 3) it furnishes an abundance of analogies, allegories, typologies, and prophecies that demonstrate the validity and inevitability of the supreme act of salvation recorded in the New Testament; and 4) it has served as a lively source of examples and illustrations of faith and godly behaviour—it takes just a small pebble of faith to bring down the Goliath of whatever problem confronts us, that sort of thing….
What the church has begun to learn from biblical studies over the last few decades, however, is that the mission of Jesus and his followers gets its meaning not, primarily, from the cosmic story of humanity but from the historical story of Israel. So we have come to understand, on the one hand, that Jesus was sent to deal with a crisis facing first-century Israel, and on the other, that the mission of the apostles in the Greek-Roman world was the direct outworking of the implications of that intervention in the destiny of Israel. From that perspective, the kingdom of God begins to look more like a transformative “political” event in history than the transcendent consummation of history.
It now appears, therefore, that the church as we know it has its origins not in the New Testament but much further back in the calling of Abraham and the formation of a covenant people. So, for example, the “salvation” of Zacchaeus was an expression both the socio-economic reform of first century Israel—the sort of thing that John the Baptist had demanded—and the renewal of the family of Abraham (Lk. 19:8-9). What happened in the death, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus was that this people was saved from the final destruction of the war against Rome—and then a whole lot more.
The purpose of the church, therefore, must be defined not in New Testament terms alone but in biblical terms, and one of the main implications of that is that the church becomes part of, and subject to, history again. Theology is an account of its relation to its context over time, and missiology is the part of that account that describes the church’s sense of purpose.
A narrative missiology
The story of Old Testament Israel, whether as narrative or as history, is complex and pulls in different directions, but for our purposes a fairly simple three-part functional model may be proposed. After all, the imposition of a controlling theological perspective on divergent texts and ambiguous historical experience is also part of the biblical testimony. Apologies for cutting several long storylines short here.
First, Abraham is called by God out of the shadow of the proto-empire Babel to be the beginning of a new creation in microcosm: his descendants will be blessed, they will be fruitful and multiply, and they will fill the land which the creator God will give them. They are to be a small-scale model of divinely sanctioned human flourishing under the historical conditions of the Ancient Near East.
Secondly, when the descendants of Abraham are redeemed by YHWH from slavery in Egypt, they are given the particular task of serving as a priestly people, mediating between the nations and the living God, in the interests of both parties (Exod. 19:5-6).
This gives us the two primary components of Israel’s vocation: to model an ideal social life as a new creation blessed by God, and to serve as a priestly nation among the nations, just as Levi was a priestly tribe among the tribes of Israel.
Both functions are dependent on obedience, and the persistent failure of Israel to live up to the required standards—according to the controlling Deuteronomistic theology—eventually results in the crisis of the Babylonian invasion and the exile. The land is laid waste and its inhabitants decimated. The temple as a prestigious and symbolic representation of the international priestly role is destroyed.
The new creation life and priestly role survive in exile in attenuated form. Jeremiah, for example, instructs the exiles to build houses and plant gardens, to multiply in Babylon, to have children and grandchildren, to seek the shalom of the city. This is now new creation in nanocosm—not a land flowing with milk and honey but a few gardens producing enough for the Jewish population to survive. It is also self-interest rather than mission: the purpose is to preserve a people so that there will be a generation which will return to the land after seventy years. But the constrained flourishing of the exiles remains a sign that God is with them. A Jewish elite in Babylon performs a priestly function under treacherous circumstances when by their wisdom and insight they bring Nebuchadnezzar to acknowledge, albeit inconsistently, the greatness and glory of the Most High God (cf. Dan. 2:46-47; 3:29).
The third state or function of Israel’s vocation has a historical or contingent dimension to it, in that it emerges chiefly under such conditions of crisis. When the social-priestly existence of Israel is disrupted by the hostile intervention of foreign powers, compelling prophetic voices are heard giving warning of catastrophe, explaining why the crisis has come about, calling the people to repentance and reform, and vividly describing new futures.
If we allow that the crisis of Israel’s subjection to pagan domination ran from the exile through to the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in the second century, the prophetic voice is heard first in the Old Testament prophets, then in the literature of Jewish apocalypticism from the late third century onwards, then in the New Testament.
The prophetic message is directed, in the first place, to Israel—even in the New Testament—but it is found also to have profound implications for the aggressor nations. When YHWH acts as a king to bring the exiles back from Babylon and restore the glory of Jerusalem, which is an archetypal “kingdom of God” event, the nations will see for themselves that this is no mere tribal or national deity at work but the creator of the heavens and the earth; and eventually these onlooking peoples will bow the knee and swear allegiance to YHWH alone (e.g., Is. 45:22-25; 52:7-11).
But there is something more going on here. This prophetic aspect of Israel’s vocation consists not in words only. Israel in crisis, in its waywardness, vulnerability, and suffering, is found to be the instrument of the international transformation that is underway. As the traumatised people learn again to be faithful, they become the “servant” through whom YHWH will bring salvation to the ends of the earth (cf. Is. 49:5-6). Up to a point Jesus himself embodies that renewed servanthood, but it is those who follow him and who believe in the transformation that is underway who are the necessary historical means by which the end goal or eschaton is achieved.
A modern crisis of biblical proportions
The church in the West, arguably, is going through an existential crisis on the same scale as the crisis of pagan imperial domination that lasted, in effect, from the Babylonian invasion through to the conversion of the Greek-Roman world and the fall of Babylon the great—a period of roughly nine hundred years, which ought to give us some perspective on the challenges we face.
The triumph over ancient paganism and its replacement by a “Christian” civilisation is now well and truly behind us. It is a thing of the past, replaced in its turn by an enormously successful secular-humanist civilisation, which is simply doing what the church did 1700 years ago—remaking the world on its own terms. Globalisation and climate change are hampering progress, but there’s little reason to think that the West will return to a biblical worldview. It’s full steam ahead into a brave new future with the church bravely singing its songs out of earshot somewhere down in steerage.
Under such conditions the new creational and priestly functions have become increasingly difficult to sustain. This is not our “land” anymore (oh dear, the metaphors!); we have at best some small gardens to tend as a sign of the abiding presence of the good creator God. We have no publicly recognised priestly function: the religious legacy of Christendom has been spent, squandered, or devalued—mostly devalued by the progress of secularism.
But this is where the prophetic part of our narrative missiology kicks in.
First, the church needs to recover a plausible prophetic voice—to warn, to call for repentance and change, to explain how and why the crisis has come about, to begin to outline a new meaningful, sustainable, long-term future for the church in the secular-humanist West, to keep the story moving forwards.
Secondly, the church will, at least in part, precisely in its marginalisation and vulnerability, etc., again become the instrument of whatever the living creator God is doing as we endure the birth pains of the Anthropocene.
So what I would understand by “missional church” at the moment, in the broadest sense, is the Western church, perhaps the “indigenous” Western church, the heir to Christendom, in crisis mode, facing up to the task of recovery and renewal.