Thoughts on ‘Missio Alliance’ conference

 So many changes have happened at such a dizzying pace in the Western world that we who live here are only relatively recently waking up and wondering about the impact of this change. Moreover it has forced us as Christians to ask very simple and basic questions like ‘What is the purpose of the church today?’, ‘How does God want his church to look in these times?’ Most of us have had a sneaking suspicion for a while that the church as it is in the West is not functioning to its full potential. With declining numbers and increasing irrelevance this has provoked various responses by Christians- some well thought out and others not so much. The inaugural Missio Alliance Conference held at Alexandria, Virginia in the USA just over a week ago was, I think, a good response to the disorientation we are experiencing as Christians in the West. I think most of us are perplexed about the place and purpose of the church today.

My attention was captured in the introduction written on the brochure which said ‘This is not an academic gathering; neither is it merely about pragmatics- what “works”. Rather our hope and aim for this gathering is to move beyond this polarity by providing a space where missional theology and practice are developed together in a truly integrated fashion.’ This is so necessary as most gatherings for church leaders today focus on either theology or praxis which normally leaves the ‘thinking practitioner’ (which current church leaders must be) unsatisfied.

These days I’m usually very wary of conferences that promise much and have become tired with pure inspiration being the result of a conference only to see that dissipate into the air after a few weeks. So when I say that the Missio Alliance conference was not exactly ‘inspiring’ I mean that in a good way. Better than inspiring it was substantial and thought provoking, blatantly laying out the issues that the church is facing today and offering various perspectives from theologians and practitioners regarding our response. This actually did leave me feeling very hopeful (and even inspired!) that God is of course at work in the Western church in a very unique and promising way.

Here are my thoughts regarding the church in our culture today provoked by the conference.

We are asking the right questions

It seems to me that increasingly today Christians are asking the right questions. Simple questions like; ‘What is the Gospel’? ‘What is church’? and ‘What is the role of Scripture’? are surfacing. That might sound so basic but if we move on to talk about more complicated matters without being sure of these basics as applied today, we will end up in a mess. Moreover the multiple changes in our society have resulted in such a different, lived reality, that this warrants us asking afresh these basic questions to apply to our world. So one of the first talks by Theologian Scott McKnight was on that very simple question around the gospel. His question was, ‘Is the gospel iconic or idolatrous?‘ In other words does the gospel lead us to God or does it lead us to contemplate our own egos? Given the consumer society that we live in, have we turned the gospel into a channel for our own needs as we hear the story of Jesus and ask “what’s in it for me?” It is a valid question that every Christian must ask today. Moreover in our experiential based culture where we are enamored with our own stories, we must be reminded that the only faithful witness is Jesus and that our witness or story is secondary to that. Then as we ask the basic question ‘What is church?’ we must honestly ask ourselves as leaders ‘Have we become more focused on “what works” rather than being faithful to what is right and how God sees his church?’ Have we as leaders become victims of our highly pragmatic culture which seeks results rather than faithful witness? Theologian David Fitch focused around the question of the role of Scripture today and asked ‘Have you become a Bible therapist?’ In other words do we use Scripture merely as a way of making ourselves feel better? Rather, we must see the Scriptures as portraying the drama of God which points us to God’s mission in our world and then ours as his followers. So as we preach the Bible and read the Bible we move from looking for self help ‘tips for a better marriage’ to a proclamation of the mission of God which invites us into that story. How can we be more faithful to the story of God as we read Scripture today?

It’s about theology and formation not new models

There was a pretty funny (and kind of gross) moment in one of the talks by Canadian church planter Bruxy Cavey when during his talk he said that he needed a drink of water then proceeded to grab his water bottle and lick it. The point of course was that the container will not satisfy us, only what it contains will – that is the water. The comparison was to church models and paradigms and that often we can rely on or even idolize the method and model rather than what it is meant to point to. I think that in the West most church leaders are fatigued with models, new paradigms and proposed solutions to church decline or irrelevance. And what I am discerning is that the focus is more on thinking theologically and teaching people to be able to do this plus focusing on spiritual formation or discipleship as an area to invest in rather than focusing on church models. Gary Nelson from Tyndale University, comically said that the church can sometimes be compared to an aging rock star where the thought is that with a few new sounds and a new hairpiece we can draw a crowd again like the old days. That does not look very dignified! Instead the key I think is the formation of a people of God who are meant to be God’s ‘royal priesthood’ in this world. I think the difficulty here will be competing with an instant, surface level culture which only wants to digest information in sound bites. How can we help Christians go deeper in a culture that is reflexive rather than reflective?

Is the church ‘radical’ enough?

I can’t think of a better word than ‘radical’ even though I don’t like it much. What I mean is that when I read the gospels which tell of the way Jesus lived and then the story of the early church in Acts, I can’t help seeing such a disparity between that and the church today. This has always been an issue and perhaps even a bit of a stumbling block for me. I hear some Christians say that we are in fact living to the fullness of a Christ modeled life and then others who virtually condemn Christians because they are far from that reality. In my mind I don’t want to be condemning but I do see huge dissonance between the words of Jesus in Scripture and the expression of the church today. My sense is that we can be and must be so much more. This is not to say that we must ‘go back’ to the early church. God is always up to something new! But we do need to take more seriously the expression by Newbigin that the ‘local congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel’. This simply means that when the world looks at us it must see the interpretation or the expression of the gospel of good news. They must look at us and say ‘Oh I get it now. I read about this gospel on paper but here it is actually working in reality.’ So then the church seriously does need to be at the forefront of certain issues today if it is going to be this interpretation of the gospel. The conference introduction said, ‘The upcoming generations need clarity on the issues of scriptural authority, the robustness of the gospel, the incarnational nature of the church, the importance of community and the place of spiritual formation as discipleship. From these perspectives we need to engage the cultural issues facing the evangelical church- including multi cultural ministry and heterogeneous congregations, women in ministry, secular identity, pluralism and God’s concern for creation care and justice in the world.’ I think that if leaders are not fluent in these issues today then I don’t think they can truly lead a church in the West. So I was glad at this conference to see robust and visionary discussion around issues such as gender, ethnicity and sexuality. It was so encouraging to hear a theologian of McKnight’s caliber speaking out that we need to be raising up figures like Mary the mother of Jesus, Deborah and other women in Scripture to ‘normalise’ female protagonists as servants of God on his mission. If Jesus is Lord (not only personal but over our universe) and he shapes our inner and outer world, then these issues such as gender, sexuality, justice, race, climate are not marginal but rather crucial as we discuss the purpose of the church today. One issue that the conference could have focused more on is that of family. With our culture in the West defining family in such a restrictive sense in terms of the ‘nuclear family’, our interests and concerns as Christians have become narrower and narrower. Jesus challenges us to widen our view of the family. What would Jesus say regarding the marginalised, the single, the outcast? He would want them to experience family as expressed by him. This challenges to the core our cultural notions of family particularly in white, middle class suburbia. How can we move towards a much fuller expression of the gospel of good news today to see it transform the church and our world into God’s vision for it? In my mind we have such a long way to go here as the once ‘marginal’ issues become much more crucial.

Let’s talk (a lot) more about the Kingdom of God

I was especially captivated by an expression that theologian Cherith Fee Nordling kept using and that was ‘children of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:26). Jesus refers to us as ‘children of the resurrection’ and this redefines our identity and focus here on earth. If we do live as children of the resurrection, we are in fact practicing the future in the present. This is why it is so important to be living in line with the ‘radical’ nature of the gospel as outlined above- because this is the way we will be living in a restored universe in our resurrected bodies! So we had better get used to the lifestyle now! We have been given a foretaste of the future and we are called to live and grow this reality of the kingdom of God now, waiting for its full manifestation as Christ returns. Our restored universe will be tangible not ethereal, we will be embodied not disembodied ‘spirits’ and God’s justice, love and reign will fill the earth. This is to be our definition now as we work and wait for the fulfillment of this reality. Are we living lives in line with the emerging kingdom of God? I think we need to be a lot more visionary regarding the pronouncement of the reality of the kingdom of God as we lead the church today. I doubt whether many people even really understand what the kingdom is, how it connects with the church, that in fact the kingdom is beyond the church and even the fact that we will be in a tangible, restored universe when Christ returns which is partially being fulfilled through our presence now. The reign of God must be at the forefront of our discussion and our teaching today. We can allow it to shape us now as disciples of Jesus.

The role of the Holy Spirit is still up for grabs

It really was so encouraging to be in a conference that was not Pentecostal yet it contained good teaching on the role of the Holy Spirit. What a bold move for a mostly evangelical crowd! The focus was on the interruptions of the Spirit as he breaks though our carefully planned strategies. The question was asked; Are we prepared for those interruptions? There was careful balance in terms of the role of the Spirit in that he is the one who gives us powerful encounters with God however also takes us into places that we would perhaps not want to sometimes go. This focus is often sorely missing in typical Pentecostal circles where the Spirit is focused on as comforter and giver of (“nice”) experiences. Theologian Amos Yong spelled out just how interruptive the Spirit is as he inconveniences us, breaks through our status quo, opens us to the “strangeness of the other”, sweeps us up into missional living, unites the generations and smashes old structures that have become irrelevant. The Spirit is much more than the one who gives us mere personal experiences of God, he brings renewal to his church, the people of God in order to grow the kingdom of God in our world! However I was still left wondering how we can actually put this into practice more as leaders in God’s church avoiding the conservatism of some Evangelicals and the extremes of some Pentecostals in things to do with the Spirit. To me this is still an issue that needs to be discussed and explored as we allow the Spirit of God to shape his church.

A final exhortation came from Gary Nelson when he challenged us to be the church today. Instead of looking to the past or fearing the future we must have confidence that we have been purposefully placed in positions of church leadership in these times for a reason, by the plan of God called to be faithful to his work today.

A word of encouragement given to me from God after reflection on all the above was;

‘Therefore (in light of the assurance of the coming resurrection and restoration of all things) be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ (1 Corinthians 15:58)

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