Thinking about Missional Church
Today I went to hear Alan Roxburgh at the Leadership Institute, a pre-meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m constantly bumping into the ideas in the “missional church” movement. I find the ideas somewhat interesting, but rarely do I experience them as dramatically innovative. Usually I walk away from such engagements feeling mostly skeptical. So I decided to take another opportunity to listen in on a presentation and see where it led me.
Overall, I felt slightly more encouraged by Roxburgh’s use of “missional” which he mostly prefers not to use, at least not in conversation with churches and church people. The following are some selected quotes from my notes taken during the 1:00 to 4:30 session. (Too long to sit and listen, with very little table conversation.)
“God is up to something in the ordinary and the local.”
To this I say, “yes.” And God as we understand God from a Christian perspective, has been up to something, in, with, around and through each very particular aspect of our lives, throughout time as we know it in the universe. The reason I chose the specific theological discipline that I did (pastoral theology) is for the attention that it pays to particularity of human experience. The Christian tradition has a long history of accumulated wisdom about contours of human experience. The social sciences (which have their roots in religious attempts to understand human being and also create their own norms for human living) can also deepen our understanding about the human situation. Roxburgh dismissed the social sciences several times in favor of theology, but I find this dichotomy unnecessary. God is at work in the particularity of it all. And our limits on understanding need as many angles of vision as possible to get at something deeper and to invite ways of living faithfully.
“What is God up to in our neighborhood and how do we join in?”
In the second part of this question I find myself feeling a bit more uncertain and skeptical of the assumption (that we can join in). Of course, I want to join in the work God is doing. However, this way of putting it edges toward a kind of Calvinism that I don’t think captures the human condition very genuinely. In fact it sounds a lot like joining a discrete organization or club (although I know many proponents of this point of view would chaff at my suggestion). What I don’t want to lose is the human freedom that is part of creation and our participation in the life of God. I also think we need to beware of naming a mystery that can’t be named: what God is up to may not always be so clear, and the namers are using power to name in ways that may not be just descriptive.
“If you don’t get the kingdom right, you won’t get the rest right.”
I think that Alan Roxburgh is generally right in his concern behind this maxim that when we focus on church as an organization or institution rather than on the questions of God and human relationality and community we miss the point of being church. One of the mostly hidden aspects of Christian traditions in this statement, however, is the way that power is used, misused and reproduced to the detriment of many in generation upon generation. “Kingdom” is problematic as the right language or metaphor in so many ways. Even if it was radical in the way it was offered and circulated in the early church, it did then and continues today to signal a particular kind of power which is at once liberative and oppressive. It is challenging for us to see and admit the inherent dangers at the heart of the very tradition which also teaches us wisdom and grace. But it would be wrong to ignore the dangers of the language or the inherent ways that others are marginalized by that language if and when we use it uncritically. Roxburgh approached this exact critique in another statement to this effect: “The spirit of God keeps coming into the church despite the fact that regularly (through history) the ‘big boys at the center’ don’t know what is going on . . . .” We can both benefit from our traditions and also simultaneously suffer and/or cause suffering out of that very same tradition.
“We meet God in the stranger, while practicing hospitality.”
This was at the heart of Roxburgh’s theological understanding of God as trinity. He offered an interpretation of Luke 10:1-12 and urged Christians to become the stranger, just as Jesus urged the 72 disciples (some versions say 70), and sent them out to the towns to live among the people and receive whatever hospitality they were offered. In that exchange between self and stranger is where God shows up (and I would add: is already there). This encounter of God-between-us is an expression of the trinity itself, which helps us imagine both the interrelatedness and a kind of otherness or strangeness, that are central features of the inner life of God. This is a point at which I resonated with Roxburgh’s articulation of theological ground out of which we can imagine ourselves being the church, the body of Christ. He mostly focused on embodying this in the ways that churches enter their own neighborhoods.
My question to him (he took questions in the last part of the session) is this: What does this tell us about – and what do we do with – the stranger within our own churches and within ourselves? It seems to me we have to start with our own deep stories and truths and share them with our communities of faith. Then we may trust that in such a process God will lead us beyond those encounters, and on the strength of them, to others who also need and want to share their stories of suffering and grace, struggle and faith, despair and transformation.
Overall this felt like a conversation worth having and continuing. Whatever else the “missional church” movement is or is not up to, and is or is not doing well, Alan Roxburgh demonstrated today that he and others are part of a long line of thinkers and doers who hope to figure out how to live. And that is a conversation worth keeping on.