Recently I’ve become friends with some stellar dudes over at Ecclesia Network; notably JR Woodward, who is far and away one of the most effusive and delightful personalities I’ve met. Plus he’s pretty smart and well connected.
In any event, Ecclesia will be hosting a Regional Conference here in Denver on the weekend of June 11th and 12th. The weekend will consist of 14 presenters sharing for 14 minutes on a topic related to the Church’s Mission. Generously, JR asked me to be one of presenters, and I should say that I’m (a) really flattered, (b) not at all sure that he made a good decision, and (c) super stoked nevertheless : )
Each presenter was asked to submit a manuscript of their talk ahead of time. My talk is entitled “Destroying Missional Idolatries” (dealing with the intersection between Scripture and Mission), and I’m posting it below because I’d love some feedback if any of you all have time to read it. WARNING: it’s a little academic, but I hope not overly-so. If you read it, please don’t correct me on spelling errors; just let me know if you think I made my point and any reflections you have related to that point.
“Destroying Missional Idolatries: On the Connection Between Scripture and the Church’s Mission”
In Joshua 1, we encounter the People of God under the new leadership of Joshua immediately following the demise of Moses. The long-awaited day of land-possession is at hand, and Yahweh has some words for the new leader of his people, Joshua son of Nun. He says:
6 “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. 7 Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9)
“Be strong and courageous” is perhaps an obvious thing to say to a young leader on his first full day on the job, and especially so considering the task at hand: taking possession of the land from pagans. But note what the command to “be strong and courageous” is connected to. Be careful to obey all the Law… Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth… etc., etc.
The People of God, so it seems, and Joshua specifically, will not need courage to slice off Hittite heads; rather, they will need courage to read and keep Torah. This will ensure their success.
It seems to me that what was true then is no less, and perhaps more, true now: the People of God in Jesus need courage to read and hear and keep the Sacred Text if they stand any chance of staying faithful to the God whose mission is nothing less than the salvation of the world, and understanding what their own mission in that world is.
Like many, I was raised in a milieu of pre-millennial, conservative, Protestant evangelicalism. The “mission”, for us, amounted to simply “saving” as many souls as possible before the vaunted “rapture” came and stole all the faithful away just in time for all hell to break loose on planet Earth. We were disinterested in the environment, suspicious of the “social gospel”, and confident that rounding pagans up in church buildings to preach some Old Time Religion to them was the best use of our time and the best way to ensure our own eternal security.
By the time I made it to seminary, that “story” was beginning to unravel at the seams. There I learned that the gospel was bigger and wider than I had ever imagined; that things like social justice mattered; and that God had something of a “preferential care” for the poor while often opposing the rich, the powerful, and the secure. My understanding of the word “mission” broke wide open during those years.
But it was not wide or interesting enough. I began to realize this during my first year in ministry, at a midsized suburban congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My working hypothesis out of seminary was that (crudely put) our bourgeois congregation was probably bad because they weren’t poor (though they could rectify the situation by getting more involved with the poor), and that the poor in my city were probably okay because they weren’t bourgeois. That idea was nice in theory until I actually started working with people. I quickly realized that there were many bourgeois folks who belonged to our congregation who were quite wonderful people, and many poor people in our city who were quite wretched, and a whole lot of people in between. Clearly I would need a more complex account of the world if I was going to get along in ministry.
I was helped one day while reading Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. In one particular chapter, Volf describes Jesus’ ministry to the poor by noting that Jesus doesn’t merely feed the poor and call them blessed; rather, he demands radical change, EVEN FROM THEM! Volf puts it best:
Truly surprising and new in Jesus’ ministry however, were neither the political overtones of his message nor the special interest he displayed towards “the poor.” Such interest is precisely what we would expect from any half-witted political leader from the margins; to be a leader you need social power, to have social power you need a following, and to have a following you must take on the cause of the disgruntled, which in Jesus’ case would have been the great majority at the bottom of society…What disturbs us, of course, is not the unconditional love (of Jesus for the poor), which we have come to expect, but the call to repentance…Repentance implies not merely a recognition that one has made a bad mistake, but that one has sinned. – Volf, 112-113
Now THAT is interesting. A would-be Messiah who capitalizes on the disgruntled poor with “good news” is exactly what we would expect. A would-be Messiah who demands that EVEN THE POOR “repent and believe the good news” is something altogether different, which is why we as the church need to “be strong and courageous” enough to pay close attention to the Scriptures: because only by reading and pondering Scripture deeply will we have eyes to see the complex and interesting world that God is unfurling before us in Jesus. Failure to do so will only result in a flattening of our understanding of what the word “mission” entails; indeed, it may even lead to “missional idolatry.” We need the Word of God unleashed in our midst to “destroy the idols”—missional idols not least—and open for us the vast, complex, beautiful, and interesting fullness of what God is doing and has done to the world in Jesus. This will keep us “on mission” in full faithfulness to the God who dictates the terms of any mission that can rightfully be called “Christian.”
Needless to say, Volf paid close attention to the Scriptures when I had only paid good attention to them, and good just ain’t good enough if we’re trying to see the world with Jesus-healed eyes.
Some time later, I was jogging down Cherry Street in Tulsa during a hot summer day, and as I got ready to go under an overpass, I saw a homeless guy holding a sign by the side of the road asking for money. At first I panicked—I was half-naked and drenched in sweat. What could I possibly offer him? Then I remembered: Jesus didn’t just feed the poor; he preached the good news to them. Figuring that I couldn’t do much worse than Jesus, I decided to talk to him, and after listening to his story for awhile said, “Look bro, I realize that life has been pretty rough on you, but here’s the deal: a long time ago Jesus said to people in exactly your situation that the kingdom of God belongs to you. Now I don’t have any money, as you can see, but I do have something to say to you: God is for you, if you eyes to see it, and he can pull you out of all of this and turn your life around…” and then we prayed together. It was a truly beautiful moment.
I have no idea what happened to that guy, but I have a feeling that God was pleased, for in that moment I didn’t just do what any good-hearted American would do for him; rather, I did something uniquely Christian: I opened up the kingdom for him, offered him the possibility of a brand new start because God was on his side, and called him to repent and believe. And THAT is interesting.
We human beings are quite good at coming up with flat and uninteresting ideas; ideas like “You can go to heaven when you die” and “Feed the hungry” and “Capitalism” and “Marxism” and “Democracy” and “Social Justice” and all the rest. But Jesus gives us more than our flat ideas. He gives us a complex and beautiful mission based on the fact that his coming has irreversibly altered the world, so that we embody his new world by:
Feeding the poor
Proclaiming release for the captives
Calling everyone to repentance
Opposing the powers
Taking time for worship and hospitality
Welcoming the stranger
Living generously and lavishly
And making sure to take time for children
Left to ourselves, we would surely pick only one or two of our favorites from that list; that is, unless we took the time to read Scripture well and realize that all of them are part and parcel of what it means for us to live faithfully in the new world made possible through Jesus. But that is just the job of Scripture, to help us realize that God’s new world is far more complex and interesting than we could ever imagine, transcending conservative evangelical, liberal, liberationist, and bourgeois consumerist American sensibilities alike; and it’s why we must pay attention to Scripture, because when we do, we’re opened up to the world as God sees it, and that “opening-up”, it turns out, shapes us for faithful mission.
Not long ago I was sitting at a table with a group of pastors here in Denver. One of them mentioned the daily travel expenses of U2 when they go on tour. The number was astronomical: something like in the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps hoping to gain a little social capital with my fellow pastors, I rather snarkily said: “Good thing they do so much to help 3rd world countries.”
Instantly, and rather astutely I should add, one of the other pastors at the table riposted: “Master, this jar of perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor…” I was rebuked. My calculating, bean-counting, judgmental heart and my flat, cause-and-effect view of world was itself judged by a vision of God’s lavish generosity.
It turns out that old habits of thinking are hard to break, but fortunately we have the Scriptures and a medley of wise pastors and church practitioners out there who read it carefully to remind us that Jesus is always more interesting and surprising than we would generally make him out to be, if left to our own devices. The challenge before us as leaders, if we are to lead our congregations faithfully into the mission of God, is to constantly seek to bring the world of the Scriptures to bear on the lives of the faithful, teaching them thus to see the world with Jesus-healed eyes. Only then will we avoid “missional idolatries.”
Andrew Arndt, June 2010