In our house church of late, we’ve been talking about what appears to be the stunning lack of conversion stories happening in the American church. At least in our city (and no doubt in cities all across the United States), churches are growing… in fact, they’re sprouting up like weeds. Never before have we seen such an explosion of new (and many of them HUGE) churches. But very little of the growth of these churches (including ours!) consists of folks who, to use Paul’s language, were just recently “rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Instead, it’s just a lot of deck-shuffling. Christians running around to the latest and greatest church experience.
Now mind you, there is nothing inherently wrong with deck-shuffling. If communities of faith are doing a crummy job discipling people, mobilizing them for mission, corporately reaching out to the hungry and hurting, helping their folks root and plant their lives deeply in Christ Jesus in community… I say, “Let them move on!” Those communities deserve to die. They are wasting time and resources.
BUT – if folks aren’t coming to faith in these new churches (including ours!), something is profoundly wrong. After all, in Matthew 28, when Jesus leaves his disciples with his closing thoughts on what they’re supposed to be about, he doesn’t say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go make cool art in my name!” Nor does he say, “Go change the unjust structures of society in my name!” Nor does he say, “Go start a mega-cool public gathering with smoke and intelligent lights and try to draw a big crowd in my name!” He simply says, “Go… into all the places that I send you… among all the peoples of the earth… and bring people into this… into ME… make them participants in my salvation by teaching them to trust me and pattern the whole of their lives on my reign.”
And so there it is – the mission of the church: to inhabit a world of great darkness and confusion with such intentionality, BE-ing the very presence of Christ in such a way that folks are drawn into the orbit of the Living Christ.
In recent years, we’ve begun to talk and think anew about the so-called “Missio Dei”, the mission of God. And, in my judgment, rightfully, we’ve seen how Scripturally, the MD is comprehensive and cosmic in its scope. In other words, it doesn’t JUST aim at the salvation of disembodied “souls”, but at the renewal of all things. And to this I say – yes, yes, yes, and amen, amen, amen! In Ephesians Paul talks about the “summing up” of “all things in heaven and on earth together under one Head – even Christ” (Eph 1:10). THAT is the mission of God – nothing less than the restoration of all things; the new heavens and the new earth.
But in my view, it is a mistake to equate the Missio Dei with the Missio Ecclesia (if I can put it so). As far as I can tell, the specific mandate given to the church (the ME) is a SUBSET of the one, grand cosmic purpose of God – to sum up all things “in heaven and on earth” under Christ (the MD). We PARTICIPATE in the MD by fulfilling our unique role (the ME), which it seems to me is quite straightforward: joining with the work of the Spirit in seeing sinners reconciled. That is to say, we join in with the summing up of “all things on earth” (people) while God takes care of the rest. To put forth a little “reductio ad absurdum”, it is not my “mission” to see to it that dying planets are renewed; but it IS my mission to live in such a way that I am a witness to the resurrection as I find myself helping to midwife the process of the Father drawing people to the Son through the Spirit.
Frankly, it seems to me that among many of the Christians of my generation, our enthusiasm for “the redemption of all things” leaves curiously absent even a trace of enthusiasm for the “redemption of PEOPLE”. That is bald hypocrisy if you ask me. Am I off base here?
NOW DON’T GET ME WRONG – I believe that Christians are given a call to bring justice and mercy and beauty into the world. Heck, those are some of our core convictions at Bloom. What I’m saying is, the moment we get more passionate about those things than we do people, we’re missing it.
If I had any consternation over the recent Rob Bell fiasco, it was only this – that I think we’re constantly in danger of making two theological maneuvers that, IMO, will prove fatal to our fulfilling the task that God has given us:
1) Settling into a dogmatic agnosticism on whether or not people are actually in real danger of being “lost”, in this life and the next, and
2) Conflating the Mission of God with the Mission of the Church such that if and when any real stories of conversion happen, they are accidental at best to what we’re REALLY “all about” (bringing beauty and/or a fuzzy notion of “justice” into the world, etc).
The great New Testament theologian N.T. Wright, in his masterful work on the early church entitled “The New Testament and the People of God” put it like this:
Why then did early Christianity spread? Because early Christians believed that what they had found to be true was true for the whole world. The impetus to mission sprang from the very heart of early Christian conviction. If we know anything about early Christian praxis, at a non- or sub-literary level, it is that the early Christians engaged in mission, both to Jews and Gentiles…This missionary activity was not an addendum to a faith that was basically ‘about’ something else…’Christianity was never more itself than in the launching of world mission.’ (NTPG, 360)
For the early Christians, what God had done in Jesus of Nazareth was decisive and urgent for humanity; hence their praxis (bearing witness to Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles) flowed logically and organically from their core convictions. The explosion of the early and patristic-era church was due precisely to that connection between belief and praxis.
Now back to the top. What I’m wondering is… is our stunning ineptitude at seeing folks who are far from Christ come into faith a result of our belief, or our praxis, the disconnect between them, or something else entirely?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
(By the way, I write this not at all to be provocative, but because I’m truly interested in fostering the kinds of conversations that will help us move more intentionally towards the center of God’s purpose for his church.)