Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Missional Church

I'm headed over to Nairobi, Kenya, this evening (scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening, Nairobi time) to join with a group of men at DOOR (Deaf Opportunity OutReach) International's Deaf Bible Translation and Training Center. We are planning to participate in the dedication of the first 32 stories in DOOR's Deaf Bible Translation project.

In preparation for this trip, our group leader asked us to read Tim Keller's The Missional Church.

I am blown away. It expresses so much of what I have felt over the years but have been unable to express. So many great insights!

It also offers some historical and cultural perspectives that help explain to my satisfaction a lot of "why things are the way they are."

Here, for example, is some of the explanation:
  • "In the West for nearly 1,000 years, the relationship of (Anglo-European) Christian churches to the broader culture was a relationship known as 'Christendom.'"
Okay. And what does that mean?
  • "The institutions of society 'Christianized' people," i.e.,

    • They taught members of the culture what was "good" in terms both of belief and behavior.
    • They also stigmatized non-Christian belief and behavior.
  • However, as Keller notes,

    • "Christian morality without gospel-changed hearts often led to cruelty and hypocrisy. Think of how the small town in 'Christendom' treated the unwed mother or the gay person. Also, under 'Christendom' the church often was silent against abuses of power of the ruling classes over the weak."

    And, therefore,
  • "For these reasons and others, the church in Europe and North America has been losing its privileged place as the arbiter of public morality since at least the mid 19th century. The decline of Christendom has accelerated greatly since the end of WWII."
These observations, alone, I thought, were well worth the reading of the paper. But Keller was barely warmed up.
  • "British missionary Lesslie Newbigin went to India around 1950. There he was involved with a church living 'in mission' in a very non-Christian culture. When he returned to England some 30 years later, he discovered that now the Western church too existed in a non-Christian society, but it had not adapted to its new situation."
What does that mean?
  • "Though public institutions and popular culture of Europe and North America no longer 'Christianized' people, the church still ran its ministries assuming that a stream of 'Christianized', traditional/moral people would simply show up in services."
And that means . . . ????
  • "[T]he church in the West had not become . . . 'missional'--adapting and reformulating [what] it did in worship, discipleship, community, and service--so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it."
Therefore . . .
  • It continued to use "stylized prayer language, unnecessary evangelical pious 'jargon', and archaic language that seeks to set a 'spritual tone.'"
  • It engaged in "sentimental, pompous, 'inspirational' talk" that set it apart from the culture round about.
  • It permitted itself to speak in "'we-them' language," to tell "jokes that mock[ed] people of different politics and beliefs, and [to make] dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ[ed] with" those on the "inside."
  • It spoke "as if non-believing people [were] not present" in its meetings.
  • Interaction with non-believers consisted "more . . . of exhortation (and, often, heavy reliance on guilt)" than "real engagement [with], listening [to], or persuasion" of those who might believe differently than those on the "inside."
  • Teaching and training focused, too often, solely on such "private world" skills as "prayer, Bible study, [and] evangelism" rather than how to interface with and respond effectively to "radically non-Christian values in . . . public life--where [church members] work, in their neighborhood, etc."
  • Churches and church members continued "to define [themselves] over against other churches" rather than seeking to exhibit primary solidarity with other Christians over against the non-Christian culture that surrounded them.
So what should the church become and do?

You can get a good idea by almost turning each one of the points above inside out . . . or reading Keller's article yourself to hear him state these and other points in a more positive manner.

Interesting to me: Keller's message almost directly parallels something I've been writing about recently as a result of a request I've been given to help start a university--a university to achieve Kingdom purposes but in a manner that reaches across cultural barriers. It also parallels a project I sought to begin six and a half years ago with Sonlight Curriculum. Here's how I recently told that story:
In August of 2003, a friend of ours who is deeply involved in outreach to Muslims in a certain limited-access country preached a sermon at our church. In it, he quoted Robert Bruce, an Irish missionary of the 19th century who ministered in Persia. It seems that, at one point during Bruce’s ministry, he wrote to his supporters back home: "I am not reaping the harvest; I can scarcely claim to be sowing the seed; I am hardly plowing the soil; but I am gathering out the stones."

When I heard this statement, it electrified me. It particularly grabbed my attention because just a few days before I had read an article in World magazine (August 2, 2003 issue) in which Marvin Olasky, one of the magazine's editors, noted that most Americans—even the "well-educated," even those who have grown up in nominally Christian homes and in highly churched areas of the country—are totally out-of-touch with a biblical or evangelical Christian point-of-view.

"What's to be done?" Olasky asked. "Biblical Christians (and orthodox believers in Judaism and other faiths) need to remember that to most leaders in media and academia we are speaking a foreign language; we need to be bilingual and to offer translation services. Media and academic monolingualists need to realize that understanding evangelical language and culture requires at least as much work as understanding a foreign language and culture. They need interpreters and guides." (From Waiting for the translation: Religious Americans will not be understood without cross-cultural training.)

What he said jibed with what I had observed among non-evangelical Sonlighters. So I was thinking about these things when my friend preached his sermon.

And as I thought about these cultural and communicative realities in the context of Bruce's statement about gathering out stones, I realized I had never thought of removing stones as a form of legitimate evangelistic or missional activity! Extending the analogy: I had never thought of soil preparation (as in: adding soil amendments or compost) as a legitimate evangelistic or missional activity, either. I had only thought about sowing and reaping . . . as per Jesus’ parable in which He talks about the seed falling on different types of soil. Jesus didn’t talk about PREPARING the soil—and so I didn't think of such activities, either!

But in normal farming and gardening, soil preparation is key.

Shortly after hearing my friend’s sermon, I was talking with our daughter when she noted that in the Sunset Garden Masters Reveal their Secrets book, one of the contributors says, "If you have a garden and a dollar, spend 90 cents on soil and 10 cents on plants."

So in that context, I began thinking: While our homeschool program, Sonlight Curriculum®, the brand, is not well-suited to audiences other than evangelicals, perhaps Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd., the company, could create a new brand focused on a non-evangelical audience.

And so I suggested to our management team that we use most of the same materials we had put together for Sonlight Curriculum® but modify our assumptions about the audience. For the new brand, instead of assuming our customers would be evangelical Christians (as we have for Sonlight, even though we know quite a few are not), what if we were to assume that our audience was NOT evangelical (even though some probably would be)? We could still use 80 or 90 percent of the books we had chosen for Sonlight®. We could also use 80 or 90 percent of the work we had done developing the Sonlight® instructor’s guides.

The main thing we would need to do is change the tone of many of our notes, questions and answers. Ask much the SAME questions, but change our assumptions about our audience. Don't use Christian language; don't assume that students will have any inkling what certain words or concepts [familiar to evangelicals, but unfamiliar to others] may mean. . . .

Even with all of these changes, WE COULD STILL BRING THE EVANGELICAL WORLDVIEW TO BEAR in the larger marketplace of ideas. . . .

To modify Bruce somewhat: "We could scarcely claim to be sowing seeds; we would hardly be plowing the soil; but [I thought] we could be gathering out the stones" of this new generation of Americans who know very little else about evangelical Christianity other than that, they believe, they should despise or reject it.

By RAISING THE QUESTIONS, and by INCLUDING evangelical answers AMONG OTHERS, we could "bring evangelicalism to the table."
Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd., has never been able to achieve that goal. InquisiCorp Corporation, the holding company we created in hopes that it might transfer some of the intellectual property from Sonlight® to the new brand-- . . . InquisiCorp Corporation has, so far, never been able to achieve that goal.

But now, with the new university before me, and with the further encouragement of Tim Keller's article, I am hopeful that maybe, just maybe, we may be able to achieve this goal of helping to create an institution that can cross the barriers and speak into the culture in which we now find ourselves.

I pray that may be the case.

[NOTE: If you are reading this article on Facebook, it originally appeared on my personal blog.]
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