It seems to me that multitudes of Christians have missed the simple idea that the church exists for others. We are called to be the incarnate presence of Jesus, by the Spirit working in us as God’s people (John 20:31). This is at the very center of what it means to be missional. The church exists not for itself but for others.
A missional church is not the same as a church doing missions or programs for mission. This is one reason why the term missional is such an important theological and practical development in the 21st century. The church is made up of “sent ones” that God has designed to carry out his mission of gospel mercy and compassion in community, through shared presence. Mission is God’s before it is ever ours. The whole Bible makes this abundantly clear from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. God is a missional God and the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth is mission in human form. The very purpose of creation and redemption (which should not be radically separated as evangelicals are prone to do) is to complete the cosmic mission of God for all creation, resulting in the new heavens and new earth. The goal is not heaven in the skies, but earth redeemed by the Lamb who comes at the end of this age to complete what we have begun in the Spirit.
Pope Benedict, in the aforementioned Light of the World cited several times last week, says the church is permanently “underway.” This is another way of saying that we are a pilgrim people, a people of the journey. But if this is true how then are we to respond to the process of a changing civilization which brings with it things that the church finds morally distasteful. Benedict answers:
Of course we always need to ask what are the things that may once have been considered essential to Christianity but in reality were only expressions of a certain period. What, then, is really essential? This means that we must constantly return to the gospel and the teachings of the faith in order to see: First, what is an essential component? Second, what legitimately changes with the changing times? And third, what is not an essential component? In the end, then, the decisive point is always the achieve the proper discernment (141-42).
Consider the wisdom of this answer. There are things once considered essential but in reality were really expressions of a certain period of time and culture. Now the Pope and I would not agree on precisely what these non-essentials are but the fact is we agree that there are such non-essentials. This allows a meaningful and important conversation to go forward. If we will not grant this point we can never process the present age under the Lordship of Christ. We will always process it under the authority of our reason and formulas of thinking.
Second, once we have determined what is an essential element really is we can ask the question about what can and should be legitimately changed? Again, the Pope and I would not agree on the specifics, but we can converse (as faithful Christians) about this change. This was a huge contribution of Vatican II. It is also the one that has been abused by radical theologians, left and right. Vatican II called upon the Catholic Church to “open the window” and face the modern world. When this happens a lot will follow, not all of it good. I call on evangelicals regularly to open their minds to what can and should legitimately be changed. One thing I believe must change is our attitude toward Catholics and Catholicism. We are too often stuck in a historical time warp; unwilling to read, think and listen with humility.
Finally, Pope Benedict says we should seek to determine what is not “an essential element.” I believe the creeds help us here but there is more to the discussion than we find in the creeds. Some of our most vexing modern problems are not addressed in the ancient creeds. What are we to do? We must begin by embracing the ancient faith or we can never address the future with any sense of who we are and where we’ve been on this journey that is taking us to the coming kingdom. Of all God’s people Protestants ought to embrace this the most openly but we have amnesia like so many other Christians. We do not know our own history, either in the early centuries of the church or in the sixteenth century reform movement that happened in Europe. (We know even less about other movements that followed; e.g. Anabaptist, Baptist, charismatic, etc.) We have allowed strong figures to set the agenda which means that all too few of us really think for ourselves, the most basic of all Protestant principles. We have allowed our own “mini-popes” to teach us and large numbers have believed whatever they profess because Dr. So-and-So said so. I love the name of the radio program of the evangelical Ravi Zacharias: “Let My People Think.” That is not done by most of our evangelical leaders thus the people suffer greatly under the burden and yoke of human leaders, mostly strong alpha males.
Pope Benedict XVI says what we need are the gospel and the teachings of faith; i.e. core and essential Christianity. I completely and totally agree!
The result of these developments has been a period of time in which the church is perceived by friend and foe alike as “opposed to the world.” I understand that “worldliness” is condemned in Scripture. I am totally on board in this regard. My problem is that we have assumed that we know what worldliness is and we know who is worldly and who is not. (Worldliness is primarily a system of anti-Christian thinking arrayed against the Lordship of Christ which leads us to embrace false choices that are ungodly!) Armed with a rigid form of certitude we’ve gone out to do battle with the foes of Christ and the friends of Christ who disagree with us/me. “You are with me or against me. I stand with Jesus! Who do you stand with?” This is sheer, unadulterated pride. Sadly, it abounds in leaders in the church.
The late Cardinal Suenens, who I quoted several times last week, continues to minister to me as I work my way through these kinds of problems on a daily basis. His humble spirituality, combined with his biblical charismatic theology, served the whole church in ways that few today even know about. Cardinal Suenens said in an interview in 1969: “The Church is for the world. It must overcome its inner tensions so as to be able better to fulfill its mission in relation to all men and the problems that confront them” (Ways of the Spirit, 82).
The church is for the world. This is a powerful concept. We have been raised in an atmosphere (especially since 1976) which has taught us that the church exists to oppose the world. Millions of people now sincerely believe that we are the company of the naysayers, the negative opponents of all cultural change and modern development. We are out of touch, reactionary and angry. We do not deserve all of this hostility. Some of it comes from reactionary atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But a great deal of it we have clearly earned by how we have responded to the world by rejection and anger.
What then is the answer to this problem? Cardinal Suenens suggests we must overcome our “inner tensions so as to be able to fulfill [our] mission in relation to all men . . .” I think he nails it. We are filled with inner tensions that make us emotionally unhealthy and, sometimes, severely unbalanced. We are, to use Paul’s words, “immature.” We have become more like the church at Corinth than we realize. We think we are mature but in fact we are proud and weak. The way forward is to acknowledge that we exist for others and not for ourselves. We are for the world! Indeed, we are the best real hope the world has if you stop and think about it.