In yesterday’s blog I wrote in the final paragraph:
Only in unity can we remove the scandal of our myriad schisms and heal our frequent divisions, divisions that destroy our witness to the world of the 21st century. Dialogue may not get us to where we need to be, at least not by itself, but it has to be the first-step. We share so much more in common than we disagree upon and we will only regain power in the public square when we speak as ONE. A new reality, one less political and angry, can emerge if we will pray together, love one another and radically seek what Jesus prayed for in John 17:21.
I pick up today where I left this off yesterday by asking a very direct question to those who promote “missional” theology as I fervently do? Question: Why has the missional movement, with all of its good and proper emphasis upon the church as the mission of God, not yet discovered the power of visible, catholic unity? Why is ecumenism not a serious priority inside the missional theology movement? I read blogs and study this almost daily and see almost no leaders who put the two together. I am not seeking to be clever or self-promoting but sincerely asking “Why is this connection not embraced?”
As many of you know I have written an entire book–Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church–that argues for what I call missional-ecumenism. I root my entire project in John 13-17 connected with John 20:21. I believe the case that I make in this book is sound and I also believe the need for missional Christian leaders to take this particular call seriously is more compelling than ever. Let me explain.
I believe the case for the call to unity at this time is massively important. Christendom is collapsing, as I have noted over the past two days. There really cannot be much doubt about this conclusion. What will rise in its place? A newly fragmented expression of the church where you remain in your small corner and I in mine? This seems more and more likely given what the missional movement has produced, at least so far. We know non-white Christianity will be where the action is likely to be in the next three decades. More data demonstrated this in reports I read just yesterday in USA Today. Yet we remain ethnically and denominationally fixed, or at least profoundly uninvolved with one another. I am not disheartened in the big picture, since God is working powerfully, but I must confess that very few theologians and strategists of mission in the United States take unity seriously. Let me suggest why I think this might be true:
- Missional leaders and writers are so busy trying to correct a huge wrong and some massive imbalances that they have given far too little prayerful thought to John 17 and how it really relates to mission. They even make the connection intellectually if you talk to them as I do each week.
- Missional leaders and writers tend to be “independent” people who work their corner of the street using all their resources and passion for growing their church/movement, especially in urban settings. They are wonderfully focused on their mission but they can, as a direct result, be short-sighted when it comes to inviting others into Christ’s mission. I fear that it is, at the end of the day, “their mission” and they have seen blessing upon it and thus are not deeply motivated to embrace others in ecumenical pursuit. This can lead leaders to think that others do not get the missional point so they must continue to promote what they are doing well as of first importance. They tend, in so many cases, to be suspicious of those who criticize them so even my appeal can be seen as criticism when it is not.
- Missional leaders have their own “home boys” (e.g. N. T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, etc.) and do not easily move beyond these types of writers to engage with the larger church in real space-time relationships. Building friendships with people not in your group is never high on the list of local-church builders. Oddly enough, these very writers (Wright, Newbigin, etc.) introduced me to ecumenism at the very same time that they introduced me to my deeper missional understanding of the church. Newbigin was a leader in the World Council of Churches (WCC) for a lifetime and Wright is one of the best “biblical” thinkers about unity that I’ve ever read, especially in the way he understands justification language as inclusion in community across ethnic and religious points of division.
- Missional leaders can be quite myopic in spite of their crystal clear “thinking” about their theology of mission. If they are not careful they can all too easily fall into the same old traps of personality, individuality and leader-based movements. These leaders are entrepreneurs and this prompts them to build churches and institutions (and lead projects) but not to engage deeply in the time that it takes to listen well and to love those who are not in their school/camp/group. You must genuinely surrender all pragmatism and utilitarianism to become ecumenical. I learned this the hard way but I have learned it to some extent. (Am I meeting with this person to get something I want or to build them up in Christ?) You will not see much happen, at least for some time, if you work at this ecumenical vision seriously. This is a hard slog and requires long-term faith. I have recently come to see that this is, at least for me, a vocation that can be both deeply personal and completely lonely. I have found that missional-ecumenists often feel all alone, even in a crowd. The ones I know well are engaged with so many people in very personal ways in their private life. It is paradoxical but I’ve found it to be true. Being involved can lead to loneliness in an odd and human way. You can be in a crowd and feel all alone if you follow what I am saying at all.
What can be done to change this “on the ground” problem in directly relating unity to missional theology and practice?
- Missional leaders, church planters, professors and visionaries need to get out of their own world and into other (very different) worlds. They need to pursue the ancient-future faith in deep and growing human relationships with a wide variety of people from every generation, every segment of the historic Christian Church and every ethnic background.
- Missional leaders need to continue to develop academically sound teaching and thinking but they must guard against building academies that become new models of the same old denominational paradigms that have failed and will fail again in the 21st century. We need the academy but please do not repeat the denominational mistakes of the past and please explore more deeply how the Catholic and Orthodox communions equip their pastoral leaders. The new monastic movement offers some hope.
- Missional leaders need to embrace holistic kingdom-centered discipleship that aims for a view of salvation that is both spiritual and social/economic.
- Missional leaders need to understand that this missional development is really a movement of the Holy Spirit. If this is true then becoming Spirit-filled and empowered leaders is not optional nor is it about mastering missional data. It is about living in the power and presence of Jesus. We need, if I might express this more clearly, a charismatic movement that is married to missional-ecumenism. I’ve had the joy of experiencing this firsthand but I meet so few missional writers and thinkers who know what I’m talking about at all.
- Missional leaders need a deeper understanding of the ancient church, the creeds and the way the Christian faith was expressed before Christendom. There is such a rich goldmine here, a goldmine of immense blessing for the future of missional-ecumenism.
I believe the idea that the church is the mission of God, thus the proper use of the word missional, is a magnificent theological recovery of major proportions. I also believe that the word missional has been used and abused in many quarters, almost to the point that this word is too elastic to serve us. Yet the term is of great theological significance. For this reason I cannot give it up.
Emil Brunner was right when he said, “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning!” But Brunner, and many biblical thinkers along with him, had a vision of the coming unity of the church in Christ’s great mission. This was clearly the vision of Lesslie Newbigin, the person who most of us believe is the “father of this movement.” I am quite sure that we’ve only made small strides in this missional direction, at least so far. So many people are using the word now because it is “cool.” But missional must come to mean more or the momentum that Lesslie Newbigin gave us, in the power of the Spirit who led and empowered him in love, will be lost. I believe we cannot be truly missional unless and until we pursue unity with the whole church. I believe this happens first in local expression since this is where we all experience the church together. I will press on in great hope because optimism is not the issue here. Biblical hope will do quite well.