A missionary ecclesiology

Recent research shows that unless the Church understands God’s big picture she’ll get bogged down by non-essentials and continue to see mission as an extra-curricular activity.1  Here are some recent thoughts (adapted from a chapter of a paper on local church – global mission) on what mission is and how churches can try to begin living in God’s story. I’d love to hear your reflections and experiences too. Let’s start with a definition of mission…

Chris Wright offers what I think is a brilliant definition of the complex reality of mission: Mission is, “our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation.”2 Wright’s definition is helpful because it holds together in tension both mission as missio dei, and the part that people have to play in it; mission as something that takes place in history and hints at its eschatological fulfilment; and both personal and cosmic dimensions of redemption. For Wright the word mission refers to God’s “long term purpose or goal that is to be achieved through proximate objectives and planned actions.”3

A Missional Hermeneutic

Wright says that a missional hermeneutic “proceeds from the assumption that the whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.”4 The Bible is both the product of God’s mission in that it bears witness to God’s movement towards his creation and it is the story of that movement. Much of it is, moreover, material that emerged out of the mission of God’s people in the world. Reading the Bible as the story of God’s mission one can say that, “[I]t is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world.”5  Wright suggests that the reason that the early Christians were so mission-minded without having a completed New Testament nor having read the ‘Great Commission’ was that they “knew the story they were in.”6

It is important that a missional hermeneutic, or any kind of framework for interpreting Scripture, must do justice to the text and not overly distort it. There is a sense, of course, that any framework imposed on the text could be said to distort the text. But for Wright the main question is, “Does it in fact do justice to the overall thrust of the biblical canon? Does it illuminate and clarify? Does it offer a way of articulating the coherence of the Bible’s overarching message?”7 Wright thinks that, whilst he is merely offering the beginnings of a missional hermeneutic, it does. To read the Bible with this biblical-theological, salvation historical approach is for him, “to read with the grain” of Scripture.8 It is to read the Bible as the risen Jesus read it and explained it to the disciples – “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms…. and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24.44b, 47).

In defence of this hermeneutical approach, biblical interpretation is increasingly been seen once again as the legitimate task of the Church and of those with specifically Christian presuppositions and theological aims.9 Christian biblical hermeneutics was arguably born in its attempt to make sense of Christ in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures and in attempting to make sense of those Scriptures in the light of Christ. Theology pre-dates and gave birth to the Scriptures. The Canon itself was shaped by theological concerns. Theological interpretation, then, is inherent to the task of making sense of the Bible.

Wright’s work arguably demonstrates the viability of his thesis that a missional hermeneutic not only does justice to the text, but illuminates it in ways that seem faithful to original intention and Christian tradition. More than that, it discloses a helpful way of interpreting life at the local level of the Christian community. A missional hermeneutic is not simply a way of understanding the Bible as the story of God’s mission in creation, fall, redemption and new creation. It is more than the telling of the story of the Bible as the story of a missionary God and partnership with him in his work – of creation care; the missionary identity of Israel; the missionary identity of Christ and the consequent missionary identity of the Church; not to mention the climax of that story – the new creation, which for Tom Wright is crucial to the missionary story of the Bible. He, too, sees the Bible as having “an overall story.”10 For him, mission is living in the light of the great climax of the story and acting as “sign-posts of hope.”11 A missional hermeneutic is a tool for interpreting the meaning of life. We are invited into the Bible story – God’s story.  The first step in truly intentional, holistic and global mission vision formation is for a congregation to realise that they are participants in God’s story. Eugene Peterson would put it like this:

‘The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us, “Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.” …We are taken seriously just as we are and given place in his story – for it is, after all, God’s story. None of us is the leading character in the story of our lives. God is the larger context and plot in which all our stories find themselves.’ 12

A renewed ecclesiology

A missional hermeneutic is therefore essential for constructing a renewed ecclesiology. Vatican II was right to assert that the Church is “missionary by her very nature.” 13 The WCC was correct to assert that “[i]t is God’s design to gather all creation under the Lordship of Christ (cf. Eph 1:10), and to bring humanity and all creation into communion. As a reflection of the communion in the Triune God, the Church is God’s instrument in fulfilling this goal.”14 However, it is reasonable to suggest that evangelicalism needs a renewed ecclesiology that begins to see the Church as missionary in its very nature. This would be an ecclesiology that does not just perceive Church as something one does or a place one goes,  but a thing that one is; an ecclesiology that does not simply think in terms of joining Church as a rational choice, but sees the very purpose of the Christian faith and Church as missional (Ephesians 2.15/3:10); and an ecclesiology that is not individualistic in terms of simply seeing individuals sent out into mission, but that sees the Church as the fruit and the agent – as well as [part of] the goal of God’s mission.

If the Lausanne Movement can be taken to be illustrative of global evangelicalism’s missiology and ecclesiology, then things have come a long way in the last few years. In 2003 Hunsberger noted severe weaknesses in Lausanne’s missional ecclesiology, as evinced in the 1999 Iguacu Affirmation.15 He pointed out the inherently individualistic tendencies of the aforementioned document with its apparent assumptions that the church is more of a sending agency than a missional community.16 Yet, by 2010, Lausanne’s ‘Cape Town Commitment’ evinces an arguably more robust missional ecclesiology.17

Local church respondents in a research project I carried out struggled to hold together the idea of mission with the other purposes and tasks of the church. This is a problem that arises when mission is seen merely as evangelism or is something that takes place outside the essential practices of church. As a congregation seeks to make sense of their identity, a missional hermeneutic can do much to ground life in a narrative that offers a huge sense of meaning. If this hermeneutic is adopted, local and global mission praxis begins to make sense. Living in this story also liberates Christians oppressed both by a totalizing secularisation narrative that naively proclaims the looming death of Christianity and by a postmodern narrative that inconsistently proclaims the impossibility of grand narratives. A missional hermeneutic subverts these narratives and locates people in God’s reality. This reality is rooted in local communities and both humanizes and gives a sense of purpose and place. The local finds its proper relation to the global. But for this, Christians need to ‘know the story they are in.’

New praxis

Bevans and Schroeder are amongst those who are beginning to imagine what it would look like when a church takes these things to heart.18 The structures of the church would reflect the missionary nature and purpose, and ministers would equip members for their ministry in the world. Baptism would be synonymous with ordination to ministry. The sacraments would be celebrated as, “a preparation for, and as an act of mission.”19 And anxiety would be alleviated as it was realised that although Christians are God’s co-workers (1 Corinthians 3.9) the mission is God’s.

Endnotes

1 Qualitative research I carried out in one UK local church, 2012-2013

2 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006), p.23.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., p.51, Italics his.

5  Ibid., p.50.

6 Wright, p.36. Italics his.

7 Wright, p. Ibid., p.646

8 Ibid., p.64

9 See Anthony C. Thiselton, ‘Hermeneutics’, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (ed.) Kevin J. Van Hoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2005), pp.283-287.

10 Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007), p.294.

11 Ibid., p.307.

12 Eugene Peterson, ‘Living into God’s Story’, Biblical Theology, http://www.biblicaltheology.ca/blue_files/Living%20into%20God’s%20Story.pdf [accessed 18 October 2012] (para. 13 of 13).

13 Ad Gentes, 2. Vatican Council II – ‘Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church’, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html [accessed 1 November 2012] (para.4).

14 World Council of Churches, The Nature and Mission of the Church (Faith and Order Paper No. 198) (Geneva: WCC, 2005), p.10.

15 George Hunsberger, ‘Evangelical Conversion Toward a Missional Ecclesiology’, Evangelical Ecclesiology – Reality or Illusion?, (ed.) J.G. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), pp.105-132 (p.111). Porter also raises questions about Lausanne’s pre-Cape Town ecclesiology – Ray Porter, ‘Global mission and local church’, Evangel 25 No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. i-iv.

16 Hunsberger, pp.105-132 (p.111).

17 This is not surprising as Chris Wright was one of main architects of the document. The majority of the 135 uses of the word ‘church’ appear relatively free of individualistic assumptions.

18 Bevans and Schroeder, Prophetic Dialogue (New York: Maryknoll, Orbis, 2011) pp.16-17

19 Bevans. and Schroeder, pp.16-17.

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