Two things seem to have coincided this past week or so. First, the World Cup – a global celebration of [mostly!] friendly international competition – has begun, albeit against the backdrop of Brazil’s own internal, national strife. And second, the TV news seems even fuller than usual of international strife and brutality. In this post I’m asking what a missionary church looks like in this kind of world. The kind of world where groups, countries and individuals disagree and tend to fight and fear difference – rather more than they celebrate and embrace it.
Exclusion or Embrace?
Bruce Milne gives a strong case for the missional potential of a local church being missional or missionary by fully embracing diversity (please see previous post). Enormous challenges, however, are waiting for any church that tries to radically embrace diversity. Croatian born Miroslav Volf has addressed some of these issues in his book Exclusion & Embrace. For Volf, the contemporary situation of unprecedented local-global diversity is not simply an opportunity for witness, it necessitates a new strategy for survival:
“It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference. The issue is urgent. The ghettos and battlefields throughout the world – in the living rooms, in inner cities, or on the mountain ranges – testify indisputably to its importance.”
For Volf the answer lies in the shaping of ‘social agents’, the formation of people who, in a world of fragmented relationships, will learn to “give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them… prior to any judgement about others, except that of identifying with them in their humanity.” Volf sees the the origin of this theology of embrace, or of ‘self-donation’, in the Trinitarian God. The Father, the Son and the Spirit exist in an eternal, mutual self-surrender of Divine love. And, “the very nature of the triune God is reflected on the cross of Christ.” According to the Gospels, the cross is both the means of salvation and the model of discipleship. Since, then, this is how God deals with his enemies (i.e. rebellious humanity – us), so must we.
This way of talking sounds outrageous and simplistic in an often brutal and violent world. How can, for example, ’embrace’ stop the bullets flying from a gun? And Volf admits that what he is describing is indeed costly and often scandalous – the scandal being that there is no certainty that, when we have so given ourselves to the ‘Other’, there will be any immediate positive outcome. But for him this is not ultimately a problem, as those who have found themselves in such a predicament have “discovered a promise” – by which Volf seems to mean that of the hope of resurrection.
There may be things in Volf’s (or even Milne’s) books that we can’t fully go along with. But I think that they make some really important points. Learning from them, we could say that a church that wishes to become missionary in its very being will be a church modelled on and celebrating the breath-taking example of self-giving provided by its Triune God. It will be a church that holds together both the vision of diversity and the reality of the cost. It will grasp the urgency of being this kind of church in this kind of world.
So in more ways than one the challenge is not simply ‘over there.’ It’s ‘over here’ amongst us: Will we exclude or embrace?
Mission – rather uncomfortably – starts at home.
Questions for Reflection
1. What various kinds of diversity are visible in your church? Are any groups not represented? Why?
2. What are the primary obstacles to diversity in your church?
3. What Biblical passages particularly inspire a vision for diversity in the church?
4. In pursuing diversity, what mistakes could be made?
5. When may a certain kind of ‘exclusion’ be legitimate and right? (Clue: 1 Corinthians 5…)
6. How do we hold together embrace of our ‘enemies’ with a belief in justice …and what about Revelation 20?
7. What can you personally do to help make your church more diverse and ‘missional in its very being’?