Lately I’ve been thinking about the meaning of being “missional” as it relates to the church’s peculiarity as a community. Often I hear people portraying the church’s communal life as the enemy of missional living, as if these were polar opposites. On the other hand, the older evangelical “seeker-sensitive” paradigm was premised on the idea of removing any barriers to “belonging” by avoiding any kind of in-house Christian language. Both of these trajectories are problematic.
The church is a particular, visible, historically continuous people, and so its mission must include the incorporation of persons into the visible, historical fellowship. It is not simply about “adapting” the gospel (as an idea or principle) in new contexts, though there must be some cultural adaptation as the church moves through time and space. The primary direction is not that of adapting an idea to the culture, but about adopting people into the community of faith, which is the bearer of the apostolic gospel.
Mission therefore is not simply about proclamation, but also about catechesis. Becoming a Christian is about learning a new language and a new way of life. The particularities of Christian practice and the inherited language of the faith cannot be stripped away in the name of cultural relevance. If, in the effort to be seeker-sensitive, we always seek to use language and practices that a non-believer would understand, what kind of formation are the Christians in our own communities receiving? However, we can assume that speaking in ways that are culturally relevant will be more important in the early days of a person’s “incorporation” into the church.
The church’s corporate life (worship, teaching, fellowship, mutual service) cannot be separated and played off against its missionary character. Sometimes discussions about being “missional” tend to devalue the “internal” life of the church, and emphasize the sending out of the church almost exclusively. The result is that the particularity of the church’s corporate life is watered down.
The church is missional precisely as a distinct people. The church exists for the world precisely as a distinct people. The two are not opposed. A Christian life is an ecclesial life, and this is a distinct, peculiar way of life, embodied in the historical people of God. In other words, the church is a community in mission (see Phil Needham’s book).
The church is both a means and an end (Newbigin, The Household of God). It is not merely a pragmatic instrument, as if the real goal is evangelization (or social transformation or some other goal) and the church is simply the tool for achieving this. Because it is also a foretaste of the coming kingdom, it is an end in its own right.
In short, the gospel is not simply an idea, but a story which must be embodied by a people. This requires that the people of God have a strong community life, complete with a unique language, and unique practices which are not easily disentangled from the gospel itself. In other words, to take up Barth’s categories, the Spirit’s work includes not only the sending of the Christian community, but also its gathering and upbuilding.