On putting the missional cart before the ecclesial horse (or something like that).

I was recently talking to someone about church planting and I was struck by some things. Andrew Jones recently suggested that we fore-go planting churches for “kingdom activity”. The person I had been talking to proposed that in a church plant situation you may not actually have a public worship gathering for 3-5 years. Generally, I think, missional wisdom begins with inhabiting a neighbourhood incarnationally, discerning the needs of that neighbour and seeking to meet them, evangelism, discipleship, and then a public worship gathering.

My fear here is that we have separated missiology from ecclesiology. David Fitch expresses this same concern here. Mission is not something which can be lopped off from the life of the church and done “out there”. Missiology is ecclesiology. Evangelism and discipleship, good as they are, are nonsensical apart from the Christian community in which the claims of the gospel are made sense of. What good is an argument for the gospel apart from a community where that gospel is embodied and lived out, where that gospel is transforming lives.

So then, it would seem that the above church planting logic is theologically suspect for it assumes that the gospel can be rationally understood apart from a community which forms people who can understand the gospel. One cannot understand the gospel apart from Christ and Christ is present in the community of faith which is his Body, in Word and Sacrament. Thus, any sort of church planting expression must begin with a community that worships together publically. This is not the end and hopeful goal. This is the beginning from which a life of mission can be lived. For it is only in the church that folks learn what it means to be people on mission, for the good of the world. There is no mission without the church. There is no church that is not on mission. The church is, as someone somewhere has said, the hermeneutic of the gospel, that community which embodies and is embodied by the gospel, that community where people are formed who are capable of bearing in their life together the love of God for the world. Thus, any mission effort which attempts to exist apart from the life of a worshipping community is ultimately misguided.

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5 comments
  1. steve said:

    I see what you are saying here, though I still believe ecclesiology to be a subsection of missiology, or the ecclesial decks of the missiological Starship Enterprise, if you will. Again, I would say that seeking ‘kingdom activity’ rather than church-planting as a missional enterprise does not strictly imply a separation or precedence from the Church. The Church is always both the hermeneutic of the Gospel and the body of Christ animated for mission by the Holy Spirit – but this does not mean that the mission of said Church must only look like the planting of churches (immediately, at least).

  2. steve said:

    or perhaps more critically – ‘… does not mean that the mission of said Church must only look like the planting of churches which are simply reproductions of the particular ‘sending’ church with new clothes on.’ Ultimately a church with a Gospel heart is what will (Lord-willing) result, but there is something to be said for that growing up organically out of the experience of ‘kingdom activity’ amongst the micro-culture in question (which, could it not be said, is the direct result of the ‘bringing’ of the Gospel, rather than the bringing of the ‘church’?). I don’t actually think we are that far apart on this, there is just some language wrestling that needs to be done (at least for me) :).

  3. jt* said:

    Stephen, thanks for the response. I agree with you that we’re likely not that far apart here. I agree with the heart of what you mean when you say “I still believe ecclesiology to be a subsection of missiology,” I think. Here is how I would interpret that statement. Mission is not an activity that belongs to the church. Rather, mission is rooted in the very nature of God. Mission is because God is and the God who is is a God who acts. Thus, mission broadly speaking is to speak of God’s action in the world, in creation and in bringing the world in Christ to the marriage feast of the Lamb.

    So, in this sense, yes mission precedes the church, in fact we could say that mission births the church (although I’m still uncomfortable with saying that ecclesiology is a “subsection” of missiology, that doesn’t sound right to me).

    But we must ask ourselves, what is the form God’s mission takes in the world. I think, the form God’s mission takes in the world today is the church. The church is the instrument of God’s mission in and for the redemption of the whole wide world. So we cannot separate mission and church. This is why “subsection” language makes me uneasy. Ultimately then, we cannot understand mission apart from the church as the community which forms people who worship God in the midst of the world (=witness).

    I agree that the mission of the church does not need to look like planting churches that all look the same regardless of context. However, there are things which make the church the church and not the world. Broadly, this is the worship of the one true God. Specifically, what makes the church the church and not the world is the presence of Christ in the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments. Baptism, the Eucharist, the preaching of the Word. These things make the church and form a people who can live Christianly in the midst of a world that does not know Christ.

    Finally, when I say that the worshipping community needs to come at the front end I am not necessarily presuming what this needs to look like other than baptism, the Eucharist, and the preaching of the Word. But I am convinced that there must be a community that gathers to worship God in order to make sense of the theological and evangelistic claims we want to make. This group needn’t be big, I would think this could begin with as few as 10 people but ideally more. This might just mean rounding up folks who all commit to moving into a neighbourhood together in order to simply live life and worship God regularly. Thoughts?

  4. Steve said:

    I think what you say in your last paragraph definitely resonates with me. That is a critical aspect of any kingdom activity – and specifically incarnational ministry. The question then becomes whether you are arguing that the presentation of the Gospel to the community which does not know it looks primarily like ‘come join our already existing church with its processes which we feel as though we have tailored to your cultural expression,’ or ‘this is the Gospel as we have heard it’ followed by continued relationship and ‘facilitation’ or assistance in any churchly expression that they choose to pursue in response to it?

    • jt* said:

      “The question then becomes whether you are arguing that the presentation of the Gospel to the community which does not know it looks primarily like ‘come join our already existing church…”

      The first thing that comes to mind for me here is that the church *is* the presentation of the Gospel to the community which does not know it. So, that being said, yes, it would look something like “come join our already existing community”. But there is no other way, as far as I can tell. The call to repent and believe is the call to renounce ones citizenship in the world and transfer said citizenship to the kingdom. Of course, this isn’t to say anything about particular evangelistic or mission efforts that flow out of the life of the church. It’s just to say that those efforts can only make sense in light of a community which worships the true God in a world of untruth.

      Am I clarifying my thoughts at all or just making things more convoluted? 🙂

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