Saturday, May 2, 2009


Darrell Guder came to speak at the meeting of the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks yesterday evening. He was the principal editor of the book "Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America" which spawned the missional church movement a little more than a decade ago. He is an engaging speaker. This is my summary of what he said with some comments and questions of my own inserted.

According to Darrell Guder, for 1700 years the Church has been doing systematic theology, especially ecclesiology without so much as one word about mission. He doesn't mean that the Church wasn't ever doing mission, but if you think about it - where is the paragraph about mission in any of our creeds or confessions? The first use of the word mission in our Book of Confessions came in 1903 when a paragraph was added to the Westminster Confession - and the idea wasn't really fleshed out until 1967. Think about the major historic theologians - Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin... where are their writings on mission?

To explain this Guder refers to the popular narrative of Christendom which basically goes like this: for the first 2-300 years Christianity was a minority movement about the apostolic project of founding witnessing communities to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then, around the time of Constantine and following, Christianity became "established" as the official religion. Once institutionalized the radical nature of the movement was subverted and Christianity basically went on its merry way, wedded to the State, for 1700 years until the rise of secular atheism "dis-established" the Church in Europe and America.

That is over-simplistic, but you get the idea. Theology for so long wasn't concerned with mission because mission is what you did "out there". Over here, we were living inside Christendom. We were the already evangelized. The movement had succeeded and was thus finished.

For Guder, and those advocating what they call "Missional Theology" (though the word missional is now just another over-used buzz word), the Church exists as God's community of witnesses in a particular location. The Church exists by mission, as a flame exists by burning - so goes the popular quote. It isn't that we "go" anywhere in order to do "mission". It is that we are either engaged in God's mission all the time or we are not being the Church.

I agree with Guder's basic premises, though I think he is exaggerating the extent to which the Church ignored mission. Vatican II said "The pilgrim church is missionary by her very nature," and I don't think they believed they were saying something new, but merely what was understood all along. That is, even if mission wasn't mentioned in those specific terms I think the Church understood itself to be about doing God's work in the world. It is definitely true, though, that the radical aspects of the movement were compromised by growing institutional security - thus our heightened institutional insecurity now is an opportunity to recapture our radical roots.

But one thing Guder said last night struck me as incongruent. He said that the Bible is God's instrument for creating witnessing communities. I think I tentatively disagree.

First of all, in the early Church the instrument used for creating witnessing communities were the apostles. Paul clearly sees himself as such an instrument. True, he used scripture and (if you credit him with writing 2 Timothy) even said "all scripture is useful," but it was nevertheless him who was using it. Scripture was a tool, but he was the instrument.

Secondly, "the Bible" is different from "scripture". "The Bible" refers to the canon. The canon is a relic of the institutional Church. It comes about as a key part of the process of the Church being established as the official religion of the empire. "Scripture" on the other hand refers to holy writings believed to express the intentions of God.

Doesn't it seem contradictory to suggest that we ought to be recapturing the missionary spirit of the early Church, but then claim the primary instrument for doing so is the central pillar of Christendom?

1 comment:

Doug Hagler said...

I would say that the instruments for creating witnessing communities were/are baptism and communion. Everybody had scriptures when the early Church was pulling itself together, but baptizing outside the religious establishment and open-door multi-ethnic love-feasts seemed to be pretty radical - and if done right, still are. They are also the main experiential aspects of Christianity - particularly communion. Its pretty boring to hear someone witness about what they *read* (the Gospel as book report) - much more engaging for someone to witness about what they *do*.