Missional is the buzzword of the day. You can get new life and extra mileage out of almost any church topic by adding “missional” to otherwise ordinary words. But add Missional to Christianity and many Western Christians start getting uncomfortable. As the missional church redefines Christianity, and make no mistake about it, Christianity as predominantly practiced in the West is being challenged and redefined, the Western church is facing a choice. It can ignore the missional redefinition, it can rail against it, or it can reexamine its own definition and theology in light of scripture, history, and culture. Ultimately, every church leader will have to face this dilemma – what does it mean to be a Christian in the missional church?
The whole Modern versus Postmodern mindset has been traipsed out before us for over a decade, but the church has largely avoided confronting the evolving definition of Christianity throughout. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, the very core of Christianity has shifted to encompass and embrace the cultural intellectual emphasis. In today’s Western realm, cultural orthodox Christianity can be found firmly rooted at the crossroads of understanding and common sense.
Don’t get me wrong, the evolution to intellectual faith has been both gradual and subtle. There were no major movements, schisms, splits, or uprisings – it was much more insidious. As time passed and scholars wrote, whenever a biblical story or doctrine, theological tenet or traditional dogma, failed to meet the twin criteria of understanding and common sense, it was treated from a patronizing position with a gentle, but condescending smile. “Those early writers really didn’t understand ___________ [science, history, culture, anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc.]. They were simply writing what they observed from a simplistic, antiquated point of view. Clearly, what they meant to express was ___________ [something that made sense and didn’t rock the cultural boat].”
Ultimately, intellectual orthodoxy has brought us to a place where Christianity is defined more by a minimalist statement of assent than by any other measure. Viz, anyone who assents to a list of statements will be counted as a full member of the Christian faith.
Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who died and was resurrected to forgive your sin?
Interestingly enough, that same minimal answer will get you enrolled in the born again, evangelical capital “C” Church as well. Unfortunately, simple assent to that statement as the primary means of membership in Christianity, as well as membership in the church, has had a hand in the Western church’s decline.
Certainly, the scriptures are quite clear that belief is foundational to being a Christian. And although there is a distinct difference between assent and belief, in our Western vernacular, the two have become synonymous, at least in practice. In an ideal world, however, the distinction would be obvious. Beliefs drive values, and values drive behaviors; therefore, belief and behavior are inexplicably linked. Someone who believes X can reasonably be expected to behave consistently with that belief.
Assent, on the other hand, doesn’t drive anything – it is merely the acknowledgment of what one has accepted as a fact. We assent to the fact that 1+1=2 and that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States. For most, assent to these facts is not life changing, nor in general do they form or inform one’s values or behaviors. Likewise, simple assent to the statement Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who died and was resurrected to forgive my sin doesn’t necessarily predicate behavioral change either. Thus, intellectual orthodoxy has had a hand in creating a culture where 79 percent of all Americans “legitimately” claim to be Christian; where 50 percent of those convicted of violent crimes (and non-violent crimes, for that matter) are committed by “Christians”; and less than 15 percent of the national population attend a congregational worship service on any given weekend. And dare I mention that the number one charge levied at the church from the 85 percent who will not attend worship this week is that the church is filled with hypocrites.
The missional church raises a challenge to intellectual orthodox Christianity. Although it embraces the core faith statement as foundational, and I suspect most missional church practitioners would affirm sola fide as a theological tautology, the practice of the missional church appears to be a bit less sola. And this is where paradox comes to the fore.
One of the core concepts of the missional church is found in its unapologetic willingness to suspend the traditions, rituals, and rites of Christian religion in order to cultivate an environment where the practices of Christianity can emerge organically from an indigenous micro-culture. In other words, the missional church behaves more like a missionary who’s arrived on “foreign” soil and is forced to study to the language, culture, history, behaviors, mores, technologies, learning styles, and so on of the people group they seek to reach. Only when the “foreign” culture has become virtually as much a part of their personal paradigm as their own home-culture are they able to share the Gospel in ways that can be heard, embraced, and practiced. These churches reflect their own culture, develop their own practices and traditions, and often look nothing like anything we Westerners would recognize as “church.” They are truly indigenous.
So, where is the paradox? It’s found in their very practice. Indeed, it’s found in the word practice.
Whereas, intellectual Christianity has been largely built on knowledge and assent, missional Christianity is being built largely on spirituality. I’m not suggesting that missional Christianity is promoting emotionalism, nor am I alleging that intellectual Christianity doesn’t have a share of spiritual practitioners. However, the two paradigms for disciple-making couldn’t be more disparate. Intellectual Christianity begins with a teaching model; missional Christianity begins with an experiential model. Certainly, both reflect shades from the other, but the core of missional Christianity is “see and do,” whereas the core of intellectual Christianity is “learn and understand.”
Missional Christianity’s primary challenge to intellectual Christianity is reflective of James 2:17 – “Faith without works is dead.” Except in the missional Christianity corner, the drawn conclusion could well be “Faith without works isn’t faith.” And that is the paradox. The missional church appears quite orthodox in their incorporation of the same statement of faith accepted by intellectual Christianity, but they appear to also have embraced quoqa opera (works too) as an expectation of faith.
Of course, there is significant New Testament evidence, especially from the words of Jesus himself, when it comes to the expectation of those who claim to be Christ followers. Christians are expected to give up everything, to do the kind and scope of works Jesus did, to make more disciples, to forgive unconditionally, to not worry, to lend without expectation of return, to care for the unfortunate, to take full responsibility for our words and actions, to hold each other accountable, to serve each other in all things, and of course to love God, neighbor, one-another, enemy, and self.
How does missional Christianity reconcile sola fida with quoqa opera? It doesn’t. It simply and quietly embraces both sides of the fence, leaves the church building, rolls up its sleeves, and gets missionary with it – and expects those who “hear” the Gospel will “obey” it. And those who don’t are lovingly, gently, but firmly held accountable. The bullies, terrorists, controllers, and consumers who are so prevalent in the intellectual orthodox church are largely absent in the missional church … and those few who do slip in don’t tend to stay long. Spirituality simply won’t allow them to remain as they are, so they either change, leave, or are left.
Christianity as paradox: the crossroad of belief and practice, faith and works, intellect and experience. One without the other, on either side, gets us to where the Western Church and culture currently resides. Only time will tell if intellectual orthodox Christianity can bear the challenge of a new definition.