Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Is protestant mission an oxymoron?

The emerging church, or the church emergent for that matter, is undergoing a lot of criticism and critique in so far as it is seeking to do/be church in radically new ways that, at least for those familiar with church in their own traditional form, appear unfamiliar. But what about roots, those things that are at once hidden beneath our very feet and which continually nourish and sustain our very existence, that contribute to the current story in which we find ourselves? In particular I'm wondering about my own protestant roots. From all indications I'm beginning to question whether Lutherans can even claim to have a missional approach to church that is not merely reduced or elevated to a system of beliefs. Our very historical origins suggest that we are speaking to an existing "faithful" and "insider" crowd, justifying our particular ways, albeit rich and truthful about who God is, without any concern for those that the Kingdom of God is seeking to include.

A couple things get me thinking and wondering. These words from David Bosch, a South African Dutch Reformed missiologist in his monumental work on the history of mission over the past 2000 years, who speaks about 'Lutheran Orthodoxy and Mission':

"...the Protestant descriptions concentrated on the correctness of teaching the sacraments. Each confession understood the church in terms of what it believed its own adherents possessed and the others lacked, so Catholics prided themselves in the unity and visibility of their church, Protestants in their doctrinal impeccability. The Protestant preoccupation with right doctrine soon meant that every group which seceded from the main body had to validate its action by maintaining that it alone, and none of the others, adhered strictly to the "right preaching of the gospel". The Reformational descriptions of the church thus ended up accentuating differences rather than similarities. Christians were taught to look divisively at other Christians. Eventually Lutherans divided from Lutheranss, Reformed separated from Reformed, each group justifying its action by appealing to the marks of the true church, especially correcting preaching."

"In all these instances the church was defined in terms of what happens inside its four walls, not in terms of its calling in the world. The verbs used in the Augustana (this references article VII on the church in the Augsburg Confessions of 1530) are all in the passive voice: the church is a place where the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. It is a place where something is done, not a living organism doing something."

"The Reformation had come to its conclusion with the establishment of state churches, and of systems of pure doctrine and conventionalized Christian conduct. The church of pure doctrine was, however, a church without mission, and its theology more scholastic than apostolic." (Bosch, Transforming Mission 248-249)

Is there any missional component to the Lutheran DNA other than a fantastically sophisticated construct of God? I, in no way, want to down play the importance of a balanced approach of head and heart faith, of faith seeking understanding. But I do want to radically critique the same system that is seeking to critique this radical form of missional church known as the emerging church. I suppose there will be some of us who will get defensive regarding our tradition and do doctrinal and historical acrobatics to justify both our own existence but even more that we are a missional church.

Again, don't get me wrong, I appreciate the correction and centrality placed back on God's activity in the world as free gift, a theology of the cross, a vocational emphasis on the life of a Christian and the paradoxical freedom that comes with it.

However, it seems to me that one of the best ways we can approach a deep missional perspective as Lutherans is by "confessing" or "agreeing" that we fall short of a complete and comprehensive ecclesiology and that we are not the ultimate end of what the true Jesus Church is all about. This post (beyond)denominational approach doesn't seek to negate our own identity, but views and lives it in conjunction with other amazingly faithful perspectives. Contextualizing ourselves and integrating the greatness of what we have to offer Christianity, humbly and hospitably, while at the same time embracing the greatness of other deeply profound traditions is key to a healthy future. When we can learn to do this, without an nervous breakdown, I think we will begin growing more fully into what the true Jesus Church is all about.

Why wonder around these things? Well for one, it's a personal struggle to reconcile my own tradition with what I'm working out in this new emerging paradigm. Secondly, if we are to be an ancient/future church or even a church in a postmodern culture, we need to take seriously and critically engage in the family album of the past just as many of us seek to pave a new and faithful way into the future.

I found it quite interesting to read about a couple other thoughts in Bosch's final summary of his book Transforming Mission that are more generally wondering about Christian mission.

"Speaking at a consultation in Kuala Lumpur in February, 1971, Emerito Nacpil depicts mission as 'a symbol of the universality of Western imperialism among the rising generations of the Third World'. In the missionary, the people of Asia do not see the face of the suffering Christ but a benevolent monster. So he concludes, 'The present structure of modern mission is dead. And the first thing we ought to do is to eulogize it and then bury it.' Mission appears to be the greatest enemy of the gospel. Indeed, the most missionary service a missionary under the present system can do today to Asia is to go home!"

and another thought...

"We may have been fairly good at orthodoxy, at "faith", but we have been poor in respect to orthopraxis, of love....there have been countless councils on right believing; yet no council has even been called to work out the implications of the greatest commandment - to love one another. One may therefore, with some justification, ask whether there has ever been a time when the church had the "right" to do mission work." (Bosch, 519)


tamie said...

That last quote is absolutely excellent.

K said...

Dave, you know I resonate with this...
I've moved far away from any correct doctrine preoccupation to live in a community of Jesus praxis.

I have a new freedom of 'being church,' incarnation, sacramental, eucharistic, prayerful, scripturally reflective and engaged in service.

I get my 'doctrine' from liturgy
(as any doctrine needed for life in Jesus praxis is 'in there'). Liturgy is the people's seminary.
and I'm enrolled 'for life.'

And then we go forth to 'live the liturgy after liturgy.'
Liturgy defined (by me) as the life we lead in love with and before the Trinity, and in service to God's Reign.


dave said...

thanks k, profound and beautiful words!

Anonymous said...

Ah, if only mission, missions, and missionaries were things of the past. As humans, we seem to have a drive to get/convince/force others to believe what we believe. Why is that? What is so difficult about understanding, tolerating, respecting, even celebrating different views of Life?