The Mission and the Mission Field

One of the books I’m reading now is A New Kind of Church: A Systems Approach, by Dan R. Dick and Evelyn Burry. In the first chapter they contrast the approaches of Jesus and Paul. Very briefly, some of the contrasts are:

  • Jesus was highly mobile, regularly going out to the people. Paul built stationary churches that sought to draw people in.
  • Jesus used a teacher/disciple model. Paul used a shepherd/flock model.
  • Jesus focused on people’s relationship with God. Paul focused on people’s relationship with the congregation.
  • Jesus frequently broke with tradition. Paul was bound by tradition.

Dick and Burry reject the easy “Jesus – good, Paul – bad” assessment some might leap to. They see Paul’s model as intended to exemplify, express and extend Jesus’ model. They use this contrast to discuss current United Methodist church practice, which they say more nearly approximates Paul’s model. We build churches, invest heavily in elaborate buildings that need constant maintenance, have clear structures of authority and rules for who can do ministry and how they can do it, expect the people to come to us, and operate within set hours.

Two thoughts come immediately to mind. First, the focus on Jesus as tradition-breaker leads to a marginalization of the importance of his context. In spite of Jesus’ breaks with tradition, his moves made sense within the wider Jewish context. In spite of his differences with the tradition, his words and actions were predicated on that tradition and made sense within it. He was not starting a new religion (to speak anachronistically, yet in a way popular today), but taking the next step in God’s ongoing activity to save the world through his people Israel.

This leads to the second thought. When we read the Gospels, we see Jesus operating in Galilee, Samaria and Judea. He spoke to the poor and the rich. He dealt with insiders and outsiders. It’s easy to judge from this that he “went to all people.” But he didn’t. Though there a few exceptions, almost all his work was done in an area in which the tradition we call Judaism was “established,” or taken for granted. The Romans might have ultimate authority, Greco-Roman culture may be intruding, but his audience was at least on the periphery of the operations of the Jewish tradition. When he spoke or acted, his words and deeds could be understood within that tradition.

Paul’s journeys took him into very different settings. In Asia, Galatia, Achaia and other Roman provinces he was able to find pockets of the Jewish tradition, centered on synagogues. He habitually (though as with Jesus there were a few exceptions) that he began his ministry in each new locale. As a cultural outsider, he could find in the synagogue an audience that could understand the moves he made in bringing Jesus into the Jewish tradition. Like Jesus, his action is not best understood as starting a new religion, but as making a move in carrying out a revised interpretation of the tradition from Abraham and Moses.

A third thought, that I won’t explore with depth, is that their characterization of the Paul Model seems heavily weighted toward the Pauline ecclesiology depicted in the Pastorals, edging over into what some call “early Catholicism.” Finding the center of Paul’s model there gives too little attention to his missionary ethos.

I understand the desire of Dick and Burry to transition in United Methodism from what they call the Pauline Model to the Jesus Model. Our churches are too building- centered. We are weighed down with excessive bureaucracy and rules. We too often sit in our buildings and just expect people to show up, instead of going out where the people are. If reversing each of those situations could be as simple as changing from a Paul Model to a Jesus Model, I’d be all for it. But I don’t think it’s that simple.

A primary complexity is that our social setting is more like Paul’s than Jesus’s. Where we could once describe America as a place where Christianity was the established religion, a place where even non-participants knew enough of the tradition that our moves made some sense, that is no longer the case. United Methodist congregations and people still want to believe we operate in a Christian country and society, a place where we can invite our communities to “Come Home for Christmas.” For the majority that have never thought of “church” as “home” this makes no sense. Our era is much more like Paul’s. Today, as did Paul in his journeys, we see gatherings and little enclaves of participants in the Christian tradition scattered as islands in a sea of non-participants.

Another book I’m reading now is Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. After reviewing the results of their survey of the cultural attitudes and practices of this demographic segment, they shift to discussing the religious implications. Prefacing their remarks they say,

Religious faith and practice generally associate with settled lives and tend to be disrupted by social, institutional, and geographical transitions. This connection between religious and other kinds of disruptions is a broad sociological fact.

In the context of my current discussion, I take this to be a claim that religion correlates with stability and connection to established traditions. I’m inclined to think that a decline in church participation by the young adults in their survey is directly related to the presence (dominance) of churches that act as establishment institutions while the experienced reality of their participants is disestablishment. The assumed establishment (at-home-ness) of the churches, being dissonant with lived experience leads to more easily dropping the faith. Establishment mentality, of one flavor or another, is common to both mainline and evangelical churches (the branches with which I have the greatest familiarity).

Given our diaspora-like social setting, merely going to the people is bound to be misunderstood. Sure, they can take us to be do-gooders, social reformers, nice folks. But the Christian tradition (like the Jewish tradition), cannot be reduced to those things. In this setting we need to take up again the Jesus model of teacher/disciple – the very model Paul experienced in his relationship with Barnabas and later duplicated with people like Timothy.

Apprentice-based Christianity – returning the practices of Jesus and Paul – will do several things.

First, apprentice-based Christian formation (Dallas Willard likes to use “apprentice” thinking) will be rooted in the Christian tradition. It will be an intentional growth into the work of God through history, from Abraham, through Moses and the people of Israel, Jesus and the disciples, the early church and on through the ages. Since it will be engagement with such a large tradition, there will be no quick way to make it happen.

Second, apprentice-based Christian formation will shape more than beliefs. Christian beliefs are always necessarily tied into and mutually implicated with practices and desires. We’ve tried raising a generation of Christians on beliefs alone – and even with great, awesome, true, wholesome beliefs, we’ve failed miserably. The Christian faith is a network of relationships through Christ – with God, with others, with ourselves, with the world.

Third, apprentice-based Christian formation will highlight the difference with the world. This isn’t the fortress or crusade mentality, but the conviction that the Christian tradition with its practices, community and telos is different than that of surrounding society. Teachers will escort their apprentices through encounters with the world so they can experience this difference first hand, and then debrief the experience with them. The goal will not be to inculcate a world-rejecting ethos, but rather a willingness to be different along with a broken heart for the inhabitants of the world.

Fourthly, drawing new people to the faith in this model is not a matter of setting up shop and waiting for outsiders who feel an innate need for church (or “spirituality”) to just show up. Rather, we do our apprenticeship with one foot in the Kingdom, the other in the world. While increasingly rooted and grown up in Christ, we also deepen our relationship with outsiders, letting Jesus demonstrate his reality in our words, actions, and, most importantly, our weakness (that is, our very real dependence on the Spirit all the time).

Fifthly, and finally – since I need to stop somewhere today – this way of Christian formation can be highly individualized. Since each of us are already not only in some relation to the Christian tradition, but also a variety of relationships with different segments of the world, we each have different needs. Our different places in life and different sets of experiences require individualized training in faith. While larger groups will still have their place in Christian formation, there will need to be a shift away from, “You’re this age, so you go to this class and learn from this quarterly produced in Nashville” to “These are some of the options we have this quarter, and having considered your growth in faith over the past year, these two would be good options to help you take your next step with Christ.”

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One Response to The Mission and the Mission Field

  1. joan says:

    Wow! Thanks for the blog. I was thinking of asking the associate pastor here if we could start a class called “RPG”. This would be a recalling of the popular meaning of RPG, which is “roll-playing game”; only this would be “roll-playing gospel”. I think that this might help us Methodists get used to talking about things that matter, and help us learn to think about where non-christians are, and what they think when we say,”…

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