This week I had the privilege of not only attending the "Changing World, Changing Church" conference in Palmerston North, but also giving a response to the input brought by the speakers - including Dan Kimball, Michael Frost, Mark Strom, and our own Carey staff member, Brian Krum.
In my response I tried to name six areas of creative tension that goes on within me when the subject turns to missional church (and also emerging church). Here is a brief summary of these tensions - which I do kinda enjoy grappling with:
(a) the tension between the changing and the unchanging
I do wish that 'changing world, changing church' had 'unchanging gospel' added to it. At Kiwi conferences like this one we readily assume what the gospel is - but we rarely take the time to articulate it. This encourages what is 'changing' to drive the agenda and relevance becomes dependent on contemporary trends, rather than eternal truths. This is the tension between sociology and theology and the former does tend to run the show... Our task involves looking AT the church and mission THROUGH a sociological lens in order to see what must change - but it must also include looking AT society THROUGH a biblical-theological lens in order to see what must be confronted. The authority of scripture demands no less than this.
(b) the tension between the eclipse and the lane
This is a quick history lesson on how best to interpret the 'post' words like 'postmodern' and 'postChristendom'. We tend to default to an understanding of history which sees one era being replaced, or eclipsed, by another one. The modern gives way to the postmodern. The discontinuities between the two are emphasised. This tends to make people very bold in their proclamations of a brand new era that is distinctive from all that has gone before. However I wonder if history works more like lanes... The premodern track becomes a two lane highway in the modern which then becomes a three lane motorway in the postmodern. It is this three lane motorway - with the postmodern lane being the busy and fast lane - that carries people into the future. And so continuities with the past can be seen as there is traffic still in the other lanes.
In the contemporary discussions on church which focus on eclipse, there is the danger of fleeing the arms of modernity and over into the embrace of postmodernity with the one constant being that the cultural captivity of the church remains ... But with a 'lane' understanding conversation across lanes is possible - as is being hit in our blindspots by traffic from other lanes - and a little Son-strike might help as well!
(c) the tension between 'front-door opening' and 'back-door closing' mission
We really do need both - and yet strategies for both seem to be relatively uncommon! The irony is that if we allowed the fullness of the biblical teaching on church and pastor and mission to own us - doors will open and close at the right time and in the right way. For example, take the biblical understanding of what it means to be a pastoral leader. I tend to start with five Ss: shepherd, servant, sage, seer, and steward. I am completely convinced that if these truly penetrated the lives of pastors and grew strong in them, we'd find God's Spirit take us to a whole new level in mission. This approach has not so much been tried and found wanting, but wanted and not really fully tried...
(d) the tension between the Kiwi and the North Atlantic
I stood atop Mt Maunganui earlier this month and counted 19 different waves at some stage of building towards the shore. Over my 22 years in leadership in the NZ church I could count about that many programmes and gurus in which our hopes have been placed. Two reflections on this phenomenon ... (i) there is something we should do with these waves: catch them early as they begin to swell, rather than riding them just as they begin to crash. Their application for us lies more with those early foundational principles, than with the later spectacular performance. Dan Kimball is inspirational - but probe for what shaped him and built him as a person (did I hear that he grew up in a Bible church? might that be significant?) in leadership and mission, rather than just for where he is now. The application for us is likely to be more with the earlier than with the later; (ii) there is something we should do with us: develop a culture of Kiwi-made missional research and take our own risks as we do mission in the margins and then live to tell the story...
(e) the tension between the minority world and the majority world
First World, Second World, and Third World doesn't cut it any more. Neither does Developed, Developing, and Under-developed... There is a Majority world (in the South and the East, primarily) and there is a Minority world (in the North and the West, primarily). This minority world is now a mission field - but how come we don't consult some of the mission force in the majority world for inspiration? Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom needs to be drawn into this conversation we are having as it speaks of the 'coming of a global christianity'. But we are not drawing this story into our conversation simply because the money, the power, and the media lives in the Minority world and so we don't hear these stories. Why not be really post-colonial and develop humble learning partnerships with the South and the East - and sit at their feet? When are some of our gurus going to have brown faces? When are mission trips from there to here going to commence? Within a generation only 10% of Christians will be in the North and the West and so our conversation this week starts to look like a little eddy off to the side of the mainstream of suffering and growth in the South and the East. Here in New Zealand - this remarkable confluence of North and South and East and West - we have the opportunity to lead the way.
(f) the tension between the critiqued and the affirmed
It has been understandably 'slippery' - but something has been critiqued this week (with some welcome restraint, I might add) and I think it has something to do with institutional - established - traditional church ... and something else has been affirmed and I think it has something to do with missional and emerging church. My suspicion is that what is being criticised is not as bad as we think and what is being affirmed is not as good as we think. It is possible to put a missional engine into an institutional chassis and I suspect that this is what God requires of most of us - rather than going home to 'clear the decks' and start again. But either way, embrace a principle of good research as you do so: engage with the best exponent of the opposing view, rather than with the weakest one. And so for those of us who have found the presentations both inspirational and aspirational (me included!), draw in a book like David Wells Above All Earthly Pow'rs (Eerdmans, 2005) as a conversation partner. You'll be the better for it...
A longer posting this time - sorry!