loren Eric Swanson: Tim Keller's "The Missional Church"

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Tim Keller's "The Missional Church"

I’m sitting in seat 10-C on a 737-300, parked on the DIA tarmac… and it looks like we’ll be here for a while…another hour and a half, according to the last announcement. Seatbelt signs are off, the flight deck door is open for tours and coffee will soon be coming down the aisle. And I have 5:23 hours on my laptop battery.

I just finished reading at article by Tim Keller of Redeemer Pres in NYC on “The Missional Church.” Keller has a keen mind and great insight. He is reluctant to write more books (after Ministry of Mercy) but his articles are gems. This one is dated June 2001. I believe I picked these up when Tom Shirk and I were at Redeemer in August. After introductory paragraphs on the rise and fall of Christendom, Keller gives outlines five elements of a missional church. I’ll reproduce them here because they are worthy of contemplation.

1. Discourse in the vernacular
In “Christendom” there is little difference between the language inside and outside of the church. Documents of the early US Congress, for example, are riddled with allusions to and references from the Bible. Biblical technical terms are well-known inside and outside. In a mission church, however, terms must be explained
The missional church avoids “tribal” language, stylized prayer language, unnecessary evangelical pious “jargon,” and archaic language that seeks to set a “spiritual tone”
The missional church avoids “we-them” language, disdainful jokes that mock people of different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ with us
The missional church avoids sentimental, pompous, “inspirational” talk. Instead we engage the culture with gentle, self-deprecating but joyful irony the gospel creates. Humility + joy = gospel irony and realism
The missional church avoids ever talking as if non-believing people are not present. If you speak and discourse as if your whole neighborhood will find their way in or be invited
Unless all of the above is the outflow of a truly humble-bold gospel-changed heart, it is all just “marketing” and “spin.”

2. Enter and re-tell the culture’s stories with the gospel
In Christendom” it is possible to simply exhort Christianized people to “do what they know they should.” There is little or no real engagement, listening, or persuasion. It is more a matter of exhortation (and often, heavy reliance on guilt). In a missional church preaching an communication should always assume the presence of skeptical people, and should engage their stories, not simply talk about “old times”
To “enter” means to show sympathy toward and deep acquaintance with the literature, music, theater, etc. of the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, “heroic” narratives, fears.
The older culture’s story was—to be a good person, a good father / mother, son / daughter, to live a decent, merciful, good life
Now the culture’s story is—a) to be free and self-created and authentic (theme of freedom from oppression), and b) to make the world safe for everyone else to be the same (theme of inclusion of the “other; justice)
To “re-tell” means to show how only in Christ can we have freedom without slavery and embracing the “other” without injustice.

3. Theologically train lay people for public life and vocation
In “Christendom” you can afford to train people just in prayer, Bible study, evangelism—private world skills—because they are not facing radically non-Christian values in their public life—where they work, in their neighborhood, etc
In a “missional” church, the laity needs theological education to “think Christianly” about everything and work with Christian distinctiveness. They need to know: a) what cultural practices are common grace and to be embraced, b) what practices are antithetical to the gospel and must be rejected, c) what practices can be adapted / revised
In a “missional” situation, lay people renewing and transforming the culture through distinctively Christian vocations must be lifted up as real “kingdom work” and ministry along with the traditional ministry of the Word
Finally, Christians will have to use the gospel to demonstrate true, Biblical love and “tolerance” in “the public square” toward those with whom we deeply differ. This tolerance should equal or exceed that which opposing views show toward Christians. The charge of intolerance is perhaps the main “defeater” of the gospel in the non-Christian west.

4. Create Christian community, which is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive
In Christendom, “fellowship” is basically just a set of nurturing relationships, support and accountability. That is necessary, of course
In a missional church however, Christian community must go beyond that to embody a “counter-culture,” showing the world how radically different a Christian society is with regard to sex, money and power
In sex. We avoid both the secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of sex. We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose seual life patterns are different
In money. We promote a radically generous commitment of time, money, relationships, and living space to social justice and the needs of the poor, the immigrant, the economically and physically weak
In power. We are committed to power-sharing and relationship-building between races and classes that are alienated outside of the Body of Christ
In general, a church must be more deeply and practically committed to deeds of compassion and social justice than traditional fundamentalist churches. This kind of church is profoundly “counter-intuitive” to American observers. It breaks their ability to categorize (and dismiss) it as liberal or conservative. Only this kind of church has any chance in the non-Christian west.

5. Practice Christian unity as much as possible on the local level
In Christendom, when “everyone was a Christian” it was necessary (perhaps) for a church to define itself over against other churches. That is, to get an identity you had to say, “we are not like that church over there, or those Christians over here”
Today, however, it is much more illuminating and helpful for a church to define itself over against “the world”—the values of the non-Christian culture. It is very important that we not spend our time bashing anc criticizing other kinds of churches. That simply plays into the common “defeater” that Christians are all intolerant
While we have to align ourselves in denominations that share many of our distinctives, at the local level we should cooperate and reach out to and support the other congregations and churches in our local area. This will raise many thorny issues, of course, but our bias should be in the direction of cooperation.

Case Study
Let me show you how this goes beyond any “program.” These are elements that have to be present in every area of the church. So for example, what makes a small group “missional” is not necessarily one which is doing some kind of specific “evangelism” program (though that is to be recommended). Rather, 1) if its members love and talk positively about the city / neighborhood, 2) if they speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor disdainful and embattled language, 3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the people of the culture, 4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature and art and thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and yet critically, 5) if they exhibit deep concern for the poor and generosity with their money and purity and respect with regard to the opposite sex, and show humility toward people of other races and cultures, 6) they do not bash other Christians and churches—then seekers and non-believing people from the city a) will be invited and b) will come and will stay as they explore spiritual issues. If these marks are not there it will only be able to include believers or traditional “Christianized” people.

1 Comments:

At Thursday, October 13, 2005 10:20:00 AM, Blogger McRyanMac said...

Quoting from your post: "To “enter” means to show sympathy toward and deep acquaintance with the literature, music, theater, etc. of the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, “heroic” narratives, fears.
The older culture’s story was—to be a good person, a good father / mother, son / daughter, to live a decent, merciful, good life
Now the culture’s story is—a) to be free and self-created and authentic (theme of freedom from oppression), and b) to make the world safe for everyone else to be the same (theme of inclusion of the “other; justice)
To “re-tell” means to show how only in Christ can we have freedom without slavery and embracing the “other” without injustice."

For a great book on how this was done by Augustine and Aquinas, pick up "Engaging Unbelief" by Curtis Chang, published by IVP.

 

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