Friday, June 22, 2007

The Mereness of Church: Its Mission

Here's a true confession, and perhaps a disclaimer: I don't think I've ever read a book on the missional or emergent chuch.

Now, I know that for some people that means I'm not well read. And, I'm probably not. For others it means I'm not cool or hip or something. And, three kids and a mini-van later they're exactly right. "Cool" sorta evaporates on the mini-van window the moment you put up the Looney Tunes sun screen for the infant in the car seat. Add to that a few American Girl stickers and you're certifiably NOT cool. So, perhaps my reading choices reflect that.

But I do hear a lot of conversation about missional and I have the privilege of listening to a lot of guys a lot smarter and experienced than I am talk about the mission of the church, whether or not they're missional, or emergent or something else.

And not just the movers and shakers are talking about these things. A couple of nights ago I had the sweet privilege of talking with two college freshmen over desert. Aside from being ravenous where desert was concerned, they'd recently attended the New Attitude conference in Louisville and they were still positively devouring the messages they'd heard there. It was exciting to see these young men burning with passion for the Savior.

At one point in the conversation, one of the fellas asked me what I thought about the church's role in "engaging the culture." That question comes up a lot. "Isn't that the church's mission?"

Last night one of the men joining us for desert after the first night of the New Life conference asked the same question. Two different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, age groups and interests asking the same question: "What is the church's role in engaging the culture?" "What's its mission?"

Here, I think, is a place where mereness is good for the church. How can I get the African American man sitting in Denny's asking about culture and acceptance (the irony of the question and the location should not be lost here! :-)) to see that his question is profoundly connected with my young, white, freshman, son-of-a-South-African-via-London-now-residing-in-Chicago questioner? Though they're looking at different cultures, how do we learn to see the overwhelming and vast domain we do share and should share in more deeply? Quite frankly, I don't think either thinks of the other much at all... and yet all of us claim Christ as our King and identity.

Well, perhaps it's in the adoption of a mere mission for the church. This may be terribly reductionistic, but the church qua church has a two-fold mission: disciple and evangelize. Bring those professing faith in Christ under the discipline of the Lord and bring those who do not know Christ into saving knowledge of Him.

I don't think my missional and emergent and ? friends would much disagree with that. What I think they would do is begin to add qualifiers and adjectives that to them suggest a strategic interest, a demographic or people group, a culture or subculture.

But what I'm afraid they may be missing is that each addition is actually a fraying of the mission and the fabric of the church. If we would merely shape people with the wide and inclusive love of Christ, then most everyone willing to do a little work should be able find a place in most every church without the need for sub-culture emergent or homogeneous unit principle "churches". If we're willing to conceive of the church's mission in its most basic form and then work out that mission with everyone the Lord brings to us or sends us to, then I think there's room for the hip hopper and the Sinatra generations on the same pew. But I think that only happens when "engaging the culture" means shedding unessential cultural trappings and worldly thinking to adopt a distinctively Christian ethic of love, hospitality, and fellowship... when we merely love those before us (all of those before us) with a gospel love.

I don't know if this makes any sense. But, I think much of the "engage the culture" discussion is really goal displacement. Rather than disciple and evangelize actual people, we sometimes get lost in a rather misty, ill-defined space called "culture". If we would but disciple and evangelize (again, I'm thinking of the church's mission; I'm not limiting what individual Christians do), we will be "engaging the culture" and we'll have the great advantage of staying on-task in the process.


Kenny said...

I appreciate your article, Thabiti, and have to say that I think the whole "engaging culture" thing has gotten WAY out of hand in the church today - certainly the American church. Why are we trying to engage? Shouldn't it be so they can see the glory of God in the face of Christ? Do they have to like our music or think we're cool or funny before God can open their hearts? It's the message of the Gospel that's needed, regardless of cultural trappings. So yes, what's needed is, as you say, evangelism and discipleship. The Word of God.

I heard Ligon Duncan say recently that the reason so much of the culture finds the Scripture irrelevent is because it simply doesn't care about the things God cares about. (Paraphrase.) My concern about this whole engaging culture thing is that the church is compromising the message (or neglecting it altogether!) just to "connect" with the lost.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying - correct me if I'm wrong.

Anyway, I heard about your blog thru your most recent interview with Mark - hope you and the family are loving the Lord down there.

(Go Pack!)


Dan Waugh said...

Well, I'm with you on the not-so-cool side of things. I also tool around in a minivan, but thank goodnes there's not American Girl stickers (that would be weird for the three boys I drive around)!

Unlike you I have read fairly broadly on the emergent church - I had to since I'm a college pastor. Now I'm very frustrated because we've come to the same conclusion and you did without all the superflous reading.

What I have noticed is that many of the emerging pastors/writers are coming from a more seperatist/fundamentalist background. Consequently, they may not have seen much true evangelism - I know I didn't. They are, I believe, reacting to the 'holy huddle' mentality of many churches that have withdrawn from society as a whole or at least large portions of it.

Thanks for your input.