Mission, ecclesiology and discipleship in our contemporary culture

It is not very often that I read a blog post that really gets me thinking – but I did today.

I happened to find a link to Jim and Bobbi Hoag’s blog ‘Mission Now‘ and started to read a recent post by Jim entitled ‘21st Century Mission, Ecclesiology and Discipleship‘.

As he explains at the beginning of the post:

“I’m just thinking outloud on this post, nothing chisled in stone here. Put up a Tweet the other morning that went like this: “On being missional: Less trying to be early church “radical”, more room for the marginal (by being relational) without compromising the core”. I think it might be helpful to ask, does the early church and,  say, the contemporary Chinese church provide appropriate (relevant) models for the church in the West in this hour? If we are to emulate the vision and ambition of the early church in this culture, at this time in history, I believe we need to understand in what way that is to be achieved.

I think in some ways we need to appreciate the early church of the first two or three centuries as historically transitional and an example of the effect of God’s love/grace on human hearts. But because we live in a historical continuum (not vacuum), it’s possible we are making a mistake adapting a perceived first century church paradigm as a universal model of mission, ecclesiology and discipleship, without factoring in cultural and historical differences. Dogmatic interpretation often moves from context to the abstract and universal, ignoring historical and contextual contingencies, reducing and limiting Spirit-led creativity. For instance, in 21st century Western culture we are not living in, nor do we have to fear being eradicated by a satanically inspired imperial regime or a hostile persecuting Judaism and thus huddle up in places hidden from view. A narrative theology suggests to us that chunks of biblical truth, wrenched from their historical and eschatalogical setting, can result in serious damage to cultural connection.”

This really got me thinking – and I’ve been mulling it over, on and off, for the last few hours.

There does seem to be a trend at the moment, both in Christian literature and praxis, to move towards a more organic/ simple/ liquid/ incarnational/ missional church paradigm – with so many seemingly rejecting inherited church expressions and traditions as dated and restrictive, or even pagan, in structure and substance.  In parallel with this, so many are looking back to the first century church for inspiration – seeing it as a time when the worship of the risen Lord Jesus was undiluted by culture and the carnal desire for power and influence.

And I must admit, I have done the same.

But is looking backwards to what we think is a golden age in church history the answer to our contemporary church problems?

Well, maybe, in part, it is – but maybe we should also be looking to the future to influence our contemporary church expression – as Jim puts it so eloquently in his post:

“There is an eschatalogical horizon set in the distance for us, meaning that if we take as the final objective the renewal of creation (not escape to the heavens), we have a mission that is creational in scope unique to us. The community that is expansive enough, improvisational enough and imaginative enough to embrace that mission will participate in what the future will be, modeling new creation. And it will do so motivated and compelled by the love of Christ who gave Himself for that community, for His church.”

I think this is brilliant – and spot on!

The final objective of our faith is to be part of the renewal of creation – and that starts now – in Christ – being part of His Kingdom – today.  If our only hope as Christians is heaven when we die then we have sort of missed the point – and missed out on the blessing of day to day transformation in Christ as part of His body – the church.

I love the idea of our mission being ‘creational in scope’ – and that this view of mission is unique to us as disciples of Jesus!

Our purpose – to bring the new creation into reality by the Holy Spirit working through us as salt and light in our tainted world – being a community compelled by the love of Christ, modelling what that new creation will be like through the love and compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and grace that we show to others in response to that which we have found ourselves, hard won by Jesus on the cross at Calvary.

And that is the call to us across the whole age of the Church – until Jesus returns for his Bride, and the new heaven and earth are brought into being.

How we do it needs to be sensitive to the culture in which we find ourselves – but most of all – it needs to be centred on Jesus alone – dependent upon His power and presence through the Holy Spirit – led and sustained by Him – rather than just blindly following the current fashions of men.

As Jim puts it:

“…missional communities will organize themselves according to the conditions of their calling and existence. We are dealing less with religious hostility and imperial oppression and more often with indifference, irrelevance and cynicism. (This is tough enough to deal with in its own right and is not to say the church doesn’t face its own very real persecution and unique difficulties in every generation). It is not only our faith but our imagination and intellect that is being challenged today. So, what does the ecclesia look like in it’s 21st century implementation? It will examine the Great Commission and discipleship in the first century, understanding its origin and form developed under the shadow of suffering and martyrdom, living in the expectation of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This effected the task of making disciples then, and needs to be adjusted for discipleship in the context of our NOW. Though discipleship is a “given”, it is not (IMHO)  a generic, one size fits all proposition. Its form relates to (among other things) a particular period in the history of a people. This is hard to grasp because we relate so totally to universal timeless truth, not a narrative, not context, not a continuing story. We can think that the Great Commission, being shaped to current culture, is somehow being reduced or diminished in it’s power and purpose. But we have to have faith in God and the leading of His Spirit, not a timeless, context-less program of discipleship.”

So should we reject the current trend towards a more organic/ simple/ liquid/ incarnational/ missional church paradigm?  No, not at all – I think we should embrace it – but not as a replacement for inherited or traditional church – but as a catalyst for renewal, and complementary to it!

We must not throw the baby out with the bath water – but be led by the Holy Spirit to express church in an appropriate way for the time, place, culture and circumstance in which we find ourselves.  That might be organic/ simple/ liquid/ incarnational/ missional or inherited/ traditional in expression – or maybe a hybrid of both.  The point though is that the gospel truth stays the same – but how we express it changes.  The key, I think, is to not be restricted in our way of doing church, but to be open and willing to be led by the Spirit – in prayer together as ‘church’.  This might actually mean that our church community expression is different in different places – as we reject the idea, as Jim says, of discipleship as “a generic, one size fits all proposition”.

Has the time come to put our business model ‘strategic’ thinking back in the box and get back on our knees together – seeking the will and purposes of our Lord for us in our specific time, place, culture and circumstance rather than just adopting the latest fad, trendy programme or worship style that worked for someone else?  I’m not saying we reject business or programme led thinking altogether – just maybe it’s time we put it into its proper place in the church context – subject to the discerned purposes and heart of God!

Our mission, ecclesiology and discipleship must start and end with Jesus – creational in scope – focussed on His life, death and resurrection – bringing the transforming power of the Kingdom of God into reality today – through the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, His church – reaching the lost and serving the needy in response to the love and grace we have found in Him.

Everything else is peripheral!

(HT: Miguel Labrador)

4 thoughts on “Mission, ecclesiology and discipleship in our contemporary culture

  1. Ann van Wijgerden

    Wow, this is such good stuff… (Sorry for my lack of eloquence!) It really deserves its own book!!! Or at least a few chapters. Reading it, thinking about it, will make people feel inspired to BE church and use their God-given talents in the here and now… At least that’s its effect on me.

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  2. Martin Luff

    The book is on its way – but don’t hold your breath for it just yet ;)I agree with you Ann – you know I do. How can we not be inspired by such a challenge and opportunity to fulfil our purpose as believers. It has the same effect on me!Go and have a look at Jim and Bobbi Hoag’s blog as well – you will like it. From what I’ve read so far, I think I am going to enjoy following their blog posts 🙂

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  3. This reminds me of a High School all-star quarterback that has grown up and won’t move on. Constantly comparing the here and now to the best ever… The “Golden Years” as Mr. Luff says. Why has he not let go, or moved on from the Golden Years? Maybe he feels that’s when life was the best. So he’s constantly trying to super impose what he sees as his Golden Years into his latter years. It’s not a great life like it was, so let me try and make it fit for me now. Meanwhile, he’s missing out on the amazing things he could be doing right now as apposed to forcing something that just is not going to work. Then ultimately getting frustrated, angry, inpatient, defeated, give up, and lose all control.This is brilliant and so identifiable on so many levels with so many people. Thank you Mr. Luff.The church’s refusal or stubbornness of not living with Jesus and the Holy Spirit culturally is what will unfortunately and catastrophically be their own demise. Cultures are growing at a rapid rate and Jesus is getting smaller because of their lack-ness or fear of changing. The church needs to invite new ideas and embrace the culture they find themselves in. With Jesus central, you won’t lose anything that God wants you to have and best of all, look at how many “more” people will be saved and love Jesus..These two posts between Jim and Martin; Brilliant, thanks guys.

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  4. Martin, many thanks for your encouragement, especially in the early stages of some new (but certainly not original) thoughts about ecclesial purpose and mission. It seems that Jesus’ intention (at least in part), through His life, death, and resurrection, was more than the individual salvation of men and women but also to form one NEW man, indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Eph.2:15,22)…..A NEW CREATION COMMUNITY intended as a sign of the new heaven and new earth to come (Eph 3:10, Rev.21:1-6 ). Here we have the fulfillment and ongoing expression of the covenant God made with Abraham (Gen.12:2,3).And to the extent that the church in its imperfect way is able to look AHEAD and capture something of that restoration in advance, it demonstrates to the world in the NOW the transcendent reality of the “NOT YET”. Thanks again Martin.

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