We ARE the church on mission… (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 2)

So, last post I introduced Michael Moynagh’s argument that mission is a task for the Christian community, not individuals alone, and the need to recognise that ‘church’ can be any Christian community in any context – not just Sunday gatherings in residential areas.  This post I want to offer a response….

Yes Michael!

I couldn’t agree more that the Christian community is essential for mission.  I think Hauerwas is spot on that it is in this community that we learn what it is to be Christian, that we learn the language, actions and perspective that shapes us to live faithful to God.  I think Newbigin is totally right that the gospel will only look credible today when people can see a community who are actually living it out.  We can shout opinions all we want, but if we can’t point to a community of people actually living as if those opinions are true then they’re seen to be empty and hollow.

A couple of minor points I’d like to tweak a bit….

For example, Moynagh argues that, although Hauerwas recognises the problem of Christians being isolated in most of their lives by suggesting we should be sent out in pairs, he doesn’t go far enough to see the missional role of community because he is stuck with an assumption of church as the Sunday gathering in residential areas.  Maybe, maybe not.  I would argue (indeed, I have argued in an MPhil where I also strongly stated the missional role of community), that Hauerwas’ thought includes a concept of improvisation (thanks Sam Wells for the terminology).  Part of our character being formed to speak, see and think faithful to Jesus, is that we find new ways of expressing that faithfulness in new contexts.  Thus, new forms of church are not excluded by Hauerwas, they’re arguably a natural progression of his thought…..we should see them emerging!

But that is a minor point…..here are two more significant comments….

1) We are never going to avoid being sent out alone…..from any community.  Moynagh is so right that we need to encourage Christian communities to form in different spheres of life.  But that doesn’t mean we will all be able to have a community in every sphere of our lives.  For one thing, real community requires a level of commitment that simply can’t be spread amongst a work church, gym church, neighbourhood church and pub church…..we’ll form loose networks not real community.  That means we are going to find ourselves sent out from our community at some point…..and I think that’s ok…..

2) …more than ok, I think it may be necessary.  Another unease I felt was the underlying assumption that we all have very different spheres to our lives that are distinct to one another.  The assumption that I need a church at work as well as in my neighbourhood because these are two distinct spheres of life that have little contact with one another.  Now, that may in some ways be true, but one of the concerns I have about contemporary society is our willingness to compartmentalise our lives as if how I am in one place has no bearing on how I am elsewhere.  I may lie at work because that’s what you do there, but I won’t lie ‘in church’ because it’s not right……and I’m cool with that.  I wonder if the church should be a community that challenges the assumption we can compartmentalise our lives, rather than seeking to provide an alternative community in every compartment of it…..

So these two points lead me to end with this thought: does it make a difference if we see our mission as to form disciples rather than to plant churches?  (Neil Cole of the Organic Church movement argues this….it’s not a Sam original!)   Is the greatest need not for Christian communities in every sphere of every individuals’ life, but for Christian communities that form disciples who see their life as a whole and live faithful in every part of life?

The church is not simply a community to which I belong, it is a something of which I am a part – we are the church.  And we are the church everywhere we go.  Wherever and however often I gather with the rest of the community, I will always be the church in every part of my life….there is never a time when I am ‘isolated’ from that community, when the church is no longer with me or relevant to me.  That is not to say I won’t feel ‘isolated’ and there are certainly ways for Christian communities to improve in supporting one another when we’re not gathered together, but we remain part of that community whether we are physically together or not.

This is a thought that may require more space to get more clarity!  I’d value your thoughts….I’m still thinking this through.  In any event, I strongly recommend having a read of Moynagh’s book – it’ll get you thinking and give you some ideas!

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Mission: alone or together? (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 1)

Not cheap, but worth it!If you have any interest in organic church, emerging church, missional communities, fresh expressions, new monasticism or any other recent expression of church and mission READ THIS BOOK: Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context written with Phillip Harrold.  He brings together about a decade’s worth of theology and practice around new forms of church and mission.

Chapter 7 piqued my interest in particular as Moynagh poses the question: is mission by individuals or communities?

Reflecting on Stanley Hauerwas and Leslie Newbigin (guess why I was interested?), Moynagh argues that, though we often recognise the importance of the church community for mission, our general model is to gather in a residential area and then send individuals off alone to evangelise throughout the week.

Hauerwas recognises
the importance of church community as the place where Christian character is formed.  This community shapes the language, actions and perspective on the world of its members and thus shapes them to live distinctively.  It is in these distinctive lives, shaped around Jesus, that Christians point people to God.  Similarly, Newbigin argued that the only way the church can faithfully and credibily represent the gospel in today’s society is by a congregation of men and women who believe and live it.

So the church as community is essential for mission….but…

Moynagh argues, both Hauerwas and Newbigin seem restricted by their inherited view of what ‘the church’ actually looks like – they have in mind gathered congregations meeting in residential areas on Sundays.  This means they continue the model we see all over the place of the majority of mission being left to individual Christians sent out into the week on their own.  In workplaces, leisure centers, schools and colleges, Christians are left isolated from the essential community.

The solution? Recognition that mission is the task of the community not just the individual.

Moynagh sees precedent for this in the nature of God – that He exists in community as the Trinity; in human nature – that we were made ‘male and female’ – made for community; in the history of the church – that Jesus formed a community and the early church met as community in homes, public places, shops and other places of life.

Moynagh gives a couple of examples of what he has in mind:

1) Mid-size communities that begin to meet maybe twice a month in a particular place with a focus on mission in that place: maybe an estate, or helping disabled children. These communities can begin to plant further communities from them.

2) Groups of Christians starting to meet in work places to run courses or find ways of serving their workplace.  They could invite other people in by simply explaining what they do: “We discuss how to serve our workplcae, then read and discuss a story about Jesus, then play some music and those who believe pray quietly”.

There are a myriad of examples, but the point is to find simple and practical ways to form Christian community wherever we are.  We need to recognise that a community living faithfully to Jesus, demonstrating His love, and being easily accessible for those who don’t believe, is extremely effective for mission. (Point of interest: I concluded my MPhil with a very similar sentiment.)

In my next post I’ll share some of my reflections on this, but for now what do you think?  

Is mission a call for communities or individuals?  

If you’re a Christian, do you feel isolated during the week with a pressure to ‘do mission’ on your own?  

Do you have other ideas for how to form Christian community in different spheres of life?

Post a comment and let me know…

Doing for or Being with?

Iain McGilchrist was not the only speaker at the Young Priest Theologians network meeting (for posts on McGilchrist see this and this), the other was Sam Wells, who is actually a bit of a hero of mine…but that’s by the by.  I found Wells as challenging as I found McGilchrist interesting.

Wells began with this question: what is the greatest problem of human existence?

When we look around the world and see violence, hunger, disease, and suffering, I think we can agree with Wells’ summation that mortality seems the greatest problem. So much of the grand project of humanity today is about overcoming our limitations, our mortality.  Obviously, this has always been a major problem, but in recent decades a shift has taken place.  With advances in science, technology, knowledge and understanding, these limitations no longer seem inevitable – they now appear more like problems to be solved.  There is a greater emphasis in medicine to cure, not simply care for, the sick.  We celebrate overcoming limitations more than anything else whether it be in olympic/paralympic sports or jumping through the sound barrier or ridding nations of diseases.

This is good!  But Wells threw out a challenge for the church.  Whilst the human project at the moment is focussed on ‘doing for’ people, is this really the emphasis of God’s call to us?

What is the greatest human problem wasn’t mortality?  What if it was isolation?

Wells asked us to imagine a few common scenarios, like buying a birthday present for a family member we’ve grown distant from.  We don’t really know what they want or how to close that gap so we end up spending too much on something they probably won’t like.  Their face as they open it tells us we were right and we leave their party frustrated.  Or inviting all the wider family round for the weekend and stressing in the preparation so that we dominate the kitchen, get angsty with those around and end up spending the weekend fussing over dishes and desserts.  We say goodbye lamenting not having actually talked and collapse exhausted.  The issue is that ‘doing for’ in these situations doesn’t mend the relationship or allow for community.  ‘Doing for’ is laudable, but it leaves many things undone.

What is the Christian hope?  Heaven?  What is that?  Not clouds and harps, but being with God.  The whole biblical story is saturated with the central purpose of God with us – Immanuel – the name God took when he came in human form.  Creation was about God making us for relationship; the incarnation was Jesus coming as Immanuel to be with us; the last words of Jesus to his disciples were ‘I am with you always’; and the final words of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) are that a time is coming when God will dwell with us for eternity.

Wells challenged us to think whether the mission of the church is to ‘do for’ – to solve the world’s problems – or to ‘be with’ – to be a community of people who will pay the cost of true relationship with others.  This is a harder call.  ‘Being with’ requires a shaping of our lives around others in a way that ‘doing for’ does not.  We can’t simply provide knowledge, technology or money for others – we need to give time, vulnerability, ourselves – without witholding the rest.  Yet we see the value in the problems we cannot solve….Christians are called to be those who stand with others even in situations that seem to have no solution.

This isn’t a denial of ‘doing for’.  Scripture is clear – love that isn’t practical is no love at all.  Yet it strikes me that fundamental to it is a focus shift off ourselves and onto Jesus.  If we believe that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that Jesus has already secured a future where the ‘problems are solved’ – a time is coming when there will be no more tears, pain, or suffering – then solving the problem is not our job nor our need.  Rather, our mission and call is to show the world that God has come to be one of us and God has done it all, that He is with us in every situation.  We show it by living it – living with God and with others – by not avoiding relationship or the difficult conversations needed to deal with past hurts or the giving up of control so we have time to be with others.

There is a huge challenge here, especially in a commuter town like Loughton – how do you give time to be with others when no one has time to be with you?  Yet we already see the power of it.  Some of the greatest changes I have seen in people’s lives since being in Loughton are amongst those who have come into our Cafe and simply found a place where they are loved and listened to.  In this place a deeper change seems to come than in solving someone’s problem alone.