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

  1. (some better late than never thoughts..) Sam I think the 1 Corinthians 12:27 citation above is central to all of this, as you allude to :-

    “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.” – Totally agree with you both there. Though I’d add (I think as you suggested in your previous post!) that such communities should strive to be accessible and relatable to ‘the outside world’. Consider, for example, the Amish where this has never appeared to be a priority & hence the chasm that has grown through the decades of that society & ‘everyone else’…

    On your minor points…

    “by suggesting we should be sent out in pairs..” Was Moynagh a former Jehova’s Witness? Lol. For this is their preferred model! Obviously this might address feelings of literal isolation, but it has no influence on how ‘spiritually isolated’ or ‘ill-equipped’ any given pair may, or may not be… For, surely these are the more important and influential aspects?

    I totally agree with what you then argue :
    “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!” – Yes! I still have a long, long way to go; but through self-reflection I see it this way : As part of my sanctification process the church should ‘emerge’ IN ME. Not ME IN the church. (As I see it : the ‘church’ being the spiritual ‘body’ and ‘bride’ of Christ). In combining both of your initial paragraphs it seems to me that people should see us ‘emerging’ AS the church, for the church is in every disciple.

    On your 2 more significant comments :
    Regarding your point 1) – Yes, I think that is ok! As it is from the seeds of these ‘loose networks’ that ‘real community’ can evolve.
    To your point 2) – “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…..”Absolutely! WE are the body of the church. So unless we are willing to literally pluck out an eye or sever an arm then we cannot compartmentalize Christ from within us. For He is ‘surely with us always, until the end of the age.’ Not just on a Sunday morning & the odd day here or there when the situation suits us. I am preaching as much to myself as anyone as I write this. As I mentioned before, a part of the sanctification process is, for me, becoming more spiritually aware of this. It should never, then, be a question of ‘compartmentalizing’ Christ. Akin to asking God to just look the other way while I go off for a quick spot of fornication…

    So, yes!! I’m with your concluding paragraph the whole way!! I would almost go as far as to argue that the focus on ‘planting churches’ is a complete red-herring. For this desire can all too often evoke notions of buildings, rituals, social functions, contexts and dynamics. Ie stuff that isn’t about being the body of Christ but other stuff that should remain on the periphery but all to often doesn’t. Surely its simply a question of holding to what He taught us : WE ARE the church. Ie it is from ‘within’ us. The church is the body of Christ & this is internal. Not external. If we focus on forming disciples & real discipleship then the body that IS the church will surely grow!

    I say : Amen! To your concluding paragraph. And while there are most definitely practical ‘external’ considerations here : about how we can support one another better & grow together as one body in fellowship; they are very different from the ‘internal’ spiritual ones. In relation to your thoughts & St. Mary’s : I think we’re moving in very much the right direction. It is clear that we are looking to build discipleship, garner love, extend fellowship… as well as always being on the lookout for practical ideas to reduce any ‘isolation’ and reach out into the community. We want to make disciples and seek revival, not just ‘plant more bums on pews’… 🙂

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