Month: October 2011

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but a private faith

I can’t say I know many Christians who treat their faith as a private thing (although I’m told it used to be a pretty common thing to do). But I know a few Secularists who’d be quite happy if it was!

And I can understand why. My Secularist friends are alert to the danger of anything more than a private faith tripping over into imposing its narrow, partisan vision upon others.

Yet I’ve been battered again and again by the impossibility of viewing the Jesus who meets us in the Sermon on the Mount as simply an enlightened teacher dispensing a recipe for a personal, private piety that makes next to no visible splash in the world.

Jesus’ programmatic statement about being salt and light gets the ball rolling on this. But for me it’s in the Lord’s Prayer that this leaps off the page (Matthew 6.9-13):

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Now, Jesus provides this framework for prayer in the midst of emphasising the secretness or hiddenness of true piety — although his point is to counteract our tendency to put on a show, trying to impress God and each other by how religious we look. Such ‘religion’ orbits around me.

In contrast, religion that orbits around the Father — putting his goodness, glory, kingdom and will at its heart — knows it doesn’t have to impress God. It trusts that magnifying him won’t mean that we miss out on what we need. For the God whose presence we thirst for, is the one who can be relied upon to sustain, forgive, protect, and rescue us.

So here at the heart of the prayer that’s come to characterise Christian faith, we see three things:

  1. Christianity is an inescapably public faith — it enthrones a longing to see the beauty and order that characterises heaven become a reality here on earth.
  2. Christianity is about human flourishing and the good of all, not a narrow vision for the power and dominance of one particular group.
  3. Christianity isn’t about imposing this on others, but prayerfully trusting and bearing witness to the God it calls upon to act decisively in this way.

And that is anything but a private faith!

Social Design for mission and ministry (5): missional community with a twist (ii)

I’m trying to sketch a vision for Jesus-shaped community in response to Facebook Developers’ Social Design imperative to utilise community.

I’ve dubbed this vision ‘missional community with a twist’. And I hope what I mean by this is beginning to emerge as I distinguish it from some of what’s become associated with the missional community approach.

So, without further ado, here are two final reservations about ‘missional community’:

First, this approach often fails to enact the conviction that mission is a God-thing before it’s an us thing in the way they suggest we ‘do’ church.

While it helpfully pushes against a Church Is All About Making Us Feel Good (Or Safe Or Whatever) mindset — rightly opposing the sort of insular, separatist, fortress mentality that churches can slip into — it can simply instal a Church Is All About Making Others Feel Good (Or Safe Or Whatever) mentality in its place.

Either way, thing have gone haywire. Because church isn’t fundamentally about others any more than it’s about us (or, worse, me).

It sounds dumb to say it, but church is fundamentally about Jesus. It’s his body after all!

That means that our overriding aim and focus should be Jesus.

Everything we do should be done in loving response to his initiative and joyful recognition of his lordship. Everything we do, that is, should be worship.

Second, the missional community approach typically fails to engage with the bodiliness of the church.

I’ll have more to say about this as we continue. But for the moment I want to focus on one particular aspect of the church’s bodiliness — its integrity (a big part of what makes a body a body is its distinction from other bodies).

The missional community approach characteristically insists that churches should have ‘porous boundaries’ if they’re to be truly Jesus-shaped.

There’s certainly something to this. Jesus ate with notorious sinners. The apostles apparently assumed that ‘strangers’ would be present in our gatherings (see 1 Corinthians 14). And attempts to define the limits of fellowship risk undermining the gospel of grace by drawing the boundaries too tightly (or too idiosyncratically).

But none of this comes at the expense of the integrity of the church body — an explicit theme in the New Testament on more than one occasion (e.g., Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5).

Jesus’ shocking welcome of sinners didn’t endorse their lifestyles. Paul’s assumption that non-Christians would be present in Christian gatherings may have given him reason to favour (intelligible) prophecy over tongues, but it wasn’t meant to dilute the specifically Christian content of what went on.

For all the value talk of ‘porous boundaries’ can add, it’s a problem if it leads us to start diluting the ‘Christianness’ of our Christian gatherings. That is, if it detracts from our focus on the living Lord of the church who is present and active, ruling by his Word and Spirit.

Social Design for mission and ministry (4): missional community with a twist (i)

In the previous post on what the Facebook Developers Social Design guidelines can teach us about Christian mission and ministry, I suggested that we shape our communities along the following three axes:

  • A heart for whatever context it finds itself in, expressed in…
  • A habit of faithful presence within that context and generous welcome of ‘outsiders’, calibrated by…
  • A distinctively Christian approach to servant leadership.

Where I feel this vision of Jesus-shaped community leaves us in practice is with something like what the church-planting literature describes as missional community.

I say something like missional community quite deliberately. I have number of reservations about some of what flies under the missional community banner. Let me mention one of a theological nature and two of a practical nature.

I’ll deal with my theological reservation today and leave the practical ones for Wednesday. And, hopefully, in the process my own ‘take’ on missional community will come into focus.

So, theologically, I’m wary of collapsing ‘church’ into ‘mission’.

It’s very common to speak of ‘the mission of the church’ and the like. But I’d hesitate to say (or imply) that church exists for the sake of mission.

Quite clearly, the church exists because of mission. But it’s the fruit of God’s mission in the first instance. The church owes its existence to the ‘sending’ (or missio in Latin) of the Son by the Father — to use the language Jesus does in John 17.

Equally clearly, we find ourselves swept up in God’s mission as a consequence.

To continue working with John 17, we who are sanctified by Jesus and joined together as a particular community are ourselves ‘sent’ into the world (and into harm’s way — to face the same sort of hostility and opposition Jesus faced, and from the same ultimate source: the evil one).

And as we’re sent, the part we’re given to play in God’s mission is to be one — displaying an ‘attractional’ unity that can only be the result of Christ’s presence with us by his Spirit.

But even then the mission remains God’s. It’s a God-thing before it’s an us-thing.

That’s why we’re to follow God’s leading, patterning ourselves on Jesus’ example as his Spirit works in us…