Missional churches and my slight discomfort

In an article published by Christianity Today, Mark Galli highlighted the emphasis on missions within the ecclesiology among evangelicals. Giving a very brief historical account of the desire to see the church as fundamentally missionary in its ontology, he drew the conclusion that at the end of the day, evangelical ecclesiology finds itself in agreement with the social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch’s statement that “Wherever the church exits, it exists for the sake of the world.” Galli ended the article on a somewhat sceptical tone concerning such an approach by evangelicals stating “I think this approach is mistaken.”

I share the same sentiments with Galli. At least from the context that I’m in as a Singaporean in a Protestant church, Protestant ecclesiology has tended to lean towards a functional ecclesiology. Through the sermons that we hear, down to the activities that churches organise, a lot of it has been done for the purposes of outreach. Questions that are often raised have to do with how the church can make herself more relatable to the public. So the liturgy gets restructured in order for it to appeal to the larger masses. Anything that is considered old and too ‘traditional’ gets thrown out in order to make way for the new and happening which ‘works’. The decision to start a ministry is often premised heavily upon how it can benefit the target group without necessarily taking into consideration the implicit message it sends about our belief about the church. Even at an ecumenical level, the unity of the church is often tied to her function in sharing the gospel. Perhaps the best example that comes to mind is the recent Celebration of Hope event – a mega evangelistic rally. Of course, there are other events where Christians do come together, for instance the yearly Global Day of Prayer. But again, these events are centred around very functional purposes such as praying for the world. In terms of engaging across traditions in order to better understand the different theologies and to constructively see how the church can be united outside these missional functions (while recognising that unity of course bears missional witness as seen in John 17), not much effort has been made.

There is admittedly some good in this functional ecclesiology. I think that it correctly recognises the urgency and importance of mission that the church has. On occasion, it helps the church to wake up from slumber and realise that it’s truly the church’s task to bear witness to the world taking after the incarnation of Jesus. Christ himself has given, in the words of Berkouwer, “human work such a place that, in the perspective of harvest, He laments that there are few labourers.”

However, to see the church purely or even primarily as missionary is in my opinion problematic.  The most obvious reason stems from the failure to recognise the temporality of missions. If mission is everything God is doing to redeem His creation, then logically it must also mean that this act of redemption will find eventual completion at the eschaton. Biblically speaking this can also be supported as seen in Revelation or even Colossians. The significance of the temporality of missions is in my opinion huge. If God’s mission is temporal, then to ground ecclesiology purely or primarily in mission would render the non-existence of the church at the eschaton as well. But the church unlike mission is not temporal. Even at the eschaton, after the redemption of all things, the one holy catholic church will still be there as a worshipping community. If true, then Protestants must really seek to develop an ecclesiology that goes beyond her missionary task.

To be certain, this does not negate the church’s ongoing work at missions. But it certainly means that churches need to consider another set of questions. For instance, what does the unity of the church actually look like outside its ecumenical effort at evangelism? This question naturally leads one to an active engagement with other Christian traditions including those of the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It also means learning to reflect on our tradition in light of the greater church tradition rather than sticking with our tradition simply because it’s our tradition. Within the local of individual churches, when thinking about ministries or outreach efforts, the question no longer becomes solely about whether someone outside the church is drawn to the church or how the church can do more to attract others but also whether we have bent over backwards in trying to accommodate too much to culture much to the compromise of the distinctiveness of the church. Liturgically, it might mean asking ourselves whether doing away with certain ancient rites or even removing the confession of the apostle’s creed reflects the catholicity and communion of saints that the church believes.

So far from rejecting current mission initiatives, recovering the ontology of the church on top of her missionary nature, helps us to develop a more robust understanding of the church that may be theologically and scripturally more faithful. In fact, I would like to think that as we spend more time and effort in trying to develop a more robust ecclesiology, one that is not grounded in pragmaticism or functionality, the more clarity we will gain concerning the church’s mission. Not only will we gain clarity on what the church is tasked to do, the means in which we approach missions will gain better direction as well. At the heart of it all, I believe the start point of ecclesiology cannot be its function. There is I believe a great need to begin with the ontology of the church that perhaps finds its grounding somewhere else apart from the mission of the church. Of course ontology and function are never ever too far separated. But I think the order in which we approach this is important. Nuances as we know in theology, makes a whole of a difference.

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