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Missional Spirituality: A Case Study in Pauline Spirituality (Paul’s Model for Contemporary Missionaries)
Joncilei Mendes da Silva
This paper describes the characteristics of missional spirituality and proposes a model that is less isolationist and more participatory and empathetic, less fragmentary and more holistic. Using examples from Paul’s life and teachings as a case study, this paper overviews approaches to spirituality that influence missions and concludes by considering the relevance of such missional spirituality for churches in Brazil.
Today’s spirituality is very anthropocentric (human-centered), meaning the spiritual life is all about the person’s needs, desires, and beliefs. Focused on the personal growth of one’s faith and spirituality in their relationship with God, this kind of self-centered spirituality views the world as a threat and consequently isolates itself and flees rather than engaging with and aiming to transform the world.
Biblical spirituality, by contrast, is centered in God and our neighbor: focused on loving God and our neighbor (Mark 12:30–31) and serving God and others (1 John 4:20–21). This spirituality is missional because it calls us to embrace the missio Dei and to join God in his mission to redeem, restore, and transform this world.
Missional spirituality sees all our acts of service to God and our neighbor as acts of devotion to, worship of, and intimacy with God. From this perspective, these acts must be done with love in order to be acceptable to God and transformative to those around us (1 Cor 13:1–3).
This article proposes a model of spirituality that is less isolationist and more participatory and empathetic, less fragmentary and more holistic, and less inspired by human triumphalist models and more shaped by Jesus’s example of humility, suffering, and obedience as it was taught and exemplified by Paul.
A Human Spirituality
Spirituality is too often associated with doing and hardly considered being. The idea seems to be that the more we do activities considered spiritual, the more spiritual we become, and the less human we become. This conception seems to ignore the complexity of life and our humanity filled with conflicts, doubts, struggles, fears, and anxieties. Our humanity is an integral part of our spirituality.
The tendency of Brazilian believers has been to mask or try to suppress the reality of our humanity with all its weaknesses, limitations, and imperfections, and to project a narcissistic ideal of being that does not reflect our reality and our identity as humans and children of God. We imagine that God loves only the future and improved version of us, and until we reach it, we will have little of God and the Christian life to enjoy.
By contrast, a missional spirituality does not ignore our sinful, flawed, limited human condition, nor does it encourage the careless resignation that covers up carnal sins and passions that alienate us from the will of God. Instead, it promotes a happy and courageous self-acceptance. This kind of more human spirituality not only makes the Christian recognize his need and dependence on Christ and the grace of God to complete his incompleteness but it opens him up and sensitizes him to the condition of all people. The spiritual person treats others with empathy and grace and not with intolerance and condemnatory judgment.
It is understood: we are all human, sinners and needy for God and his love, and in him we find the way to a new humanity transformed in the image of his Son Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29). According to Paul, our humanity and fragility is considered as strength and efficacy in the task of being the recipients and proclaimers of the treasures of God’s grace and His kingdom (2 Cor 4:7). How? Paul himself answers by affirming that the excellence of power is from God and not from us. To glorify God as a minister is to depend on the power of God!
Among Brazilian Churches of Christ, the expectation for a good missionary and minister, a successful worker, is that he hardly makes mistakes. He does not go through suffering, he does not get depressed, he does not fail in his projects, he does not get sick, and he will always be successful and popular. This picture certainly does not describe Paul’s ministry. Paul in his missionary work shows that the missionary also bleeds, weeps, suffers, sins, fails, grieves, falls ill, and dies. Paul speaks in several of his letters of his struggles and sufferings.
Our imperfection highlights the perfection of God. Our weakness highlights the power of God. God can and will act through a broken and imperfect humanity to reach a broken and imperfect humanity. We see this when Paul experienced being empowered by God in his imperfections in order to be a more effective missionary (2 Cor 12:9–10).
A human spirituality is an incarnated spirituality, as demonstrated by Paul, who assumes his condition and longs for his redemption. It is a spirituality that follows in the footsteps of the Son of God, who took on humanity to build a new humanity for God (Eph 2:15). It is a spirituality in a constant state of transformation to promote transformation in others.
A Holistic Spirituality
The typical view of spirituality tends to define and restrict spirituality to the mystical, individual, and inner dimension of one’s relationship with God. The practical manifestation of this type of spirituality is perceived in an emphasis on and practice of the spiritual disciplines and in the individual and community moments of worship and church activities. This view creates a dichotomy between what is considered spiritual (worship, fasting, Bible study) and what is considered secular (work, school, fun). So self-centered Christians often think that what we do for God is just what we do in the church building, on Sunday, and in the worship service.
This fragmentary and dualistic view of life and spirituality does not correspond to the biblical view of a full life (our whole life belongs to God) and to a complete spirituality (doing everything to glorify God) (1 Cor 10:31). A holistic spirituality is not confined to the church’s Sunday worship, but it reverberates on the other days of the week and with all the people we relate to outside the church. Holistic spirituality covers every aspect of our lives, not just activities considered spiritual or religious. God wants to be part of not only a fragment of our life but of our whole being and our whole experience.
The concepts of mission and spirituality are very broad and inclusive in the New Testament and especially in the example and ministry of Paul. They include every action of the Christian in public and private life to bring us closer to God and bring others closer to him through the gospel. A missional Christian is someone who understands that every place he steps is a mission field (work, school, family, neighborhood, and so on) and everything he does for God and his neighbor is spiritual.
Holistic spirituality according to Paul is a spirituality grounded in faith in Christ and evidenced by the good works of love produced by this same faith (Gal 5:6; Eph 2:8–10). It is a spirituality that balances faith and Christian praxis, that transcends the personal and inner dimension of our daily devotional time and leads us to the collective and external dimension in contact with people and their needs, especially the most foundational and urgent need—the need for a relationship with God.
A Cruciform Spirituality
Cruciform spirituality is, first of all, Christocentric. True Christian spirituality in a nutshell is to seek to identify with Christ in every way. We must reflect the character of Christ in a life full of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23); we should serve in a dedicated, selfless, and humble way as Christ served others (Phil 2:5–11). Thus, the true goal and result of a Christocentric spirituality is “Christ being formed in us” (Gal. 4:19), pressing forward “until we reach maturity, reaching the full measure of Christ” (Eph 4:13). According to the teachings of Paul we understand that the true spiritual person is the one who relentlessly seeks to be like Jesus and do what Jesus did. In this Christocentric spirituality Jesus is the model, the content, and the goal of the spiritual life.
Furthermore, this cruciform spirituality understands and interprets the gospel, Christian life, and mission from the point of view of the cross. The “crucified Christ” is the lens through which we see and understand the Scriptures and life in community. Carrying the cross (Luke 14:27) and preaching the cross of Christ (1 Cor 2:2) identify and define a true spiritual Christian. Cruciform spirituality has two distinct marks: (1) self-emptying and humility and (2) obedience and suffering.
Self-emptying and humility
Philippians 2:7 states that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” Paul cites this example of Jesus to teach about humility as an essential element for Christian unity. Many conflicts in and out of the church can be resolved by practicing this cruciform spirituality. A lot of transformation and growth can happen in our lives when we empty ourselves and recognize that we have much to learn and improve, if we keep an open heart and mind in order to receive the fullness of the Spirit (Eph 3:19; 5:18).
The more we empty ourselves, the more we create space to fill ourselves with Christ and the overflowing of the Holy Spirit, leading to a transformed life. Authentic spirituality is not measured by the amount of knowledge or by the abilities and gifts that we possess but by how much Christ fills us and how much he overflows around us.
Obedience and Suffering
Philippians 2:8 goes on to say, “. . . becoming obedient [even] unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” Suffering is the result of emptying. This spirituality questions and confronts our ambitions and life goals. Those who prioritize safety, well-being, and prosperity will certainly not be attracted to the spirituality of the cross that leads to suffering, humiliation, and death. The success of the mission exemplified in Jesus is not in the victory against his enemies, the size of his projects, or his popularity but in submission to God’s will that he suffer and die for those who hated and crucified him. This obedient suffering is rewarded by God’s acceptance and glorification (Phil 2:9–11). This crucified spirituality is missionary and transforming because it sacrifices itself to serve, bless, and reach its neighbor for Christ and his kingdom.
A Relevant and Necessary Missional Spirituality among Brazilian Churches of Christ
The missional movement and the concept of missio Dei is fairly well known and practiced in Brazil among evangelical Christian churches in general, especially among the great historical denominations (Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.). Authors like John Stott, Alan Hirsch, Ed Stetzer, Tim Keller, Christopher Wright, and David Bosch are known and referenced in many articles and books published by Brazilian theologians and missiologists.
Brazilian Evangelical Publishers has published a considerable amount of missional material from renowned foreign authors and from Brazilian authors. Many missional conferences and lectureships are organized every year, calling on Brazilian Christian leadership to rethink the church’s mission and its responsibility in Brazil and in the world. Great global movements such as the Lausanne Movement, the missional movement, and, in Latin America, the Integral Mission Theology Movement, are studied and their influence is seen in the way many Brazilian churches develop their ministerial and missionary work.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said among the Churches of Christ in Brazil. As a member of the Churches of Christ now for more than thirty years, I do not remember hearing about the concept of the missio Dei, the distinction between missions and mission, between missionary and missional, or the concept of the kingdom of God that transcends the church in any of my tradition’s studies, conferences, articles, or books that address the subject of missions. I also have not heard about the concept of missional spirituality in my history with the Churches of Christ.
The reality of the Brazilian Churches of Christ in general shows that missional authors are unknown, or at least not mentioned, the global movements are ignored, and some events that promote in-depth missonal conversations are discarded and even rejected. Why? Perhaps the idea is that everything that originates from and is spread by denominational or even interdenominational leaders and organizations is harmful, wrong, and compromises our Christian faithfulness. What is the practical result of this isolationist and prejudiced attitude that we reap in terms of our mission and spirituality?
What can be done to change this situation in Brazil? How can we become an ever more missional church that carries the gospel that saves, transforms, and unites people? I would like to suggest a few simple initiatives that can help our Brazilian congregations.
The present Christian generation is suffocated by many models and manuals of spirituality, but perhaps it still lacks a coherent and healthy model of spirituality—one that does not isolate itself or focus on itself but seeks the transformation and growth of its community and the loving practice of faith.
In the Bible, the numerical growth of the church was the fruit of the church’s healthy spirituality and community life (Acts 2:42–47). The Pauline missional model of spirituality is the most relevant to our generation because it seeks to rescue Christ’s authentic, empathetic, comprehensive, transformative, humble, and obedient model of spiritual living.
If the Brazilian Churches of Christ embrace and propagate this missional model, we will experience a healthy spiritual growth and a sustainable and contagious numerical growth, rather than the present steady decline.
Joncilei Mendes da Silva is a native missionary from Manaus, Brazil, serving the Church of Christ in Itu, Brazil, with his wife Kária since 2006. Today he serves the congregation as the Missions Efforts Coordinator and Teaching Minister. He recently finished his degree in urban missions at The South American Theological Seminary (FTSA). Joncilei and Kária have two sons, Joab, who is seventeen, and Joel, who is ten. The Mendes Family loves to serve the kingdom together.