This response was read at the 2016 Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University, following the presentation of the papers by Gailyn Van Rheenen, Kent Smith, and Fred Liggin published in this issue of Missio Dei.
Many consider the context of the Unites Sates to be postmodern, anti-institutional, and even post-Christian. Traditional ecclesiologies are undoubtedly faltering, whatever the case. What does such a context mean for mission? Perhaps planting new churches is the future—but what sorts of churches? Perhaps the missional renewal of existing congregations or traditions is the best way forward, but this too is a contested idea. Due to these urgent questions, the theology and practice of church planting and mission in the Western context are rapidly evolving, and scholarship in these fields continues to grow apace. This session features Stone-Campbell scholars and practitioners engaging with the wider discourse about the contours of mission in the US.
Framing a Response
Often in settings like this the aim of respondents is to challenge or critique the arguments of those presenting. While this might be a coveted exercise for some (you know who you are!), it’s not what I want to do. Rather, as someone listening in and then speaking as mainly an “outsider” to the conversations and perspectives of those who inhabit the Restorationist tradition, what I want to do is (1) trace a few themes that I see in all these papers, (2) comment briefly on where I believe these themes intersect with what I am observing across the landscape of American Christianity, and then (3) try to add something to the conversation from my own perspective that might advance the conversations each of these papers are looking to engender, as well as the the unity of Christ’s church in our day—something I trust that my Restorationist brothers and sisters can easily get behind!
Theme 1 – The Cultural Captivity of American Ecclesiology: The Ecclesial Challenge
The first major theme that shows up in all these papers has to do with how contemporary forms and practices of the church seem to suffer from a profound enculturation to American culture. For Gailyn this shows up in the church mirroring the social fragmentation and vendor/consumer paradigm of our culture. For Fred this shows up in a capitulation to the “authorizing narratives” and “plausibility structures” of modernity or perhaps postmodernity. And for Kent this shows up in forms of church that take for granted lifestyles of hyper-busyness and distraction. In each case, the common denominator is a particular expression of some way in which the forms and practices of our church communities are held captive by the shape and sensibilities of our host culture as opposed to existing, primarily, as a countercultural witness. Or, to say it another way, when it comes to addressing the contours of mission in the US, our attention is drawn first to ecclesiology.
Theme 2 – Issues with Models and Patterns of Leadership: The Equipping Challenge
The second theme that stands out to me in these papers has to do with the arena of leadership, or what we might call the equipping challenge. Gailyn calls out the top-down, management orientation of leaders; Fred laments a lack of cruciformity; and Kent, maybe more implicitly than explicitly, points out a lack in the number of leaders with the inclination or competency to create and mature thick communities that function as ecosystems of grace. So, again, we have topics as wide ranging as the “missional conversation” at large, the practice of hospitality, and the place of intentional communities in refocusing and reordering our call to love, but in each case there is a central identification of leadership—and more specifically the call upon Christian leaders to function as equippers of God’s people—that rises to the surface in these discussion with respect to the landscape of mission in the US.
Theme 3 – Issues with the Formation of People and Communities: The Ethical Challenge
The last theme to call attention to is what I’ll call the ethical challenge. It has specifically to do with what kinds of people and what kinds of communities must be formed if we are to faithfully and fruitfully navigate the challenges of mission in the US today. To follow the same pattern, Gailyn’s focus here is on the formation of disciples and communities who exhibit faithful presence and gracious hospitality, Fred’s is on communities and leaders who embody hospitality, and Kent’s is on believers whose attention and love are compelling forms of life before a watching world. I found this to be an especially interesting theme to emerge from a panel of papers on the topic of mission in the US. One would be quite justified in assuming that, when given the opportunity to say something on the subject of mission, the primary emphasis would be on what we need to do, but here we see a primary emphasis on what, or more properly, who, we need to be. There’s a lot there we could—and should—mine.
Points of Intersection
To summarize then, as I listen in on these conversations among members of the Restorationist family under the heading of “The Contours of Mission in the USA,” I note strong connections around challenges in the areas of ecclesiology (the life and practice of churches), equipping (the instincts and skillsets of our leaders), and ethics (the formation of people and communities in the likeness of Christ). Though I wouldn’t have expected it, these are the same sort of themes that I am observing as central to the conversations that many other tribes and traditions are focusing on in our day. And here’s my best stab as to why that is: the common denominator for so many of us, especially those of European heritage, is the new reality we are commonly facing as Christendom ends. To the extent that Christendom can be defined as a cultural condition in which Christianity occupies a place of societal privilege and power, we are all in the same boat, and as it begins to sink, we’re asking many of the same questions. Questions like, “What really is the church in a time and place when more and more people have no history with it, vocabulary for it, or interest in it?” (the ecclesial challenge), “What actually does it mean to be a Christian leader when fewer and fewer people care what you have to say simply because you occupy a place of positional authority?” (the equipping challenge), or, “What does it look like to embody the values of the kingdom of God in our day?” (the ethical challenge). Many, many people are asking those same questions today, so I’m encouraged to see these themes expressed in these papers and suspect they provide good evidence for the possibility of greater amounts of trans-tribal discourse and fellowship.
We’re all in the same boat, and as it begins to sink, we’re asking many of the same questions.
A Reflection on the Captivity and Corruption of Western Soteriology within Christendom
I’d like to conclude with a proposal of my own that I think can add to each of these important lines of dialogue and provide additional potential for fruitfulness in terms of our participation in God’s mission.
The proposal is that behind all of these themes and the questions that give rise to them lies a deficiency in one of our most fundamental theological categories, soteriology, our understanding of salvation. In short, I want to suggest that to the degree Christendom eclipsed our view of the missionary nature of both God and the church, it has likewise kept us from appreciating the fundamentally missional nature of salvation itself.
For a great long while our understanding of salvation has been essentially static. It has been something that we conceptualized mainly as a possession—something one either has or doesn’t have, which would then translate into one’s eternal destiny. Instead, I submit that a proper understanding of salvation, one rooted in the missio Dei, would be a communal participation in the re-creational life and mission of God as disciples of Jesus.
Obviously the purpose here in not to jump headlong into a discussion along these lines. I simply want to offer this thought as a means of expanding on what we’ve already heard. Such an understanding of salvation, I suspect, would be a significant key in helping to address the ecclesial, equipping, and ethical challenges that have been put before us today. More than this, I think it would provide a substantive opportunity for conversation between Restorationists and fellow kingdom sojourners endeavoring to live faithfully into the emerging mission context of the US.
After 15 years of serving in pastoral ministry and theological education, JR Rozko currently serves as Co-Director of Missio Alliance (http://missioalliance.org). Helping to create new networks, partnerships, conversations, and resources that embody and advance the good news of God’s mission of reconciliation is at the center of JR’s calling. JR has a DMiss from Fuller Theological Seminary and teaches there as Adjunct Professor of Church & Contemporary Culture. He, his wife Amy, and their two daughters, Aubrey and Junia, live in Elgin, IL and are part of Life on the Vine Christian Community where he serves as an Elder.
† Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.