Resistances to Mission from within the Church

A guest post by David Matcham

Resistances:

Why is it that significant numbers of people in a given church either passively or actively resist moves by that church to open itself up to being more missional in its dealings with the world? The first question that I would ask is, how does the church function as a body of people beyond how people say it functions as, say, a Spirit-filled church?
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I ask this because regardless of how people say they think both the church functions and what their own role is within that functioning, if mission is either passively or actively being resisted then something else is at play in the ‘how’ of that church’s functioning for those people at least. To say that, yes, the church is the body of Christ, is Christ’s hands and feet in this world, is the House of God, is a family of believers, or whatever, is to ignore what is actually going on when people think of church and their role within that particular body. What role then, does that church fulfill and how does it fulfill it for all the church members?
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The phrasing of this last question opens up here the way in which churches, the idea of ‘church’ acts upon the believing Christian. This is an inevitable part of the fact that the concept of ‘the Church’ functions as much as a socio-historical one as it does an eschatological realisation of the purposes of God for mankind. In a sense therefore, to be part of a church is to enter into a relationship with an already existing body of believers with already existing specific ways of being with each other and the world.
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In this sense to be a member of a church is an inherently passive experience for the believer who is not at liberty to tinker with the self-understanding of either the concept of ‘church’ or the particular body to which he or she belongs. Fundamentally, whether or not the believer goes to this church or that church, or any church, the contribution they are able to bring is already in advance mitigated. Not entirely, of course; at the micro personal level of normal interaction, individual believers will form relationships within a given church that hold significant importance, and are vital for the “spirit” (small “s”) of fellowship in that community – as indeed, in any community.
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At this point a further reflection comes to mind regarding the camaraderie described above: that there is a love which is natural to human beings, and a love which is unnatural. Fundamentally, therefore, the love which is unnatural is the love which is commanded. It is not at all that the one cancels out the other. In marriage, for instance, the paradox is entered into of a permanent vow to continue to lifelong fidelity of erotic love for one person; something which is inherently changeable is forced to submit to a binding legal vow. But, of course, erotic love wants this vow, against all the evidence of our experience, the lover wants to commit to the beloved.
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Fleshly love is not, then, in opposition to a binding contractual obligation to love, but, in its purest form, seeks it out. Likewise, the kind of love that Jesus commands his disciples to is not to be confused with buddiness or camaraderie. It does not exclude this kind of love – in fact we should encourage it so far as it doesn’t detract from God’s purposes – but natural human love and enjoyment of company must submit to a different, less natural love that is commanded.
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And here I come to a central point which I’d like to make, that if camaraderie, the kind which often develops through common activities and or purposes, then of course churches will not be outward looking. A collection or club of likeminded people who get on because they are all like-minded personable people is not going to be motivated to the kind of radical call to love the loveless that Christ commands and the Spirit makes possible.
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If “love” in a church setting does not mean the kind of commanded love for the loveless, but is in fact more like camaraderie or like-mindedness, outsiders not only won’t be invited in, but nor will they really fit in with their unlike-minded knobbliness if they do come. And this is the sense in which the usual, enjoyable, friendly love that grows amongst people of like mind, who like the same music, dress the same, read the same books, etc, and of which we all naturally want to be part, actually works against a church being missional.
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To join this kind of group, to want to be a part of it the “unbeliever” would already have to have submitted themselves in advance of joining to what it is that makes this group tick. In this case it cannot be said to be Christ, but rather a fleshly desire to be part of a larger whole, a mere sociable drive to have friends and be liked.
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How then can a church differentiate itself from any other group of people who more or less enjoy each other’s company and get along? This issue goes to the heart of what a church is, rather than what a church does. There is a sense in which what a church is is not independent from what a church does, but that is not here the point. There is though theological justification for seeing the church not just as a collection of geographically bound believers gathering together for worship and fellowship, but as an eschatological eucharistic community.
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What I mean by saying this is that the church as an eschatological eucharistic community draws attention to the ‘now and not yet’ of the Christian hope as it works itself out through the celebration of the dying and rising body of Christ, on whom we collectively feast and whose ‘body’ we collectively are. The ‘now and not yet’ refers to the church as an instance of the Kingdom of God here on earth, but also to the fact that the full revelation of the sons of God is yet to come.
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As a eucharistic community we are brought together in thanksgiving and acknowledgement of God’s grace for our salvation as a body, not our own efforts. Though this is extremely brief, these pointers suggest a reason for belonging that far transcends the merely natural desire for company. Not centered on its own ways of functioning, the church is in fact part of God’s radical call to love the loveless in the dispensation of his Kingdom on earth. Such a call is profoundly alien to the human concept of a group because mere friendship or fellowship may more often than not hinder such a call.
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Anyone can have friends or groups of trusted people, but not all are called by God in this way to be an eschatological eucharistic community. The point is that we are together not because we like each other or because we are all of a similar social class or intelligence level, but because we are committed to the working out of God’s eschatological purposes for the world of which we are each a part. That God’s purpose for the world is to become a eucharistic community centered on Christ’s body, and thus in a sense inward looking, is actually at the heart of the good news which we have to bring. The message is, don’t join the church if you could get what you want just as easily as you could from joining the Freemasons, or the W.I., or the Rotary, or whatever.
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The church does not exist to pander to perfectly normal but essentially fleshly desires or a fear of loneliness. That the broken body and spilt blood of Christ are what joins us together as a ‘body’, and not our mere likes and dislikes, is what makes us, drives us outward into the world.
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The problem of resistance then seems to have taken a distinctly theological turn, as I would have expected. The more churches establish their common unity upon team-building activities, whether it be soup-runs, sports, music groups, theology discussion groups, evangelism, etc, (and yes, I agree that it sounds odd to include such evangelical projects, except when you consider to what kind of church are these evangelical projects calling people in for) the less motivated people will be to actually see the Father’s Kingdom come.
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That is, insofar as evangelism is calling the lost, the lonely, and the disposed to a group that is essentially a christianised club of like-minded people, not only will that evangelism lack lustre (why would you really want outsiders to join and potentially disrupt the group anyway), but also why would you, as a disposed, lonely and lost individual want to join a group which would inherently desire you to become like-minded (christianised) before integration can even begin. Nor is this a back-handed way of saying that communion must take on a more elaborate style for evangelism to become more effective and more motivated.
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Where communion (or Mass or the Eucharust, or whatever you want to call it) as a point of non-individualistically realised transcendental unity in the Body is sidelined, the church is in danger of descending into a Jesusclub, welcoming new-comers with one hand, whilst sticking two fingers up to them with the other if they don’t fit in well enough. And communion is just the start of this process of de-naturalising our relations with each other, because our unity is not in liking each other (which is great when we do) but in the broken body of Christ; just as our fellowship is not in our enjoyment of each other’s company, but in the impossible command of God to love one another.

 

Written by David Matcham at Swivel Chair Theology
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