The Missional Practice of Mutuality

As the church explores the meaning of a missional existence in the world, one of the interesting aspects is the level of reciprocity we can tolerate. Will we be willing to listen and learn, or will we only practice speaking and be only willing to teach? The answers to that question probably fall on a spectrum more than that yes/no phrasing suggests, but it’s a serious question, requiring discernment and reflection.

Are we willing to listen and learn, or only to speak and to teach? Click To Tweet

Here’s the way I see the dilemma: the Church believes it has been given a special revelation of the identity and will of God, and has been charged with sharing that revelation in the world. In other words, we have something to say. We bear witness.

However, in the public forum, you always have to earn the right to bear witness. That can happen in a number of ways (being sheerly interesting or powerful perhaps), but in our moment one of the baseline requirements of gaining an audience is the willingness to listen to others. You have to demonstrate an authentic capacity to listen if you want to gain a hearing. If you don’t listen, nobody will listen to you. So if the church wants to speak, it has to listen to others in an authentic, vulnerable way. And that brings the possibility of change.

One of the baseline requirements of gaining an audience is the willingness to listen to others. Click To Tweet

Change is a tricky word, there. It holds promise and threat, and the church has to figure out how to loosen its grip while maintaining its identity. That’s a complicated dynamic that can only be grappled with through a commitment to tough discernment.We also have to realistic navigate threats without becoming either naive or anxious, and that’s a tough thing for us to figure out right now in part because we already feel pressure.

The major complication for Christians in North America (and perhaps elsewhere) is the fact that the visible Church’s social position is shifting from a dominant majority. We’re not quite sure where it’ll land, but I’d characterize the position now as somewhere between “just another party at the table” and “a resented former cultural force”. Others view the church with a variety of attitudes. The church in different quarters is met with antagonism, apathy, respect, resentment, or curiosity—rarely with deference. For many, the grief and shock of being met with such negativity creates profound anxiety. Some Christians wonder what they’ve done to earn such antipathy, while others confess that the harshest feelings are a deserved consequence of regrettable former behaviors.

Regardless of how we got here, my instinct is that we won’t be able to put up our fists and fight our way out of it. We can neither assume people into the gospel or pound it into them without their having a word. Rather, I believe the church has come to a profound moment of listening. The age of monologue is over—we are going to have to humbly learn the art of dialogue. Our relationship with our communities will be fruitless unless we are able to accept the possibility of mutual relationships, where we both teach and learn. Thus, cultivating a spirit of reciprocity, where both sides give and both sides benefit, both sides share what they’ve learned and are open to learn from each other, is a key to our missional posture in the world.

I’ve been thinking about reciprocity a lot lately, and I’m going to share those thoughts over the next few blog posts, looking at the gifts and costs, how it shows up in the scriptures, some of the obstacles in our way, and strategies for how we can move forward. Stay tuned!

Power Postures

The church is at its best when it can easily see itself reflected in the stories of the scriptures, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes the things that we face are alien enough to the scriptures that we struggle to perceive what it means for us to fulfill their calling. They were, after all, given to the church first of all in their own day, and were primarily meant to help those disciples find and follow the way of Jesus through their own world, which sometimes looks like ours, but not always. The witness they bear to the values and truths that could help those disciples are still critically important today, but we just have a bit of discerning to do if we’re going to be able to fruitfully unpack them. There still is a way of Jesus in our world, and it still anticipates the same climatic end as it did in the first century. However, the world has shifted itself around around us, and that leaves us with some work to do if we’re to fruitfully respond to the scriptures, or at least not become distorted by naive readings of them.

For example, take the church’s relative power position in its culture. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. The early church was faced with either apathy or antagonism from the dominant powers of its culture, seen as a fringe group with little clout. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture.The writings of the N.T. give counsel and encouragement from the standpoint of that perspective, and here’s the rub—interpreting those text from a different perspective requires discernment.

Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. Click To Tweet

For instance, one of the things required for that minority church to gain a hearing in the world that saw them as irrelevant or dangerous was boldness. The texts encourage that in a variety of ways, from the narrative depiction of the bold apostles in Acts 4 to Jesus’s polemic (a form of antagonistic teaching about opponents) in Matthew 10,  or in Paul’s letters (Phil 1:14). For a marginalized, unknown people, boldness is a critical trait. However, without care that same spirit of boldness in an empowered people who make up the majority of the culture can easily turn coercive, becoming oppressive and condescending.

Drift

The big catch is that this sort of perspective change happens very gradually, and we don’t generally realize we need to shift the way we read the texts sometimes until it’s decades—or even centuries—overdue. We don’t leap into power or out of it, we drift into and out of power—at least culturally, although the formal structures of power can change hands more quickly and make the change feel sudden. Because the change is gradual, we don’t realize that our former modes of interpretation have lost their appropriateness, and continue to use them far past their fruitfulness. You read the story from the perspective of the Israelites, and keep doing so long after you’ve transformed into Pharaoh. You read the story from Israel's perspective, and do so long after you transform into Pharaoh. Click To Tweet

That’s why reading scripture fruitfully requires not only diligence (careful and persistent work or effort), but vigilance (careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.) It’s important not just to keep an eye out for those ways that our own perspective, and the subtle changes of our posture in the world, can distort the way we read the text. Occasionally, that can lead us further away from the way of Jesus, rather than further along it. Vigilance leads us to notice and recognize ourselves in new and different ways in the text, this allows us to hear the Spirit’s call to repentance and continual conversion. Paying attention to not only our own context when we read the text, but our position and posture within our cultural context, thus allows the word to have not only a static message for us, but one that is dynamic and alive, always calling us forward.

Grace and Mission

missionalAny full accounting of the Christian faith has to include a story of grace, and how it works. Grace is a fancy old word for a gift, and it’s one of the most important words in the vocabulary of faith.

The Grace of Life

Most theologies of grace speak primarily of the grace of salvation, and principally mean how God saves us from our sins (and God’s judgement) through Jesus. While I think we still have some thinking left to do about the meaning of the atonement, an emphasis on God’s saving grace is a good thing! A missional theological lens doesn’t abandon this view of salvation, but broadens it—beginning with the beginning. Grace is not a newly developed attribute of God, although it is particularly demonstrated by Jesus. Rather, grace is present in the whole story of God.

In the beginning, we see God’s grace in the generosity of creation. God creates the conditions and space for life, and then gives life—this is how the story starts, and we do well to keep this gifting of life close as we consider what God is doing in the world. The story of grace offered in Jesus is not a departure from the story of God, it is instead the fruit of God’s commitment to stand by the gift of life given in creation. The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death.The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death. Click To Tweet

It is amazing how little Christian theologies reflect on this gift of life, when so much of God’s story revolves around God’s determination to stand by that gift and preserve it. A fully missional theology of grace begins with the conviction that God’s gift of life is good. This is central to God’s story and ours—we live, and this is grace!

The Grace of God’s Reign

God’s grace doesn’t end when human evil breaks the ordered justice that is conducive to life and flourishing. Rather, God acts to heal our brokenness, beginning with our sin and extending to other forms of brokenness in our world. When a fractured community is reconciled, an anxious heart finds peace, or a body experiences healing, these are experiences of grace. People are freed from oppressive powers and lay down their compulsions by the grace of God, and this too is part of God’s plan to redeem creation.

The missional story of salvation begins not simply with Jesus’s death, but with his life, in which the kingdom of God draws near. When we talk about the “kingdom of God”, we’re talking about how God reasserts God’s will in the earth, reordering it by justice and love, o that life can flourish as it was intended to. God’s reign is marked by justice, peace, and wholeness. The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign.

The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign. Click To Tweet

The Grace of Mission

A further piece of grace in the missional story is obvious enough, but is the gift of mission to God’s people, both generally and to individuals. It’s often the case that people who receive God’s grace in the scriptures also receive some sort of commissioning, some invitation (or command) to join God’s mission. Peter (Luke 4) and Paul (Acts 9are the most obvious examples here, but those stories are really more normative than you might think—God extends one grace (forgiveness) with another grace (mission). Often, when I’m reading Paul’s letters, he seems to make no distinction between the two kinds of grace. They just represent the way God relates to Paul.

I want to unpack that idea of the grace of mission in a couple of ways, just for clarity’s sake. Think about the graces of inclusion and contribution:

The Grace of Inclusion

The grace of inclusion is the idea that God seems willing to invite pretty much everybody to participate in the mission. Luke’s gospel delights in this, as the religious elites are amazed to see the likes of Levi, Zacchaeus, and some disrespected women become part of Jesus’s movement in the world. Paul himself perceives this element of grace, saying in effect, “I was the worst, but God saw fit to allow me a place in the mission.”

The Grace of Contribution

In a similar vein, the grace of mission is not just that unexpected people are invited to become missionaries, but that God delights in providing the people what they need to participate. God gives gifts, (graces) to people so that they will be able to contribute to the life of the church and to the kingdom’s work in the world. Not only does God give missionary permission or invitation to people, but God provides the means for their meaningful work in the world. This provision is a powerful aspect of God’s grace that we don’t necessarily catch when we use “gift” to talk about something God gives us to use but shift to “grace” when we’re thinking about some theological change God brings about.

It’s all gift, all grace.

Agents of Grace

With these understandings of God’s grace, it’s important to note that a missional view of grace, humans who receive these forms of grace become agents of grace themselves. They become people who generously extend God’s grace to others in all its forms. They help people flourish and live, acting as agents of life in the world. They practice forgiveness, and stand for wholeness. not only do they participate in God’s mission themselves, but they welcome others into it as well. In living generously, the grace of God that has become wrapped into their story is unleashed on the other people around them, seeping into the cracks of the broken world. Missional Christians become people of Grace, modeling in their own lives what they have received from God.