Seeing and Sorting


Threat.
Customer.
Challenge.
Helper.
Savior.
Sinner.

When we encounter other people, our incredible brains rush to process what they mean to us. It rushes to categorize the person, using the categories that we’ve set up over time. “Like Me”, “Not Like Me” are the most basic ones, and I heard a study that even infants show signs of using these filters. Over time we develop more sophisticated versions, although most of us retain that primal dichotomy as the “root directory” of our system. People fall into the “Like Me” or “Not Like Me” categories for a breathtakingly wide variety of causes, ranging from ethnic distinctions to the type of music the prefer, the sorts of foods they eat and the ways they would imagine our shared public life together. Not all of these are trivial.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe played with this pretty well with the “sorting hat” scenes. Sure, there’s some trivial stuff there, sorting people based on style—but it also carried character implications as well. One of the fascinating turns in the series was how Rowling later played on the stereotypes of the sorting—it turned out that the lines between good and evil weren’t laid out precisely as the early scenes seemed to portray. The failure of both heroic and villainous characters to realize that gave the stories serious emotional weight to play around with.

Our own propensity for categorization extends deeply into our religious lives as well, and we’ve been remarkably creative in our invention of divisions and distinctions. Dogma and practice each have their own way of cutting the deck, and style has its say as well in how we perceive the categories of religious practice and the communities that pursue them. Not all of these are trivial either—although some of them are.

Even within religious communities, within congregations, people who are gathered together, presumably with substantial common ground, there are plenty of ways to chop things up. Although Luther’s claim that each of us is simultaneously sinner and saint certainly has merit, we generally see the sinners and saints as different categories of people, and can find people in the church that match our conception of each without difficulty. Perhaps its the type of sin that we use to create the dividing line, or perhaps the intensity of its effects. I think the public/private nature of wrongdoing has often been a categorical marker, and there are others, too. It’s easy to peg a brother in the “sinner” category if he has some other “Not Like Me” markers.

One of the incredible features of the story of Jesus is his propensity to cut against these divisions, or to upend them. Jesus reminds the  baffled religious folk that Zacchaeus is “also a son of Abraham”. He proclaims that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance—while making those very sinners his most trusted disciples.

Jesus has a different way of seeing people. He seems to have a particular way of cutting through the externals, the masks that hide people, and he has a way of seeing something more essential, more human. He ignores the lenses that would cast people in a favorable or unfavorable light, and sees them for who they really are. This shouldn’t be that surprising; we’ve known since the time of David that “humans look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).

Perhaps it’s too much to ask that we learn to do the same; after all, we don’t have the same kind of access to the heart, do we? But maybe it’s enough for us to at least hold our judgements in check a bit, to recognize that what we see about people isn’t necessarily the whole story. If we can do that, we keep the door open for not only what God might do in their stories, but through us in their story. Holding back our judgements (or at least knowing that our conclusions are at best provisional and shouldn’t be held too tightly) allows us to be open to participating in God’s work. It puts us in a posture of missional readiness, so that we’re more ready to respond to possibilities. We’re ready for the opportunities to bless their lives that might come our way.

Missional, From the Inside Out

The word “missional” has been terribly abused in its first couple of decades of wide circulation. Theologically, the word simply describes God’s ongoing work in the world—and the church that intentionally participates in that work. There are multiple of facets to that work and our participation in it, and perhaps this explains why the word has been stretched around so many different kinds of churches or styles of discipleship. We understand ourselves to be participating in God’s mission as we spread the news of Jesus’s redemptive work in our community and around the globe, as we encourage each other to follow Jesus, and as we pursue the conditions of justice, righteousness and peace. None of these the full breadth of what God wants for this world, but in each of them we engage with values near to the heart of God!
Our churches pursue each facet collectively, working together for the purposes of evangelization, transformation, and justice—and churches can implement structural shifts to facilitate progress in each cause. We can create systems that create opportunities for faith sharing, venues in which transformation is more likely to occur, and initiatives that push against standing systems of injustice. Whether we’re the leaders fashioning the new programs or congregants supporting and participating in the moves, we can too easily begin to think that the structural changes mark us as “missional”. However, those structural shifts can only move us so far! Church programming and structure may create the conditions in which we move towards mission, and poor structures can get in the way of such practices or implicitly devalue them. Structure has its place, and should be approached with intentionality. However, creating the structures should not be understood as the heart of the work itself—the work itself is a matter of flesh, blood and spirit.

Flesh, Blood, and Spirit

The missional work of evangelization occurs when flesh and blood humans filled with the spirit of God reach out to their known and loved neighbors with the good news of Jesus. The missional work of discipleship takes place when people of flesh and blood, acting by the power of God’s spirit, encourage and teach each other about the way of Jesus, giving testimony of Jesus’s work. Justice progresses as spirit-driven people stand in solidarity with the oppressed, whom they have come to see and love because of their transformation in Christ. The heart of missional christianity isn’t a matter of organization, but of embodiment. While the church’s programming might provide the sort of vehicle or venue in which these things happen, the structure itself won’t succeed until it is filled by the right kind of transformed people—the new humanity, formed from the inside out for the purposes of God’s mission in the world. That formation takes places when we, both as communities and as individuals, nurture the sorts of mentalities and habits that encourage people to align with the mission of God and to engage in it.

The inventory of those mentalities and habits is surely diverse and contains some familiar things, like the virtues of faith, hope, and love that the church has long sought to nurture, and the habits of prayer and listening to the word that have been a part of both the gatherings of God’s people and the classical understandings of their individual devotional practices. These are well and good, and contribute to our transformation into people aligned with the mission of God, but I want to suggest a further practice, one that I see both in the life of the early church and in the missional movement of our own time: the nurture of a particular obsession.

Obsessed with the Missio Dei

The Missio Dei is a fancy latin phrase meaning “the mission of God”. It’s a bit of shorthand meant to point us towards what God is doing in the world—something we train ourselves to discover by drinking deeply of God’s story in the scriptures, and which we prayerfully seek by the spirit of God in our own time. Becoming obsessed with the Missio Dei means that at every turn in our lives, we are always asking, “What might God want to happen here?” or “How can I join in what God might be working towards by what I say and do in this moment?”.


These are the sorts of questions the early church obsessed over. Missional churches have these questions embedded in their culture, whether or not they ever use the fancy latin phrase or have super-sophisticated “missional” structures. Missional people can’t help but ask what God wants in the world, and how they can bear witness to God’s desires and God’s work towards fulfilling those intentions. Each encounter with the word, each gathering with the church, and every moment in the neighborhood is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God’s mission in the world. That obsession is planted deep within our hearts, and keeps gnawing at our souls. Like a deep mystery, it holds us in vigilant tension, so that every moment we are ready to perceive the clues that might shed light on what God is really at work doing. The seed of that obsession grows from the inside out, until its fruit becomes apparent in the world. It is an internal drive that fuels every external step we take. 

Transformation from the Inside Out, by Ryan Lassiter

Editor’s Note: I got to meet Ryan Lassiter at the wedding of another Ryan whom we both love dearly, and am glad to count him as a friend from afar. I’m grateful for his contribution to the Blog Tour! -sh

As I observe the Christian world around me (or maybe the entire world around me for that matter), it seems that extremes win the day. I grew up like many Christians have over the past 30 or more years in a faith tradition that was steeped in legalism. God was seen as this angry God who really did not much like his people, but he could be “bought off” with good deeds. As a reaction to that, we lean over into a world of “justification by faith” to talk about the gospel in such a way that it seems like simply an endeavor of the mind. Believe this, think that, say these words, be immersed in water, and you are “good”. The goal is simply to think certain things and confess certain things with your mouth, and then go to heaven when you die. For some reason, we never settle in the middle of these extremes with the biblical view that you are loved by God simply because, and that you are saved by faith alone. Therefore, live out your salvation and embark upon a journey of following Christ. We love the extremes it seems.

There has been a lot of scholarship over the past 30 years that has led us to believe that Paul wasn’t plagued with guilt when he wrote Romans, like say Martin Luther was when he read it. It seems that Paul’s goal was not simply to help get people to heaven when they die (though that is important), but it was to get heaven inside of Christ followers. The gospel was not simply something to be believed, or a formula for salvation from hell at death, but it was a good news event that should dramatically alter the life of those who believe it and follow after this Crucified Christ. To follow Christ is to orient one’s life toward Christ and begin a journey of being formed into His image. It is why Paul would say things about us being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So I don’t know if you are like me, but I find myself often frustrated. I want to be more patient, loving, kind, gentle, generous, and self-controlled. I want to react differently, or perhaps be less reactionary at times. I wish I was less impatient, less rash, less compulsive, less…well, you name it. It is a bit like my golf game.

I love golf. I don’t think my swing and my game are that bad. In my head, I know how to play the game really well and I can see myself playing well. However, I continually am amazed and frustrated when I go play and I’m not much better than the last time I played. Yet I never think that part of the problem is I don’t practice. And so it is with my faith. I wish I saw more of the fruit of the Spirit pouring forth in my life, but I do nothing toward that goal.

As Paul is concluding his theological masterpiece, he says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” – Romans 12:2 (emphasis mine). Paul seems to believe we can be different, and that we can be transformed from the inside out by the renewing of our minds. The gospel can and ought to transform us now, not just at the end. The deal is though, it isn’t a magic formula that you believe and confess and all of the sudden your life is dramatically changed. Sure there are these monumental moments in our faith, but more and more I think it is about the daily process of pursuing Christ. And it is into this thinking that I believe the spiritual disciplines call out to us. The spiritual disciplines are no magic formula, but they can position us for the Spirit to do its work.

I love the teaching of people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. They have a holistic and full view of salvation that it isn’t simply a one time conversion moment, but it is a journey or a process of transformation. Both of these guys also believe that the spiritual disciplines are the “practice” so to speak of the faith. If we want to see transformation in our lives, if we want to be less compulsive and reactionary and more patient and kind, perhaps we ought to do things that position us for the Spirit to make these changes in our lives. Maybe we incorporate into our daily lives what St. Benedict called a “rule of life”, or “rhythm of life” that practices the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, hospitality, submission to others, etc. If the goal isn’t simply to get to heaven one day, but to get heaven inside of us, to become people who begin to look and act more like Christ, then maybe these spiritual disciplines are a very practical tool for this inside out transformation, or what Paul calls the “renewing of your mind”.

The western story of Christianity has been hijacked into one that sounds like Jesus came into the world so we could get out of it. The problem is, that is not a very biblical picture of faith. Rather, what if we let go of that story and began seeing that Christ came into this world to get His image inside of it, or inside of us. No we don’t want to conform to the ways of this world, but neither do we want to hide from it. Rather, let us be transformed from the inside out by the renewing of our minds, and through this bear His image to a lost and broken world.

I can guarantee you that practicing the spiritual disciplines will position you for this transformation because I have seen it in my own life. The deal is though, no one can teach you into this change. Rather, you will have to try it. We can talk about the disciplines, but if you really want to see how it might could work in your life, then do it. Slow down, carve out space in your life, and lean into these disciplines. And don’t be surprised if you notice yourself reacting a bit differently, perhaps a bit more like Jesus would react. The Holy Spirit wants to transform you into the image of Christ, but this can only be done from the inside out.

 

04 Ryan Lassiter - picRyan Lassiter is the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville AL. Prior to that he served as a minster at the Golf Course Road Church of Christ in Midland TX, and he and his wife Sarah have also spent time as missionaries. Ryan graduated with his masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester College and his passion is helping people join God in his mission of redemption and restoration. He blogs at www.ryanlassiter.com.

Church Inside Out, by Tim Archer

This is the second installment in the 2016 Blog Tour that I’m participating in. I love Tim’s contribution here, especially that incredible quote from Gregory about Basil below. Enjoy! -sh

I’ve come to love the story of Basil the Great. He was bishop of Caesarea in the late 4th century. Basil earned his fame as a staunch defender of the Nicene creed, what most of us know as the traditional teaching about the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He worked tirelessly to oppose the teachings of those who saw Jesus as a created being. One of these opponents was the Roman emperor Valens, who banished Basil from the Roman empire on several occasions (though Basil paid no mind to the decrees).

Important though such work was, Basil’s greatest legacy was the Basiliad, the huge hospital/orphanage/hospice/poor house that was built outside of Caesarea. When Emperor Valens came to Caesarea to confront Basil face to face, he was so impressed by Basil’s work that he donated imperial land for expansions to the Basiliad.

When Basil died, Gregory of Nazianzus declared, “His words were like thunder because his life was like lightning.”

I love that imagery. I’d love to have it said of me. I’d love to have it said of the church. Words like thunder backed by a life like lightning; that’s what the church needs.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14–16)

Far too often our churches are cloistered within four walls, living godly lives that are seen by no one. We become consumed by inward-focused ministries. With all of our energies directed at one another, cabin fever sets in, and the church fights and feuds over minor matters. As we distance ourselves from our communities, we come to fear and distrust the outside world. In the end, having no significant relationship with outsiders, we content ourselves with trying to convert our young people.

That’s not how we were called to live! Peter told his readers:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)

Our lives are to be lived out in the open. Non-Christians should see our lives and respect them. This is true of us as individuals; it’s also true for the church as a whole.

We’ve got to be the church inside out… insiders going out in order to help outsiders come in.

Jesus has gifted his church with gifts and with leaders to equip her for works of service (Ephesians 4:7-13). One of the main tasks of Christian leaders is to help members find and use their gifts in service to others. Leaders should be aware of the needs of the community around as well as knowing how to help members discover their own giftedness. Elders and ministers need a mechanism for communicating those needs to the body, be it through social networks, phone trees, Bible classes, small groups, or announcements from the pulpit. They also need an awareness that no church can meet every need. It’s possible that some needs will only be prayed about for now, trusting that God will raise up people for those ministries at a future date.

Leaders should be open to proposals for new ways of serving, for new ministries that better fit the current membership and contemporary needs. In the same way, some ministries should be allowed to fall dormant or cease to exist; there is no shame in moving on from a ministry that is no longer bearing fruit.

Church members should be creatively looking for ways to use their gifts to serve the community around. Where giftedness meets need, that is the Christian’s calling. Sometimes those gifts fit within existing structures in the church; sometimes new ministries will be developed to minister to the community in more appropriate ways.

It’s important that we encourage our members to experiment with new ministries. Leaders should be positive and affirming when faced with ministry proposals, especially “outside the walls” ministries. People need to know that they can try something, evaluate it honestly, and make necessary changes (including suspension of that ministry for a time). As churches step outside of themselves, they will find more unpredictability and a need for more flexibility.

But step out we must. The church needs to be seen by the community, seen as a force for good. We will never be able to speak like thunder, until our lives shine like lightning. Others will never praise God because of us until they see deeds that are truly praiseworthy. I’ll close with a quote from my book Church Inside Out:

As the old refrain says, they won’t care what we know until they know that we care. The world does not want to be preached at. Outsiders don’t want Christians standing inside church buildings pointing fingers out at the rest of the world. But when they see transformed lives reflected in a Christian body that serves its community, they’ll want to hear the message.

02 Tim Archer - pic

Timothy Archer has coordinated the Spanish-speaking Ministries for Hope For Life / Herald of Truth Ministries since 2006. He has spent three decades working in Spanish ministry, including 15 years in Argentina. Tim preaches for the bilingual ministry at the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, where he attends with his wife Carolina, and their two children, Daniel and Andrea. Tim has co-authored three books with Steve Ridgell: Letters From The Lamb, Hope For Life and More Hope For Life, as well as a history of the churches of Christ in Cuba that was co-written with Cuban preacher Tony Fernández. Tim’s latest book, Church Inside Out, helps churches motivate their members to be actively ministering to the community around them.

 

A Missional Bibliography

Missional Bibliography

As Missional Theology matures, it’s producing a growing body of literature. It can be a lot to sort through, so here I’m collecting those resources that I’ve found helpful, with some comments along the way. I’ll start by providing a handful of foundational texts that I think are indispensable, and then point towards some other useful works along the way. I’ll be updating this page over time, so let me know of the ones I’ve missed in the comments!

Foundational Texts

41B0WZFUGgLMissional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America Darrell Guder and Friends, 1998. This is the mothership, people. It’s a foundational text, and if you really want to study the missional church, you have to read it. The good news is it reads pretty well, even after a couple of decades. For me, reading this was like finding the spring that fed the stream I’d been drinking from for years.

 

51A+xI24b+L Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness by Lois Barrett and friends. This is essentially the same gang of writers as Missional Church (Guder 1998), and in this text they try to put a little more flesh on their ideas. It’s based on case studies, and is a quick read—much less dense than Missional Church.

 

 

713WtZZZHKLThe Missional Church in Perspective by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile, 2011. This another piece from one of the original collaborators (van Gelder) that strikes me really as an extension of Missional Church. Since it’s a fairly easy read, I’d think of this as going into the essential toolkit. Part of what this book does is to frame the how the missional conversation has forked and taken different turns since 1998. Since different people use missional language to mean different things, a book that takes high view of the conversation, mapping it out, becomes very useful. This book is also useful for sending you in new directions, expanding your reading list.

61iIyu7Mm5LThe Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission by Leslie Newbigin (1995). This is a key predecessor to Missional Church, and no missional reading list is complete without it. Newbigin, upon his return to the Western World, helped it to see its own identity as a mission field, and provided theological language for our engagement with our neighbors.

Other Missional Books

Staying is the New Going by Alan Briggs (2015)

Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. David Bosch (1991) One of the significant predecessors to Missional Church, Bosch gives a thorough account of the trajectory that led to the missional movement.

Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw (2013)

The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church by Michael Frost (2011)

The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (2003, 2013) The revised editions has some pretty useful reflections in the introduction. This is a passionate and useful text, even if I have a couple of reservations about the way they ditch the trinitarian emphasis in favor of a heavy Christology.

Surprise the World: Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael Frost (2015) is a great little book that would be useful for a small study group. Very readable.

The Continuing Conversion of the Church, by Darrell Guder (2000) This book provides a perspective on what’s happening inside the missional church, and why that formation is key for the mission of God. I love this text’s fundamental premise.

Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, by Darrell Guder (2015) collects essays Guder published on the missional church after the landmark publication in 1998.

A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael Goheen (2011). I haven’t read this personally, but my friend Greg McKinzie sent me a note suggesting it’s a worthy contribution from the reformed neck of the woods.

Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (The Gospel and Our Culture Series (GOCS)) by Michael Gorman (2015). Gorman’s expertise is in missional hermeneutics (how we read and use scripture), and I think they’re fantastic.

Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation by Michael J. Gorman (2011). This is an earlier piece on Revelation, and I love it. It’s very readable, but will leave you chewing.

Missional. Monastic. Mainline.: A Guide to Starting Missional Micro-Communities in Historically Mainline Traditions by Elaine Heath (2014)

The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch (2009)

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight (2011) provides the sort of biblical backdrop that fuels the missional movement.

The Trinity and the Kingdom, Jurgen Moltmann (1993). Moltmann fits the description of a theologian whose writing has deeply impacted the missional movement, even if not explicitly missional.

Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition by Alan Roxburgh (2010) There’s been a lot written about missional leadership—Roxburgh is a trustworthy guide.

Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh (2011) this is a pretty central text, and is probably one of the better introductory piece out there. It may end up getting moved to the foundational list above.

The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality by Alan Roxburgh (1997). This is a more academic piece than Roxburgh’s other writing, and is sort of a forgotten little book, unfortunately.

51M7qBhbQIL

Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren (2009)

Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity Clemens Sedmak (2003). This is a jewel of a book with an unfortunately hokey cover. I advise you to defer judgment.

The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit Craig Van Gelder (2007)

A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf (1996) Volf isn’t explicitly a missional theologian, but his work seems to be an important piece of the conversation, in my view. 

A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good by Miroslav Volf (2013)

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright (2006) Like Gorman, Wright is a significant figure in missional hermeneutics. His focus has typically been in Old Testament Studies, and that provides the backdrop for this book, which is a landmark work for the field.

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright (Revised in 2013) is excellent, and the book makes a fantastic case for a missional understanding of how scripture fits into the story of God. If you haven’t cut your teeth on Wright yet, you should, and this is a great place to start.

Missional Web Hubs

Missio Alliance has one of the best missional blogs around the web. Most of the articles here are at a popular level, though often by respected missional leaders.

Missio Dei is an online academic journal with articles about missional theory and practice.

The Journal of Missional Practice has a vision “to be like a table around which theologically informed practitioners gather with others to share the stories of what they are doing and discerning on the ground and in the local.” I’d say they pull it off.

Mission-Shaped Church (2004) is a church of England publication I’ve heard good things about, and I know it’s been influential in the Anglican Fresh Expressions circles.

Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (American Society of Missiology Series) by Bevans and Schroeder (2004) is a recommendation I recently got via twitter (hat tip to @MuellerBSSabrina), bu I haven’t had the chance to peruse it yet. Let me know if you have.

Missional Podcasts

Theology on Mission is a regular podcast featuring David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. (iTunesOvercast)

Missional Hospitality with Alan Roxburgh is episode 2 of the Fresh Expressions Podcast.