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!