RCA Ecclesiology "missional"?

The minutes of the 2007 meeting of the General Synod use the term “missional” as a self-evident description of what the church is about. It is as though the official ecclesiological understanding of the church is “missional.” This must be challenged. Not because advocates of a “missional” understanding of the church do not have an honorable point of view, but because it is a point of view and one that is still contested. It certainly isn’t the official position of the RCA.

As is probably understood by most readers of this blog, the idea of the church as “missional” took hold most recently with the work and writing of missiologists gathered in the “Gospel and Culture” network, working largely in the spirit of Lesslie Newbigin. This group has written a great deal and offered a number of reflections in many fora. The earliest book, Missional Church, “defines the church as God’s sent people.” It continues, “We are persuaded that nay responsible missional ecclesiology must be centered on the hope, the message, and the demonstration of the inbreaking reign of God in Jesus Christ.”

That’s not wrong. It’s just half-right. Compare that with the Book of Church Order:The Nature of the Church on Earth. The church, which Scripture represents with many images, is a gathering of persons chosen in Christ through the Holy Spirit to profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in order to embody God’s intentions for the world. Gathered by the Spirit around Word and sacrament, the church fulfills its call within the expectation of the reign of God as it participates in mission, in calling all persons to life in Christ, and in proclaiming God’s promise and commands to all the world.” Here we have “God’s intentions for the world,” and the church fulfilling its call within the expectation of the reign of God.” All missional. But not only mission.

If the church is only mission, then the “gathering” is functional to what the church is to be about beyond itself. But that’s not all the church is about. It is also about the gathering. (Jesus not only said “go” in Matthew 28; he said “come” in Matthew 11). It is about being drawn into the delight of God’s people at the table (what are we missioning for?). It is to be God’s people sent, but not only sent.

The notion of the church as mission was a helpful correction when the church became (and becomes) introverted. The church is in service to the kingdom of God. The irony of what’s going on in the RCA right now appears to be that the notion of missional is being used to strengthen the institution to go outside itself to gain more persons to be part of the institution.

It can, of course, be argued that such is the task of the church — to win souls. In which case the church is only functional. But then we need to be very clear on the nature of this “kingdom” we’re talking about. And at least historically, for the Reformed this included the souls of persons, but always in the larger context of not only the community of faith, but the world itself. For God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ lordship included all the world.

Can we begin the discussion?

3 thoughts on “RCA Ecclesiology "missional"?

  1. From Church to Mission?Thanks, Al for again posing the question and inviting further discussion. I would like to offer a few notes from the RCA’s own historical perspective as it relates to Lesslie Newbegin’s context. Almost to the day, (late Sept 1947)it is sixty years ago that the Church of South India (CSI) came into being. Earlier that year, when the RCA Foreign Mission Board learned of the pending ‘mergers,’ the Rev. Henry Bast resigned from the Board. He saw the new CSI as a final affirmation that the progressive institutionalization of the former Arcot Mission (later the Classis of Arcot -the only RCA classis not in the Amricas; and still later the Arcot Assembly) had overwhelmed ‘the priority of evangelism.’ Moreover, as a symbol of the ‘success’ of the ecumenical movement, the new church union was highly suspect in the view of somee especially in the Mid-West of the RCA. It was to them a sign of trouble! For, likewise, the RCA ‘at home’ was drifting into further association with less pure churches in the Federal Council of Churches (soon to be the NCCC). The attitude was: ‘no more conversion stories, no more money from us.’ A history of the Arcot Mission was written by Eugene Heideman as vol. #38 (in 2001) in the Historical Series of the RCA. The title is ‘From Mission to Church.’Throughout the thick book (748 pages) the mutual interdependency of mission and church, of doing and being, is evident. Chapter 9 is instructive as ‘The Devolution of Mission from Paternalism to Partnership,’ while the next chapter recalls “In Union Is Strength.” The book ends with the observation that echoes Newbegin: the church of South India would do well to send misionaries to the West, i.e. AS church do mission.It is the struggle of contextualization that I found fascinating and illuminating. Should we insist that mission must be the dominating perspective in, and modus operandi of, the Church? My own field-theory theology supports the view that the Church both IS and HAS missional purpose. To play one verb off over against the other is self-hatred, not one of the three-self principles that informed the burgeoning CSI (the self-propagating, self-supporting and self-governing ‘formula).The very word ‘church’ means ‘of the Lord’ -kyriake. The Great Comission is precisely that, a co-mission, not simply a mission. And the verbal form of ‘go’ in Mt 28 is best translated as ‘goingly.’ That means ‘while we are on the way of the life and the truth of God in Christ’ we witness to the the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in all of creation.Jesus and the Spirit are always ahead of us: we follow God’s future and are not to be ‘driven’ by lesser purposes.

  2. Hi Al,Thanks for this.You say, “That’s not wrong. It’s just half-right.” I think you’respot-on correct. Maybe this is too Hegelian a way of thinking aboutit, but it seems to me that it’s not uncommon for polemicists,beginning with a useful polemic, to take their half-right,counterbalancing point and claim that it is the whole reality. Thenthe situation eventually requires an opposing polemic.In our own RCA context, the totalizing claims of our “half-right”opponents appear to be more than the natural outcome of thatquasi-Hegelian trajectory. Something more sinister is at work. Here,these totalizing claims are very often used in strident rhetoricalfashion and for political gain. Missional church slogans are used toshame and silence those who “won’t get with the program” or “justdon’t get it.” They are then used, subtly, to direct power andbenefits away from some and toward others.Even in my own amiable regional synod, I have felt that the word”missional” has become a shibboleth, to distinguish between those whoare in the know and those who are not.Dan

  3. When I can more experience/feel than articulate, I look for words written on this blog.Thanks Al — and others.The RCA has been moving toward imbalance for awhile now.Out of a kind of fear I believe.

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