"Missionality" through the Lens of Acts

One of the claims made by the “missional” wing of the Church is that it recaptures the fervor of the Apostolic Church for a radical evangelism. In making that claim, they join a long line of movements in Church history who have implied similar parallels to the early Church. But was the Church of Peter and Paul as single-mindedly targeted on “mission” as is now claimed; or was there more of a balance between the missioners in the field and the in-gathered believers “back home”? After re-reading the Acts of the Apostles, I am persuaded that a very effective balance existed which enabled the overall mission to succeed.

In Acts 1, Jesus’ final words to the disciples prior to the Ascension instruct them to be his witnesses “…to the ends of the earth.” As angels shoo the disciples away from their sky-gazing on Olivet, one might expect them to get on with their commission and to hit the roads in every direction from there. But the disciples do something quite the contrary—they return to the Upper Room and gather with the close followers and family of Jesus in extended prayer. Then, as the first “official” action of the post-Ascension church, they do some internal organizing—holding an election to fill the vacancy of Judas’ empty place. It has the feel of “taking care of business” at an annual congregational meeting rather than holding a soul-saving revival under a rented tent. But the narrative makes clear that tending to the communal life of the gathered believers did not represent any abandonment of Jesus’ great commission to evangelize. It was viewed as necessary and preparatory work for evangelizing—for presenting the claims of Christ to the world, near and far.

Throughout the book of Acts, there continues a dynamic exchange between the apostles at the frontiers and those back at the home church. It takes many forms: conversations, confrontations, councils, shifts in personnel, collections for support. Through it all, the Gospel advance unfolds step-by-step in its progress from Jerusalem to the Rome, from the periphery to the center of the Empire. By the time the Acts narrative ends, there is a definite impression that the journey was accomplished, not by the dominance of one party over the other, but by a cooperation that was respectful of the contributions of both.

Paul, the great missional figure, was not just the saver of individual souls; he was the founder of churches and kept in relationship to those communities of belief he founded. He himself served a long apprenticeship in several churches prior to his journeys and he felt linked to the church at Jerusalem. In giving advice to churches like Ephesus and Corinth, he was drawing from extended personal experience as a church member. The Apostle cared about and commented on the quality of their congregational life, even though he himself had been moved on from them by the Spirit. Life in fixed local community and life on the road were seen in symbiotic relationship. Neither element could be impoverished without also harming the mission of advancing God’s Kingdom overall.

It is precisely this relationship of mutual respect and interdependence that is lacking in the RCA today. We need the gifts of those who are missionally-minded and to heed their challenge against congregational introversion. We also need the gifts of folk who are rooted in their places and in the practices of congregational life. Unless we can achieve some basis of mutual respect and love, we cannot expect to make great strides towards being effective agents of the Great Commission.

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3 thoughts on “"Missionality" through the Lens of Acts

  1. Jim,Thanks for this! I found it eye-opening. Craddock’s phrase, “the shock of recognition” comes to mind (although not as Craddock intended it). The post-ascension gathering in the Upper Room as the first congregational meeting: that’s bracing!I wonder if what is also at work is a subtle but intense argument over who is truly a missionary. The actual RCA missionaries I know or have met are very respectful of congregations and are acutely aware of the importance of mutual dependence and “dynamic exchange.” But others, who aren’t missionaries in the usual sense, are claiming the “missional” label, and then deride the congregations.I guess what I’m getting at (and it may be more for a different thread) is this:Is the missional emphasis, as it’s being pushed, bad for RCA missions?Dan

  2. Missionality of Peter and Paul.Thanks, Jim for the ‘Acts-perspective’ posting, and the plea for mutual respect and love.As Dan as the first responder noted, there are many threads here! I would like to offer a few. All in the spirit Jim advocates for at the end: Hebrews 13:1, ‘Let mutual love continue.’ That admonition is a relevant as ever!With regard to the Acts perspective I would like to offer two commentsFirst: a basic observation, that the bible book is NOT called the Actions of the Apostles, but the Acts (a notion stated at length by Willem Barnard, a Dutch theologian/ poet/liturgist). Here lies is a world of difference that is all but impossible to address in our late-modern culture where we regard only ‘surface’ and no deeper dimensionality. Here is no easy way to talk about re-spect, re-verence, re-member, re-vitalize, and –yes– being re-formed and re-surrected. Second: a glimpse of a conversation in our Consistory about the ‘Church Herald decision.’ The question was put whether we are robbing Peter to pay Paul (many of our churches in the East are familiar with ‘deferred maintenance’!), or whether we here have Paul –as the ‘missional minded one’– redirecting the collected funds for Peter’s church in Jerusalem to more immediate pressing needs. I am one of those pastors who rejoices when issues are presented as spoken by members of the church who understand that a congregation is a ‘Creatura Verbi’ ((for the connoisseurs: the title of a 1983 dissertation on Acts by A. Noordegraaf, until 1998 at the Utrecht faculty – portfolio of congregational vitality and diaconate)). It was observed that in Acts the ‘mission’ churches in the diaspora were the ones that supported the ‘mother’ church, as per explicit agreement at the first Council. (Crudely put: Paul could kept doing what he did, but only as a ‘franchise’; more theologically put: the Holy Spirit, as God, cannot be separated from God Incarnate in the Body of Christ).Consistory knew that the Peter/Paul question was over the top, but the laughter was wry. It showed the chagrin about the deliberate obfuscation of the largest increase in assessments ever. The subterfuge was successful partly because of the ‘Dutch’ disposition to always look for a low-cost way out. ((you know the story of the invention of copper wire: a Scotsman and a Dutchman fighting over a penny…)). As one deacon said: ‘Isn’t the Church Herald –with a name like that– also missional?’ Beyond Acts (and within it, as in the earlier letter to the Hebrews) lies the Jewish-Christian complex relationship. Is one missional, and the other not? The ‘basis’, the foundation of ‘mutual respect and love’ as the post states, is Christ Jesus. Hence, the opening reference to Hebrews 13:1 as a biblical beacon. (It is also the tile of a paper I wrote some time ago with the heterodoxy of sexuality in mind; ask okkep@aol.com and you shall receive). Finally, if ‘missional’ means BOTH ‘multiplication’ and ’revitalization’ as ‘Our Call’ says, why is the balance between the two so skewed? The logic of ‘multiplication’ inherently demands localized operation and resourcing. Why is it morphed into an operation of exponentiation that is exported to a centralized bureaucracy?

  3. Thank you Okke and Dan for your expansion and extensions of the various lines of thinking. Dan, your depiction of a “subtle but intense argument over who is truly a missionary” is helpful. The bottom line of the RCA budget would indicate that foreign missions have been deemphasized in recent years. There are several factors in this apparent decline including the rising expense of supporting overseas missions with US dollars and a sense that the world has come to our doorsteps [although not quite through the church doors.] But foreign missions has been made subservient to “mission” as expressed in new church start evangelism. Foreign missions was traditionally a “give-away”; i.e. one went abroad, set up missions, hospitals, schools and churches for the sole reason of seeding the Gospel in other cultures and nations—taking the Great Commission at face value. There was no anticipated return of favors from Africa, Asia, etc. [Part of that expectation, in retrospect, was racist and colonialist in its background.]By contrast, the “missional” emphasis being promoted in the RCA is not a “give-away” at base, but an “investment in evangelism” with an anticipated pay-off down the road measured in increased numbers of RCA congregations and members. This plays directly into the fear of extinction that rampages through, not only churches in the East, but also in the midwestern rural crossroads that are depopulating. Foreign missionaries were a rather fearless lot; confident that God would work out what was not clear to them as they set sail to bring strangers to Christ. Our newly-minted missional emphasis is a tad more self-serving and self-reliant and, at base, a fear response. Lately, I have been asking this question of consistory folk: “If your outreach efforts succeed in creating new Christians, but few if any of them join your church, was your effort worth it?” That gets at the pay-off motivation and the fear driver behind it. It also sets the stage for a closer look at the definitions [e.g. missional]that are being bandied about. On another note, Okke, when it comes to obfuscation [as with the assessment increase] the 2007 Stewardship Report continues the trend. We all should download it from the RCA website and do an analysis. It uses every trick in the book–graphs stated in percentages vs dollars, confusion of “contributions” as both assesments and donations, etc. Nice cover though; a beautiful rainbow landing in a green field. One wonders whether the message is Noadic [never again to destroy all life] or Celtic [a pot of gold under that rainbow].

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