Over the past year, I have frequented Jasonâ€™s website because it hosts one of the more sustained, and fruitful, conversations available on the Internet of what some are calling the â€˜new ecclesiology.â€™ Jasonâ€™s ongoing reflections on â€œdeep churchâ€ have nudged me to think much harder and more creatively. When I heard him speak at Off-the-Map in Seattle last November I finally realized that the part about â€˜deepâ€™ with which I most resonate is a peculiar sort of historical (rooted?) sense emerging in his emerging ecclesiology. But it is still not easy to come by a very developed historical consciousness in contemporary literature. Jason has cited, for inspiration, writers like Stan Grenz, Jon Franke, Scott McKnight, and Ray Andersonâ€”thinkers who donâ€™t do much with the Great Tradition, really. Anderson says some very interesting things about chronos, or the passage of time, on occasion (more on that later) but doesnâ€™t really â€˜go thereâ€™ in the historical sense for deep church insights.
So in this ramble, Iâ€™d like to suggest a historical model that Iâ€™ve found helpful in my attempts to understand the sort of changes we are presently witnessing in the church. With Andersonâ€™s help, Iâ€™d also like to correlate this model with the increasingly popular notion of missio Dei. Iâ€™m not sure where this is all going to lead, but thatâ€™s not my worryâ€”nor my jobâ€”for now. Thatâ€™s up to all of you out there who â€˜inwardly digestâ€™ whatâ€™s before you on the screen. Iâ€™m not saying anything terribly new hereâ€”especially before an audience as missional as thisâ€”but perhaps some familiar things can be said in an unfamiliar way â€¦ and maybe thatâ€™s all it takes to get the imagination working for the sake of the Kingdomâ€¦
First, my initial source of inspiration: a book recently published in the UK called Mission-shaped Church: A Theological Response (SCM Press, 2006) by John M. Hull (at Birmingham University, I believe), who cites Raimundo Panikkar. I could say a whole lot about this short little book, and the larger work (Mission-shaped Church) to which it respondsâ€”especially concerning the Church of Englandâ€™s current pursuit of â€œfresh expressions,â€ missional theology, etc., but will have to spare you the fascinating details for the time being. (Can an established church be missional???) Anyway, Panikkar, according to Hull, maps church history out into three major periods.
First, after Constantine, there was â€˜Christendomâ€™â€”â€œwhen Christian faith in Europe possessed an integrity of territory, culture and faith.â€ Panikkar thinks the fundamental Bible verse of that period would probably have been Luke 14:23â€”â€œThen the master said to the slave, â€˜Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.â€™â€ There was no official pluralism during Christendom, so deviant or newly discovered groups were expected to conform and convert to the one true faith, as expressed in the one true church.
Secondly, came â€˜Christianity,â€™ which around the time of the Renaissance, then the Reformation, came to refer to a belief system or structure that existed, increasingly, alongside other systems or structuresâ€”partly due to the age of discovery, encounters with Asian religions, the primal world, etc. But there were also new arenas of being and action with which to contend, like secular reason, the modern nation-state, and capitalism. Empire also took new form, often using Christianity as its vehicle. During this period, which continued through the twentieth century, the favorite Bible verse would have been the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19â€”â€œGo therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spiritâ€¦â€ As an evangelical of sorts, I especially relate to this!
Finally, we may now be entering a period known as â€˜Christian-nessâ€™ where a revival of discipleship seems to be underway. Its about a certain way of living, one focused more intently on Jesus himself and the â€œprojectâ€ he was assigned by his Father through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the most compelling Bible verse might be one that expresses Jesusâ€™s own self-understanding, in Luke 4:18--â€œThe Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.â€
Like any other sort of model, there is considerable over-simplification in this periodization. It fails at many points, yet it draws some things to my attentionâ€”perhaps yoursâ€”that I have tended to miss. Most obviously, it brings the biblical metanarrative or missio Dei to the forefront. I cannot properly understand who Jesus was/is or what he was/is about unless I understand his mission. They are co-essential. This, in turn, makes mission an activity with cosmic, and indeed, Trinitarian proportions. It forces me to situate my understanding of the church, the kingdom of God, and mission in a consciousâ€”certainly more developedâ€”set of inter-relationships. More personally, it challenges me to move beyond my evangelical preoccupation with sin-management (see Dallas Willard about that problem!)â€”the subjectivity of individualized faithâ€”into the broader panoramic vision of Godâ€™s project stretching from history into eternity. So, it correlates my subjectivity (and â€œall its private satisfactionsâ€) with Godâ€™s supreme destiny. I donâ€™t know about you, but I struggle with that correlation 24/7.
Ray Andersonâ€™s An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (IVP, 2006) says all this and much, much more in a powerful biblical theology of mission. Heâ€™s really on to something here, I think. Borrowing from Moltmann, he calls us to a â€œconversion to the futureâ€ through churches that consciously live according to Godâ€™s â€œeschatological preference.â€ Try the church as â€œsacrament of the Kingdomâ€ on for size. The implications are being re-covered once again, thanks in part to the emergent conversation. After Helenâ€™s contributions this week, for example, I see all the more how our believing is, indeed, very much conditioned by our belongingâ€”to Christ, his mission, and to each other as we journey together.
Iâ€™m a church historian who has shared surprisingly little of the actual grit of history in this missive. But Iâ€™m beginning to look over the past few thousand years (gulp!) with new questions, new eyes or sensitivities regarding Godâ€™s unfolding work, especially in the way emergence has happened in other times and places. Emergence is nothing knew, really. Iâ€™d like to see emergence from Godâ€™s point of view, and do a little more of that correlation thing. Any thoughts?