Resident Aliens, The Confessing Church, and Missional Communities

Resident Aliens, The Confessing Church, and Missional Communities May 21, 2013

I am at Conception Abbey on retreat for a few days. This morning I pulled one of my old favorites and read for awhile. It’s not a stretch to say that the book Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas has had a tremendous influence upon my life. I’m not sure I’ve spent more time in one single book, and I return to it time and again. I see RA as a kind of field guide for ecclesiology. It’s not a straight forward theological work, but it conveys a rich theological vision for the church. Hauerwas speaks to my soul. I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s drinking.

I’ve also been re-reading Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer, finishing it over the weekend, and have been flirting with Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, but haven’t committed to it yet. So the confessing church is on my mind. I ran across Hauerwas’s take on what it means to be a confessing church. If I were to describe my own church – especially given some of the recent developments with the word “missional” – I think I’d use confessing church as a descriptor.

Hauerwas gives three options:

Activist Church: concerned with building a better society through social structures, the activist church works for social change. Highly involved in Jesus’s vision of the kingdom, activist churches are typically progressive, hoping to be on the right side of history. Its members take up causes on behalf of those who are living on the margins of our culture. The downside is that their politics becomes a sort of religiously glorified liberalism

Conversionist Church: this church says that you can tinker with society all you want but until everyone gets saved nothing will get better. Secular optimism gives false hope. People are too broken. The world is too broken. It’s all going to burn anyway so you better turn to Jesus (and buy an SUV). Downside is that their politics becomes social Darwinism. Religion is about the inward soul, not the outward life, and so the church loses any impetus for social ethics (and possibly even public worship, unless it is a means of conversion). The political claims of Jesus are shunned for a religiously glorified conservatism.

Confessing Church: Here’s the paragraph in which Hauerwas describes it: “The confessing church is not a synthesis of the other two approaches, a helpful middle ground. Rather, it is a radical alternative. Rejecting both the individualism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists and their common equation of what works with what is faithful, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of individual hearts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.” P.45

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the missional community model which has a significant number of followers, especially in the circles in which I’m running.

It think it is possible that the missional community approach is an over-reaction to the excesses of the megachurch. For sure, megachurch programming is crazy & needed to be critiqued. If you are rolling a Sherman tank onstage driven by a pastor in fatigues, perhaps that expenditure of time and money needs to be curtailed. But you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I think that the deemphasizing and even disdaining of public worship is a mistake. The most important thing the church does is to gather for worship. To learn how to worship with people who are not that much like me, who think differently about the world than I do – people from conversionist and activist backgrounds and bents – that is the transformational impact of worship.

Worship is serious work. It’s hard work. It should be difficult and fraught with tension. Worship does not exist to make us fall in love with Jesus, and it’s not even “all about you, Jesus.” Worship is about us, too. It’s about what happens when human persons – a community – comes into the presence of a Holy God who is Wholly Other, side by side with people who are the “other” as well.

In worship we practice the way we are supposed to be the whole rest of the week. In worship our imaginations are shaped by the vision of the kingdom upon which we collectively gaze. You can’t have 7 day obedience with out the 1 day of public worship. You can’t have public worship without the whole church gathering.

I also think that the missional community model of church can be seen as an attempt to synthesize the individualistic conversionist model, with the socially conscious activist model. What is at work at the heart of the missional community movement is not an ecclesiology, but a model. Both the activist and conversionist models are trained in on pragmatics, results, success, and conflates effectiveness and faithfulness. Same goes for the missional community model. It is fully dependent upon growth for its long term survival.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Missional Communities are out there working at what it means to be the church. But I’m dubious about the model on the whole. I just think that any attempt to synthesize the activist and conversionist models will be doomed to a life of pragmatism. When the rubber hits the road, faithfulness will always take a back seat to results. The single best safe-guard against this is public worship. It’s central, and it needs to happen once a week. After millions of dollars are spent trying to rethink church and implement new strategies, could it be that we’ll finally realize we just need to do what we’ve always done: gather for worship?

The confessing church will not care about being effective, it will only desire to be faithful.

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  • [“Worship is about us, too. It’s about what happens when human persons – a community – comes into the presence of a Holy God who is Wholly Other, side by side with people who are the “other” as well.”]

    Again, I ask: Can you imagine Jesus saying that?

    Alternatively, as you read references to God or Christ (or the Spirit of God or the Word of God) in the scriptures, try (just as an experiement) NOT imagining some strange force or alien being that is Wholly Other and apart from you, but remember the presence of God that IS within you—remembering that we are, indeed, reconciled to God– and to one another –in Christ; and that, indeed, we live and move and have our being (together) in Him:

    “Indeed he is not far from each one of us. . . . as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:27-28).

    We are One in the Spirit and our point of entry into this dynamic Oneness is the “I Am” presence within us which IS the living Christ.

    “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . .
    The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be
    one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become
    completely one” (John 17:21,22,23).

    “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will
    worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as
    these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must
    worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).

  • Interesting post. I’m an “intrigued outsider” of the missional community type church. I wonder if the missional community people would argue that little is gained (or perhaps truly “confessed” if that is less “results” sounding) in the midst of the “1 day public worship, 7 day obedience.” In other words, the one day of public worship, or gazing at the Kingdom, simply doesn’t lead to 7 day obedience. I wonder if they would argue that to be “In Christ” or “see Christ in all things” requires steady rhythms and disciplines, not booster shots. The “missional” part of such communities (from my very outside perspective) often seems to be more about establishing yet another rhythm of “Christ working in and through us” rather than a secular activism, conversion, or blending of the two. Without the daily office, the meals together, the rhythms of social ethics, etc, the transformation of the people of God falls flat. “We need rhythm and discipline, not weekly reminders”…although I don’t think they’d be that crass in making the distinction. It’s rhythm and discipline that gets a person to the Hauerwas notion of “a congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.”

    I also have questions and reservations about the missional community style church. For the past couple years I’ve been chewing on Simon Chan’s definition of church as “A Worshiping Community.” I can’t quite get my head around what this means, where preaching in the sacraments come in to it, where mission and social justice come into it, etc. I kinda get it…but not really.

    So, you made a statement that I was really intrigued by. I’m curious if you could flush it out.

    You said, “What is at work at the heart of the missional community movement is not an ecclesiology, but a model.” What does this mean? I’d love to hear you flush this out. I’m not against your notion…I just don’t understand it. I think they would claim that ecclesiology is the driver for their way of being the church. What makes the gathered Sunday worship experience more ecclesiological than the missional community? Is gathering one day a week to worship not a model? Does it not also require some semblance of growth for long term sustainability? What makes gathering for Worship “faithfulness” rather than “pragmatics.” On that note, does pragmatism take a back seat to faithfulness? Are they not linked? “Faith without deeds (results?) is dead.”

    Anyway, I am convinced that I don’t have a very solid ecclesiology. I’m intrigued, but not convinced on the missional community. I’m not sure that what I’m doing at my “weekly gathered” church has a very rich ecclesiology either.

    You’ve touched on an area I’ve been in the thick of for a while and am interested to hear more of your thoughts if you get the urge.

  • Patrick Johnson

    I think if you read the core missional theological stuff, you’ll find your perspective and the missional perspective very close agreement. I don’t know who your friends are in these “missional communities”, but missional theology is not at all about pragmatic effectiveness or about being a “model.” Missional theologians actually argue against that. It is an ecclesiology that is developed from the missio Dei.

    Moreover, worship is a very important aspect of missional theology. For example, you might look at the chapter in the book “Treasure in Clay Jars” that is devoted to the public witness of worship. I have never met an authentically missional theologian that dismissed worship as unnecessary to the church, etc. In fact, most stress how important worship is because that small amount of “gathered” time so influences the way the community lives when it is scattered.

    In my view, the key difference between the RA understanding of worship and a missional understanding of worship is this: instrumentality. RA folks treat worship as an intrinsically good act, which needs no further purpose than the glory of God. Missional folks respond that yes, it is that, but it is also instrumental for the equipping of the church for its witness in the world. For many RA folks, giving worship an instrumental function is a dangerous move. They say worship should be (ala Marva Dawn) a royal waste of time. Missional folks respond that it is no way diminishes worship to say that in worship God equips his people to bear witness to him in their daily lives. Anyway… you get the drift…

    Still, I think if you read the missional literature you’ll find it much resonant with your beliefs than you think. The Eerdmans Gospel and Our Culture Network series is a great place to start.

    Patrick —