Book Review of David Fitch’s “Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission”

Dr. Fitch is a mission focused academic, and there is a lot of confusion, in my opinion, about the relationship between the church’s identity and its mission in most missiological studies, but this book is less about the concept of mission as such. Rather Dr. Fitch works through seven practices he believes should begin to be understood again as sacramental: Eucharist (referred to as the Lord’s Table), Reconciliation (historically called Confession), Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with the “Least of These,” Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting (APEST), and Kingdom Prayer. Faithful Presence is an exploration of these practices as a way to empower the local community of faith with the presence of King Jesus to fulfill the mission given to the kingdom of God.

Key to Dr. Fitch’s idea of these disciplines is that they are social sacraments. It is less about physical quality of being and more about the space actively created in the participation of these moments in the relationships of those involved. This space, Dr. Fitch contends, brings in the presence of King Jesus, and this is what changes all of creation and empowers the local church to fulfill its mission.

Coupled with this idea of being social sacraments, Dr. Fitch proposes there are three modes of expressing these sacraments in our relationships: close circle (church family), dotted circle (Christians living together in neighborhoods inviting non-believers), and the half-circle (Christians in non-Christian contexts). He believes that the presence of King Jesus is just as present in the community potluck and the conversation at a bar as it is at Eucharist. This is possible because of the quality of the sacrament resting in its social element between the believer and the other person.

There are many stories and exegetical explanations, both cultural and scriptural, throughout the book to help these points which must be read to get the full grasp of Dr. Fitch’s arguments. There were slight historical and textual issues I had with a handful of sections, as should be expected, but overall the argument of the book, that the local church must understand and use communal practices to open up a space for the presence of King Jesus to be empowered to complete the mission, is vitally important and true.

The most powerful chapters for me had to be those over the Lord’s Table (chapter 3), the practice of reconciliation in the relationships of those in the community of faith (chapter 4), and understanding preaching as distinct from teaching (chapter 5). The case for being with children (chapter 7) lacked any real substance to me other than the history of the church demands that we catechize children because they are raised in Christian families (and in many traditions already baptized as infants or very young children). The idea that being with the “least of these” (chapter 6) is a powerful idea that needs to be worked out more as a reality of sacramental being before I am comfortable to connecting, what many would assume, general social justice work as a sacrament.

There are some major issues from my perspective with associating the Fivefold Gifting (chapter 8), or more generally called APEST as taught by Alan Hirsh, and prayer (chapter 9) as sacraments. There is no doubt that exercising one’s gifting and prayer can be sacramental moments that God uses to be with the Christian, but these are just not places where such moments are promised. I believe this is key to understanding sacraments.

My working definition of sacrament for the last number of years has been intentional participatory moments with King Jesus which he has promised to his kingdom. There are a number of texts in the New Testament pointing out that not all prayer to God is heard, even if in the name of King Jesus,[1] let alone always bring in his presence. The same is to be said for the idea of APEST gifting. Personally, there are too many contemporary issues reading back into Ephesians 4 for me to be academically comfortable with the way many use the idea of gifting in APEST. There are also exegetical issues with the rendering of the distinctions and how they function as authority and leadership in the community of faith. All that to say, I see no promise that the exercise of a gift denotes the presence of King Jesus. If anything, Paul seems to critique the Corinthians on issues of the presence of pride and disorder in their gifting rather than the sacramental presence.[2] In my understanding of sacraments, I can’t grant such status to the use of spiritual gifts or prayer, even if they are both often a sacramental moment in Christian life.

As an interested student of the work of Rene Girard, the idea of the sacrament’s social dimension of being is something I can easily get behind. Andrew McGowan also references the social focus of early Christian practices, particularly the importance of the community’s participation in Eucharist.[3] But I would point out that the early Christians’ had a deep emphasis on the real presence of King Jesus in a way that can only be given contemporary language as biological (whatever that might mean for us must be worked out).[4] Is it enough to simply have relationship or are we saying the Christian is sacramentally the very body of Jesus, not figuratively, but actually is the biological expression of the Spirit of King Jesus? From my studies the social and biological aspects of human being (and therefore human presence) cannot be separated. Space by and in the sacraments must be space for both elements of presence.

Faithful Presence is an exciting exploration into some of the practices of the local church seeking to bring in the presence of King Jesus. This conversation is deeply needed in free church Protestantism. Dr. Fitch lays a necessary foundation for these free churches to begin developing a perspective about their practices which views them as spiritually invested, and not simply “from the bible” and common sense. As American culture continues to become more disagreeable to Christian life, these communal practices of the presence of King Jesus will become the anchors of Christian life and be vital to the kingdom’s existence in our context.

[1] Mt. 7:21; 1st Pt. 3:7; James 5:16

[2] 1st Cor. 12-14

[3] Andrew Brian McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 32.

[4] Ibid., 47.

Computer-Based Worship Needs No Body

In my last post, I posed two ending questions based on the epistemological reflection of individual experiences with the focus being in the context of worship. Is there a place in the structure of Christian faith for technology and performance to mediate the reality of King Jesus as Lord over creation? And, how should communities of faith define non-reality in relation to technology-based experiences, especially if it is being used to convince (manipulate?) people toward the gospel?

Last week also included a quick sketch of the philosophical trek from premodern to modern to postmodern, both structuralist and post-structuralist, developments. In my bias I follow in the understanding of the structuralists about human development. I accept that the individual is located in a particular place of relationships, which continually constructs them through language, both act and speech. I believe this social construction begins even before the birth of the individual in a foundational act. The most foundational act, the one that defines all relationships and language between the individual and the social, is the sex act.

This may sound like an overgeneralization, which would not be unheard of coming from an academic, but I think the sex act is fundamental to all human identity. Do not think of the sex act as simply the desire of a certain type of sexual pleasure or even the drive to have sex itself. The sex act is the event in every person’s life that brings existence and meaning, not as the time the individual simply has intercourse but the event that defines the beginning of the individual’s life and the parameters of all relationships with and to others. The sex act provides the two things necessary for human identity at the moment of existence: the biological body that other biological bodies interact with, and the social location of that particular body in relation to those other bodies.

The social location of the body is what structuralists have shown is the driving factor in development, and cultures produce similar people in these locations. A body’s position in the line-up of siblings (firstborn, middle child, baby of the family), a body’s relation to their parents (long awaited child, adopted child, foster kid, abused child, or accident), socio-economic factors, etc., all produce similar psychological and behavioral tendencies and perspectives on life. Another example is that a husband’s relationships are defined by the sex act with his wife and the lack of the sex act with other women (and in some cases the illegitimacy of it with others). The examples are as numerous as the relationships in a human life.

The biological variation of genes in the body nuances these social locations. A firstborn with disabilities will be treated differently than expected if they were considered “normal” by the culture’s standards. This biological situation will create a unique experience for the next child born who might find the firstborn expectations affecting them. A child with extraordinary physical or mental abilities will often be given different attention than a child in the same social location. The unique individual is constructed in the merging of the random genetic biology of the body, and culturally based expectations placed on that particular body on account of its social location.

While there is a lot more that should be said, this is not the place to write up a treatise on the subject. But if I am to answer these questions concerning technology and performance mediating reality I had to reveal my foundational understanding of human nature. My understanding of identity formation of individuals is that the sex act structures human identity by means of relationships and language toward a biological body on account of a particular social location.

Now the reality of human experience can be gauged, at least in the most basic of ways. First, performance assumes human interaction with other humans so the biological and social aspects are present. If someone is performing on stage it assumes they are doing it for an audience. It also assumes the audience is there to receive the interaction. Even if the audience is just a silent observer, the one on the stage feeds on the relationship between audience and performer through basic biological and social presence. So yes, there is space in the Christian faith for performance to mediate the reality King Jesus has created and rules over. This has always been practiced by Christians, as seen most easily in preaching, teaching, and liturgy together. Performance is an essential element to worship in communities of faith.

I am sure someone reading the above paragraph immediately disagreed that the idea of performance assumes that an audience must be biologically present for it to be a performance. What if it is recorded? What if it is broadcast? What if it is live on the internet? These are legitimate questions, ones I had to work through myself, but I ended on this answer. It is not the same. The use of technology to extend the performance is simply attempting to extend the nature of the performance, but technology is not a part of the performance as it naturally is. The existence of certain technologies hasn’t changed the nature of performance (by a human as an interaction for humans) but has simply tried to extend the reach of the performance. This is where technology naturally enters into the conversation about performances, especially in the context of the local church.

The second question addresses if technology could possibly be a place which mediates reality. This is where the sex act and structuralism become vital guides to understanding reality. Since technology’s usage is so pervasive and varied it is good to remember we are focusing on this mediation of reality based on experience in the context of worship in a Sunday morning service. The baptism video is a good example here.

The most glaring issue with technology as an experience with reality is that it lacks biology. The person on the screen is not a real person in the interaction. The controlled presentation of a video presents an unreal person with curated expressions. The lack of biology means there is not a real place for this individual in a subjective reality. I cannot know them because there is no substantive interaction between our bodies. There can be no place for the person in my reality because they literally take up no physical space with a body so that my body may interact with them. While still being an experience of an event, the technology denies me a real experience defined by relationship and language in a biological (human) reality.

What is more, I have information about this person in the same form of technology as any fictional character in a movie. A person on a screen does not mean they are a person in reality, just a represented person like a character. This becomes more and more relevant with the ability of computer generated graphics and virtual reality to convince human eyes in these technologically mediated experiences. The only way I am able to believe there may be a real person behind this curated, professional work is based on its genre. Since genre is a culturally and socially based understanding of a thing, when I believe I am trusting the baptism video about the person’s life and transformation I am actually trusting my community that is presenting the video to me.

How else could it be since I do not actually know the person in the video, nor am I having a real interaction with the individual on the screen? I must give into the implicit trust of those in the A/V booth, the leader introducing the video or talking after it, and the congregation around me (surely some here will know the life of this person on the screen). I am not interacting with the technology, but naturally I am trusting in those things structuring my reality, the people around me in the community of faith, to interpret this experience with an unreal thing, even when the content is about something of real importance like baptismal faith.

While technology lacks a biology, surely the baptism video, by its intent to be a person speaking to other people, is at least social. This one is even trickier in my view. Unlike a performance, the baptism video does not assume an interaction with an audience. Its creation was meant for repetition and imitation for presentation, as understood by its professional quality production. There is no actual interaction between the unreal person in the technology and those witnessing the event in the audience. The technology, especially videos, are near exact replications of humans, yet lack the two essential qualities of human being: a biological body and a social location. Technology can only represent (at least) and imitate (at best) humans, and therefore cannot mediate reality by means of relationship and language.

This is rather hard to accept in our world of technology. We see other humans continually through computers, TVs, hear them on the radio, read their work in books, and seem to interact with them through social media. But if I am right by allowing the sex act to define human reality by means of structural development, then none of these are really experiences with other humans. They are figments, fragments of imitation knit together to present some form of information, but not able to offer to our human need that which we desire most—a substantive experience with reality.

To believe technology offers real human experience with other humans is to locate reality in projected information. It would be to say that by reading these words I have written in a virtual world is the same as coming to know me as the person that I am. These words, written into the code of the internet, are a near non-existent representation of my existence and are a failing imitation of a real relationship with me. Human being, with all the dignity endowed in it by the Creator and King through our relationships, cannot be deluded to simple projection of information.

So should technology be rejected in worship? Absolutely not! The place of technology is important precisely for the reasons mentioned above. Once technology is no longer seen as a substantive location of human relationships we can use it as the tool that it is. While technology cannot help me know a famous academic as a person I do come to know their thoughts and understandings about subjects in way that affects the relationships and language of my context. While not being a real interaction, I am still affected by the information projected through the technology.

Technology also allows for the projection of imitative interactions. For the last two years, I have lived 600 miles away from my friends and family. Through technology those relationships, though not existing because of or in the technology that connects us, can be projected across the distance. The relationships are rooted in the reality of being together, but technology allows us to imitate that being together in a way that sustains us until the next time we are actually together again.

In this understanding technology is always the manipulation of human experience by means of non-reality. Sometimes this non-reality projects information and sometimes it seeks to create an experience for the individual. But technology cannot present reality to the individual. Only relationships and language in biological and social moments of interaction allow humans to exist in, understand, and participate in reality. In these interactions of reality, through other believers in the community, the Christian faith teaches us that we meet the Creator himself.

God, through King Jesus, has taught us how to live in the created reality by loving one another. He did so through the structural reality of relationships and language in a biological body with a social location, which we call the incarnation of King Jesus. And today, it is still by bodies in social locations called the communities of faith that King Jesus’ rule and reign is mediated as reality. So how does the individual know if their worship experience is real or unreal? It depends on if the individual is participating in the body of Christ, full of all its biological and social aspects.

“Brothers and sisters who I love, we love one another because love is from God. Every person who loves has been born of God and knows God. The person who does not love has not known God because God is love. The love of God became known to us in this way; God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as a sacrificial means of forgiveness concerning our sins. Brothers and sisters who I love, if God has loved us in this way we are expected to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another God lives in us and his love fully develops in us.” – 1st John 4:7-12

Book Review of Stuart Murray Williams’ “Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World”

In our class, Mission-Shaped Church with Dr. Fitch, the first book we read was Post-Christendom: Church in Mission in a Strange New World by Stuart Murray (Williams). Since our class focuses on culture, church practice, and mission this was a good first resource for many to begin to understand the conversation. Murray writes in an extremely accessible way, providing a good amount of information while not bogging the reader down with too much academic conversation.

Murray is surely at his best when he explains contemporary cultural trends he is experiencing in the cities of Britain. Americans tend to view Europe as ahead of the curve on issues of religious degradation and so treat such statements as near fortune telling about the coming American context. I tend to think this a perspective that should not be taken, but I can see the appeal of Murray to this mind set.

Related to his cultural exegesis is Murray’s questions and statements about what church life should be like within such a post-Christendom culture. Here is the fruit of Murray’s book. He believes churches must become more intentional in all parts of church life and practice. Particularly the areas of relationship between politics, money, other religions, care for the poor, and attempts at creating space for those who have been rejected by the majority of society and live as the marginalized in our Western contexts. Murray is spot on when it comes to the issues that must be addressed, but this less innovation and more identifying the same issues King Jesus addressed (which I think Murray would happily agree with).

Yet, most of what Murray writes in Post-Christendom is presented as a history lesson. The book becomes an evaluation of the changes that occurred in the Church when Constantine stopped the Great Persecution, funded the Council of Nicene, and the empire became Christianized. The development of Catholicism in relation to the empire is seen as highly scandalous to Murray and he seeks to show how there was always some true Christians who fought the system.

But it is precisely here in the arena of history that Murray goes astray so often. Murray presents a highly bias approach to historical events. While this is understandable to a certain degree, often his account of historical situations reaches into the intentions of the people rather than what can actually be known. I will give just two quick examples. The first example is Murray’s conversation about infant baptism.[1] Here he essentially devalues the theological conversation that took Augustine decades to work through to a simple rationalization for churches to provide a citizen ritual for the empire.

Augustine’s conclusions about infant baptism was born out of deep philosophical, exegetical, and pastoral work that convinced him that humans were passive recipients of both sin from parents and then saving grace from God. It was this passive human nature in relation to spiritual reality which led him to teach that infants could receive the sacrament of baptism because grace is never bargained for it is always received gratuitously. I have not been able to find any indication that Augustine was concerned about imperial citizen practices in this conversation, and there was no obvious collusion between Constantine’s desire for a unified Christian empire with Augustine’s theology of grace and baptism one hundred years later.

The second example is Murray’s praise of the Donatists as faithful Christians who didn’t want to collude with the empire and their new imperial civil religion (Catholicism).[2] But this was not the real issue at all with the Donatists. During the Great Persecution under Diocletian there were some bishops who denied the faith. There began to be an argument, particularly in Africa, that the sacraments became invalid if the bishop who presided over them denied the faith later. So then people would have to become re-baptized or re-married or confess sins again because their bishop left the faith. The majority of the bishops around the Roman world came to the conclusion that the sacraments are promises of King Jesus and are valid no matter the personal situation of the person presiding over them. They also forgave some of the bishops who had denied the faith and allowed them to teach again. This is when the Donatists left the majority of the church and claimed the Catholic church was wrong and sacraments had to be done by the right people.

The Donatist controversy is important because it helped us understand the objective reality of the sacraments as promises from God through King Jesus. They are not defendant on the purity or integrity of church leaders because King Jesus promises to be near to those seeking his presence. Being with God through the church is based on the purity and promises of King Jesus. This is important theological truth and the heart of the issue when remembering the Donatists.

Over a hundred years after the controversy began, Augustine forced the Donatists to return to the Catholic church by using force to shut down their churches. Yes, the Donatists didn’t like the empire because the historical issues were rooted in the Great Persecution, but the foundational opposition of the Donatists was not as an anti-empire movement. Rather the Donatists were a church division based on wrong theology of the sacraments and church authority. They should not be used to prove the point Murray is trying to make, in this case “anti-imperialism” by faithful protest movement, because the Donatists were most basically religious legalists. They were willing to separate from empire mainly because the empire wasn’t on their side of the theological and authoritarian argument.

My take away is that Murray brings up interesting points about contemporary culture and possible practices in local churches. The book felt over ten years old when I read it. There have been a lot of changes in European and American contexts since 2004 because of the Great Recession and the resurgence of nationalism throughout the West. Applying Post-Christendom to the American context is also problematic in that America is so large. There are many, many places were Christendom has not fallen and other places where the idea of post-Christendom is being rejected and a different form of progressive Christendom is being created. While not a bad read for those interested in the subject of post-Christendom mission, there are likely newer texts that evaluate our current cultural situation and how the church’s mission should address it.

[1] pp. 88-89, 91.

[2] pp. 97-99

Unreal Worship Experiences

In my class a couple of weeks ago we focused on the place and practice of worship in the local church. As in most academic settings the starting point began in generalizations seeking to find the nuances that help shape future practices of students in the class. In the spirit of academic critique Dr. Fitch became highly critical of mega-church worship styles that have infiltrated even the smallest of churches. These elements are easily recognizable: low lighting, high volume, prolific use of technology, a high-quality band, an all-around great concert experience.

Dr. Fitch’s point was that worship has been narrowed in this format to purposefully manipulate the individual into having an individualized, existential experience without much, if any, substantive direction or teaching about how to submit to King Jesus. He used an example of a man who is cheating on his wife but comes with her to church. He believes himself to be a Christian, and though feeling a little guilty over his adultery, is coaxed into an existential experience by worship leaders. This experience reinforces his belief that though he is a sinner he has worshipped God, has been in God’s presence by virtue of worshipping, and is forgiven by grace even of his continual adultery. There is no challenge to the man to repent or become a true follower of Jesus as King and Lord. In fact, he may be worse off because worship has placated his guilt with therapeutic feelings of acceptance!

The second example Dr. Fitch offered was a critique of churches’ use of technology to affect the worship experience of the individual. His example here was a baptism video. In such a video a person who is not known by most, or any, of the assembled people in the service has a curated life story presented in way that makes baptism a climatic solution to former life issues. The video is expertly created in a way to manipulate the those watching in the crowd to want to mimic the event of baptism. The setting of a large crowd, participating in mega-church style worship manipulation, and this baptism video are meant to lead individuals in the crowd into intense desire to culturally capitulate.

No one argued against the generalized notion that concert-style worship must be careful to not manipulate the individual into a mass-produced experience. But these more specific examples set the class into a larger discussion about the role of art, experience, and technology in the worship time of Sunday mornings. It was argued that art as beauty glorifies God and deserves a place in the service objectively. Others, in a similar vein, contended that good service is due to God by Christians as servants in ministry, and such service will always illicit an experiential response. Some went further saying that all art produces an experience so in some way it always manipulative, but this was refuted by another student pointing out that art does not intend a specific type of response like contemporary worship sets intend.

In this conversation I saw one fundamental issue under all the rest. A concept every other question assumed and was fighting against, but not openly. How does Dr. Fitch know an experience generated by manipulation is not a viable experience in the Christian faith? How do those fighting for art and technology know that the experiences of congregants, while genuine, are substantive? This epistemological question of ‘how do you know what is real?’ must be answered before any of these methodological questions can been settled.

The western (particularly American) culture that everyone in the class interacts with continually trumpets the idea that the individual’s experience is always an experience with reality. It is important to trace the philosophical backdrop to this assumption. The modern obsession with the autonomy of the individual resulted in all structural authority being overthrown, particularly on the governmental and religious level of societies. This empowerment of the individual and the destruction of all authority eventually climaxed in Nietzsche’s belief that there was nothing but the individual who happens to exist by being formed of broken pieces of structural power. These structural powers were figments of social imagination meant to control the individual and the individual had the right to deny their reality and amass power for itself, seeking to be a creator by creating a new identity of its own design and desires.

The philosophical response to Nietzsche resulted in what is considered the first post-modern understanding. This post-modernism looked into the nature of the individual’s autonomy and found the individual is wholly dependent on social structures to be formed. Whether it is expectations laid on the individual on account of birth order, sex, class, or family status the individual is formed and grown in particular directions by their social contexts. Some even began to show how linguistics plays into this social constructing of the individual by controlling ways of describing and understanding events and objects.

Eventually a second step in post-modern philosophy occurred. These philosophers accepted that the individual was wholly constructed by the social structure, but pointed out that if the structure mediates reality to the individual, through relationships and language, then the individual can have no confidence that there even is a reality behind the structure. In fact, post-structuralists are open that they do not believe in an objective reality that can be interacted with directly by the individual. Within such nihilistic realization, Nietzsche arises again as a guiding philosophical spirit.

Post-structuralists follow Nietzsche’s lead accepting that the structures are simply contrived by the social to create order through controlling the individual. These philosophers end with a strange near hyper-modernistic response to structural nature of the individual, again following a path similar to the one Nietzsche trod; while the individual is created by the structure the individual should seek to amass power in order to overthrow the power of the structure’s control, and while not ever actually autonomous, seek to create its own desired life. The structure should be forced to break under the power of individual choices because only then is there any hope to truly be free.

I contend that the most contentious battles in the Western world come from the cultural war between modernists who believe in the autonomous self-creation (usually believing structures should just leave them alone and not impose on them) and the hyper-modernists who have learned from post-structuralist nihilism (those who seek to force the structure to transform so as to actively accept radical individual choices or lifestyles). Both modernists and hyper-modernists believe that the experience of reality is located in the individual. For the modernist, this is an experience of the objective reality that everyone populates. For the hyper-modernist, an individual’s experience is only subjective reality, the inescapable prison of the individual’s construction. It is particularly important for the hyper-modernist that the individual have the power to shape their subjective experience since it is their personal prison. The think is people should have the right to make such a prison better since they can’t escape it. This is why hyper-modernists are more likely to be activists for structural change and is usually draped in the language of self-expression.

The philosophical assumption that the experience of the individual, while genuine, is a valid and substantive interaction with reality should be highly suspect to Christians. There are many texts in the Scriptures pointing out that humans outside of the liberation offered by God through King Jesus have dubious hearts,[1] empty and darkened minds,[2] and are enslaved to the body’s desires.[3] Many reject the Scriptures as pre-modern texts far removed from the intelligent philosophical and social conversations of our era. Yet, those who recognized that the individual is socially constructed and that reality is mediated to the individual through relationships and language were saying something very similar to the ancient peoples.

The ancients understood that humans were raised into the community through language and tradition. The children had to have social expectations placed on them to fulfill those roles, and it was the responsibility of the community to mediate the correct understanding of reality. Christians should learn the importance of the structures from structuralists, then learn from the Scriptures and the ancient peoples how to use the structures to shape the future of Western society.

The early Christians new they were redeeming these structures within the common life of their communities of faith. The ancient structures were oppressive in their forced obedience, especially to women and slaves, but in the Christian community these relationships and language were being recast through the self-sacrificing service of King Jesus.[4] Redeemed these structures through willing oppression, rather than destroying them by activism, became avenues of honor and dignity rather than forms of oppression.[5] Christians interpreted hardship as participation in the life of King Jesus assuring the worst of oppressions would be the greatest of resurrections.[6]

Experiences of events by individuals, such as worship, must be interpreted through the teachings of the community of faith. Since reality is created, sustained, and participated in by God it is a good creation that humans are a part. But it should not be assumed that any experience by the individual is a good, positive interaction with reality. The Christian faith has provided a host of language possibilities for interactions between humanity and non-reality (or things that are ever passing away into non-reality): sin, evil, darkness, abyss, evil spirits, etc. While these are genuine experiences by the individual only the community of faith is able to teach the individual how to interpret and understand these situations.

There is no question that performance-based or technology-based experiences are genuine and subjectively real to the individuals in whom they occur, but that doesn’t mean they are actual experiences with reality or an interaction with God.

The question for the communities of faith in the West is, Is there a place in the structure of Christian faith for technology and performance to mediate the reality of King Jesus as Lord over creation? And, how should communities of faith define non-reality in relation to technology-based experiences, especially if it is being used to convince (manipulate?) people toward the gospel?

[1] Jer. 17:9; 1Jn. 3:19-20

[2] Eph. 4:17-18

[3] Eph. 2:3

[4] Eph. 6:5-9; Philemon

[5] Acts 5:40-41

[6] Col. 1:24; Phil. 3:8-11

Church-shaped Mission

This Spring Quarter at Northern I am in a class called Mission-Shaped Church taught by Dr. David Fitch which meets every Monday night. It is a class focused on ecclesiology, culture, and church practice. There should be some explanation here. This is not primarily a theology course. The question of “What is church?” comes up often enough, but it is less a question about the ontological nature of the church and more a question of context; What does it mean for a group of believers to function and practice life as the church in this particular context in particular ways? It is a question of methods and ways of shaping the people within the community of faith in relation to the current moods and eddies of culture.

For some students this already begins to become confusing, and for good reasons. The confusion can be found in the continual and numerous usages of the terms “mission” and “church” both in the class and in the readings. The variety of uses of the term “mission” in relation to the work and/or identity of the church has grown so obscure that it has spawned entire degree programs. I break down these terms in the simplest and most general ways as the mission is the work of the kingdom of God and church is the visible identity of the kingdom of God. The confusion comes for student when mission language is used for identity concepts.

There are plenty examples of this strange intermingling of mission and identity. Some are open about this. “…[Anabaptist] awareness that mission is part of the nature of the church.”[1] Others are more ambiguous, but their general thrust seems to be this direction. “…the people whom God has called to be his own (in both Testaments) has been shaped as a community of memory and hope, a community of mission, failure, and striving.”[2]

The problem here is with the implication that the nature of the church is bound to the mission given to it by King Jesus. So, what then happens at the Eschaton, on the Last Day, when the mission comes to end? When work to invite the Nations comes to its completion? If the nature of the church is bound to its mission there are only two options. 1) The church will simply cease to exist, or 2) the church will undergo further transformation. Some accept this second option by means of kingdom-language.

“The identity and role of the church are defined by this election, this purpose in God’s mission for the sake of the world. As a preview of the kingdom in its communal life, as an instrument of the kingdom in its words and deeds, the church is a sign of the coming kingdom.”[3]

For most, option two doesn’t sound so bad. Christians expect further transformation to come in the form of resurrection so why would this be any different? But number two is theologically untenable for us. First, resurrection is the completion of God’s work in humanity that began in King Jesus. It is not a new thing in the life of the church it is the final part of the long process of our millennia of faithful life with our God and King. It means we get to be fully in his presence in the image of the Son, even in the physical way of bodily life. Resurrection, the radical transformation that it will be for the church, is a manifestation of our identity being rooted in King Jesus’ accomplishments rather than an indicator of the mission.

Second, the church/kingdom connection is further misconstrued. How is it possible that the church is the “preview” or “sign” of the kingdom if the natures of church and kingdom are different based on the having and not having of the mission? If the church exists as the mission of God to the nations it is not able to reveal what the kingdom is like beyond the mission. The main issue here is both a lack of understanding the nature of the kingdom of God,[4] and not recognizing the church as the incarnational existence of the kingdom in the present. While the second option seems better because it does not make the church non-existent after the Eschaton, it actually does just that! The church will still cease to be and some new social existence of the people of God will be created after the mission is complete.

Lastly, I believe this idea of mission as essential or integral to the identity of the church goes against King Jesus’ teachings on understanding human nature. When he taught us to watch those who teach he said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”[5] King Jesus teaches us that behavior flows from identity. The mission then flows from the identity of the church.

It is not enough for those studying the mission to seek to distinguish between the mission of the people of God and the mission of God, as if this solves this problem of the mission as the Church’s identity. In this semantic it is still recognized that the people of God are those who participate in the mission of God. The mission of the church therefore proceeds its existence in God’s act of creation meaning that the church is still defined as the people participating in the mission. Now the mission is just no longer the direct responsibility of the church, it is God’s mission and we are simply being carried along in it. This may stave off some of the guilt for Christianity failing to convert the majority of the Western cultures it help create or it may be new method of laid back cultural interaction, but it doesn’t change the ontological issues with claiming the mission is essential to the nature or identity of the church.

There is a lot to be learned from studying how the church has succeeded, failed, or should change the way it goes about completing the mission to the nations given to us by King Jesus. But the mission should never be seen as the identity of who we are, rather it is the natural way the people of God interact with the Nations in the present time. The church worships, teaches, obeys, and lives in the presence of King Jesus. In a world that has rejected the claims he made, the church’s mission naturally invites the Nations into the community of faith, the kingdom of God. Someday mission will end because the Nations have come, but our life with God, the very identity and nature of the people of God, will never end.

Behavior flows from identity, and the mission of the church flows from the identity of the church created in King Jesus. A church-shaped mission for a Jesus-shaped church.


[1] Stuart Williams, Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. (Milton Keynes: Authentic Media, 2013), 236. This is a two-scholars-for-one-point quote! Williams is making his point by quoting David Smith in Crying in the Wilderness.

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2006), 51.

[3] Michael W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 20.

[4] See Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy.

[5] Mt. 7:17-18