How we can become the kind of missional community we long to be, in which the wagons move forward, not round and round in circles? We have vital work to do. To give one small example, someone had been round secondary schools and met children feeling deep seated despair about the future of the earth. They have enough information to know it’s questionable under present management, but no confidence, no framework of hope, in which this perception could galvanise them into action. The result was a pervasive spirit of “we can’t do anything about it anyway, so why does it matter?”
So why do so many of our powerful network of practitioners working in fields as diverse as criminal justice, environment, food futures, education and social care, feel so stymied so much of the time? Busyness, you may say, but what attitudes and assumptions are underlying that, and paralysing best intentions?
Some kind of internal distraction process seems to be pulling the wagons off the trail, dragging them into a defensive, inward looking circle. To change the metaphor, perhaps the body of Christ is subject to the kind of illness in which the body’s immune system turns on the body itself, producing illness, despair and frustration. If these both/ands become either/ors, they are symptoms of sickness:
- Academy versus the Field
In fact the only learning worth doing makes a difference to the ways we envision the world, or our response to it. Separating off academic theology from lived theology is bad news, either to despise it (in the UK) or venerate it (most of the rest of the world). Both need to inform each other.
- Gathered versus Dispersed Church
Human groups have a way of degenerating into self-serving cliques. One of God’s mechanisms for preventing this is to send along a healthy crop of alternative people to leaven and enliven them. Really strong cliques, however, have a way of making it pretty obvious up with what they will put in others. They can pray as hard as they want for growth. No responsible deity, however, would put more people into their sausage machine, until they grow up and become joinable.
- Church versus World
There are a few instances in the Scriptures of “world” meaning “everything organising itself over and against God.” Its prime use, however, the world is the place God created and loves so much he gave his only Son. He loves it that much. Why don’t we? Clique church can become a refusge for misnathropic people who are profoundly cynical or despairing about the real world, who try and whip the Church into grinding their axes. Unless God gives up entirely on the Church, it can’t oblige. As a result they can only become angrier and more frustrated.
- Ministry versus Mission
Rowan talks about mission as finding out what God’s doing and joining in. There is an essential continuity between serving God and serving all life. Serving is Ministry. Conflicted and Lost Cliques playing at Church appropriate Ministry to themselves as a consumer faciity to make them feel better; the irony is they end up losing any sense of what ministry is about, and, often as not, with no ministers.
- Tradition versus Creativity
Being part of the Church in time and space carries you back and forward as you identify with those who have trod this way before you, through places of great resourcefulness and learning. Real tradition is a powerful living force for change — revolution by tradition. Selfish cliques like you find in wagon rings appropriate “tradition” exclusively for themselves. Randy for antique, they sentimentalise their conception of tradition and bag it up into a totem which curses them and everyone else. The living faith of dead people is debased into dead works for living people.
- Parish versus Workplace
The point of participation in a gathered Christian community is to resource authentic living out in the world. Cliques don’t see it that way. For them, the point of life in the world is to resource their own Disneyland conception of Church. When people who wold be rally sensible at work start behaving like complete idiots in Church, you now you’ve got a problem here.
- Leadership versus Democracy
God gifts everybody distinctively for the work he calls them to do. When he does this across a whole community, there’s a sense among the faithful that can workshop and weigh individual passions and initiatives. When this function goes wrong, people collect into little cabals and play politics with religion. The key sign of this is exclusivism based on purity. In classic Christianity God does the throwing out at the end of the world. In this debased form, we give him a hand now.
- Centre versus Cells (Universal versus Local?)
In a healthy Church, each limb or organ rejoices to be doing what it’s for. In a sick one, people play the one off against the others, in various elaborate “them and us” games. St one extreme the local group becomes the only reality; at the other some fantasy or imperialistic conception of the whole tyranises the local. Corporate engagement grows mutual respect; sickness in this department grows resentment and suspicion.
- Ecclesiology versus Evangelism
maintaining effective order internally is part of the fitness for purpose of the Church. It’s infrastructural, and part of becoming an intentional and realistic delivery system for the kingdom. Turned in on, or as an end in itself, it soon becomes toxic and self-serving. People can marvel at what’s achieved, but what’s the point? For whom else is it good news? When Evangelism disconnects from Ecclesiology, abuse and non-accountability are never far behind. What are people being evangelised into, and what will they do when they get there? Or is it all just a pyramid selling scam?
- Spiritual versus Physical
We cannot live fruitfully by bread alone. But neither can we survive on a disconnected vapid spirituality, driven by narcissism and subjectivity. Christianity is a sacramental way of life, in which everything is charged with potential meaning, and the best ideas cannot be completed without finding some expression in real life. Every real philosophy demands action.