Monday, July 27, 2009

Thoughts on a missional congregation

In describing a missional vision for a congregation the natural place to start seems to be to talk about what it means to be missional.Being missional is a way of transcending some of the limitations inherent in both conservative and liberal Christianity within Modernity. Conservatives too often make the gospel all about ensuring a person ends up in Heaven when they die and Liberals too often subsume the gospel under the direction of culture and “progress.” Both are deeply compromised visions for the Church. Being missional is a way beyond the compromises of both conservative and liberal Christianity. A missional congregation of course recognizes the individual’s need for salvation and restoration, but locates that salvation in the wider restoration of the world.Likewise the missional congregation recognizes the Church’s calling to be a force for justice and good in the world, but locates
that action in participation in "the Mission of God," or God’s reconciling the whole world to Himself in Jesus Christ. A missional congregation rejects an escapist conception of salvation that takes us out of the world, and instead calls upon the Church to be agents of restoration in the world. As the Church, we are blessed, called out, not as an end in itself but in order to proclaim and embody the reality of God’s Kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” In this way a missional congregation is one that lives in hope of a new Heaven and a new Earth.

In order to change the focus of our congregations towards a more missional perspective,we should have worship and liturgy that shapes us for mission.The aim of worship cannot be an emotional catharsis, an attempt to meet felt needs,or even a means of distributing information, rather our worship should be formational.A missional congregation should be one that values the importance of the sacraments, not merely as meritorious acts or medicines for immortality, but as the means through which God shapes us into a people who embody His mission and purposes.Worship should be “Immersive.” David Fitch writes in the Great Giveaway,

Immersive worship leads the worshiper into participating in God’s already preexisting reality through language, ritual,and symbol as revealed in history through Scripture. By so doing, immersive worship births true experience of God that can only come at the behest of God as an ex post facto development when we have been faithful in our worship…we cannot assume a truthful experience without first being shaped by God in worship.

Again,our worship and liturgy should make its emphasis the Mission of God.It cannot
be an end in itself but must prepare the church for mission. It should immerse us in the drama of redemptive history and God’s action to redeem the world.It must be a way of connecting us to the body of Christ stretched through time and space.Along with focusing on spiritual formation through worship, a missional congregation should also teach and embrace the classical spiritual disciplines.Again, like the sacraments, the disciplines should not be seen as meritorious acts, but rather as a means of formation into the people Christ calls us to be. This is key to being Christ’s church in the world. We must become more than "believers". We must become disciples and apprentices of Jesus, living in the manner he showed us. As Dallas Willard Writes in Renovation of the Heart,

Individuals and local congregations of disciples must discover and effectively implement whatever is required to bring about the inner transformations of those who have really become apprentices of Jesus and who really do gather in immersion in the Trinitarian presence. In doing so they will have put in place the principles and absolutes of the New Testament churches, and they will certainly see the corresponding effects. (pg. 250)

Willard goes on to give two very simple instructions for how this might be done. “First, openly expect the apprentices to learn to do the various things that Jesus taught to do….Second, announce that you teach people to do the things that Jesus said to do.” A missional congregation should be more than a social club or a lodge, it should be a training ground for Kingdom living and an outpost for holiness and social action. Among the spiritual disciplines are service and hospitality. Both of these disciplines should characterize a missional congregation’s engagement with its surrounding community. A Christian community should be a place where people feel accepted and welcomed. It should also be a people that give themselves in service to others.

A missional congregation should also be prophetic. It should understand its task to be to challenge to dominant systems and ideologies in the world and confront them with the gospel. A missional congregation should proclaim the message of God’s Kingdom and the Lordship of Jesus Christ in word and deed. The task of the church is not to produce people after the expectations and dictates of the world. Its task is not to make good citizens or to morally legitimate the powers that be. A missional
congregation is a deeply subversive community in the sense that it challenges prevailing wisdom. A missional congregation’s task is to proclaim the gospel in all its offensiveness and so called foolishness. If need be its task is to willingly,and openly suffer for that witness.

A missional congregation is a church for a post-Christian or pagan society. In this sense it is very much like the New Testament Church. A missional congregation is post-colonial, it does not see its self in the service of Christendom. It does not assimilate people to Western European values. Instead the missional congregation seeks to faithfully incarnate the gospel in whatever cultural context it finds itself
in. A missional congregation is therefore always engaged with culture and always listening. In engaging with culture, it does not however seek to accommodate itself to whatever values are dominant in that culture. Instead,while inhabiting a culture, it seeks to redeem that culture by confronting it with the Eternal Word.

There is much more that can be said about the qualities and characteristics of a missional congregation, but the most important fact about such a community is that it is one that is always seeking to discern what God is doing in its particular context. A missional congregation has no agenda of its own but is always seeking to join God in what God is doing in the world. A missional congregation believes that God is reconciling all things to Himself through Christ; therefore, it seeks to be Christ’s body in the world.

The following are some brief, but illuminating and extremely helpful, comments from Dr Timothy Keller on the characteristics of a missional Church.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is one more reminder why Elvis Costello is one of my favorite musical artists. I have been listening to this record over and over again during the last few weeks. Costello is not only prolific but versatile. In the last several years, he has put out a number of albums of startling variety from, North, an intimate collection of Jazz ballads, to the soulful The River in Reverse, his collaboration with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, to Momofuku, a no nonsense rock album released just last year. Although he works in a diverse number of genres, Elvis always brings his unique sensibility to each. On Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, he returns to a genre he has worked with many times in the past: country music.

The record is far from straight country though. Much of the material on the album comes from an Opera (yes, that’s right, an opera!) Elvis has been composing about Hans Christian Anderson called The Secret Songs. I don’t know if the opera will ever be completed, but the selections here are quite tantalizing. “Red Cotton” is a stunning song about the slave trade, while another selection from the opera, “She Handed me a Mirror,” is a bittersweet song about unrequited love right out of the life of Hans Christian Anderson. When Anderson asked the woman he loved, Jenny Lind, why she didn’t love him back, she simply handed him a mirror.


The album is actually an odd potpourri of material. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of this record at first, but it has grown on me a great deal. Some songs are reinterpretations of older material, such as “Hidden Shame” and “Complicated Shadows,” while others are original songs. One highlight is the beautiful “I Felt the Chill,” a song Elvis wrote with country legend Loretta Lyn.

There is a quality and a sound in this miscellany that evokes what Greil Marcus called “The Old Weird America.” Marcus used this phrase when discussing the world of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Costello even included a bonus track of a song called “What Lewis Did Last” on the vinyl version of the album from a performance he did at a tribute concert to Harry Smith’s collection. The song is a sequel to “Ommie Wise,” an old murder ballad included in the Smith Anthology. Costello also performed an amazing version of “The Butcher Boy” at the same concert. I’m confused as to why that wasn’t included as bonus as well. Here a video for "Ommie Wise", "What Lewis Did Last," and "The Butcher Boy":

Another bonus track from the vinyl version is a wonderful cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” I told you it was an odd collection of songs! Here is a video of Elvis performing "Femme Fatle" live on his show Spectacle:

The uniting force of the album is its sound, which is old-timey Americana, performed adeptly by top notch musicians. This is the specialty of producer T Bone Burnett. It is the collaboration between Burnett and Costello that really makes this album great. T Bone Burnett can do no wrong in my book. In the last couple of years, T Bone has had a hand in many of my favorite records, notably Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Life Death Love and Freedom by John Mellencamp, Say Anything by Sam Phillips, One Kind Favor by B.B King, and Burnett’s own Tooth of Crime. This isn’t the first collaboration between Costello and Burnett either. In 1986, they worked together on The King of America. For a brief time, the two even formed a duo called The Coward Brothers. One disappointing thing about the new album is that The Coward Brothers do not return for a new duet, even if Burnett does sing background vocals throughout record.

Witness T Bone:

I highly recommend Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Newsweek recently featured a video of Elvis, solo acoustic, performing the title track. Here it is:

I’ve also heard that Elvis Costello is going on tour with the band from the album. Along with the material from Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, the band will also be performing songs from throughout Costello’s repertoire, including unreleased material! If they come to the Philly area, I will most certainly be buying tickets. Anyone down?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine

Once there was a very revered teacher and philosopher named Siddhattha Gotama. This man had such great charisma, and his teachings were so astonishing to those who heard them, that his followers referred to him as “The Enlightened One” or the “Buddha.” I cannot claim to completely grasp the Buddha’s message, but I at least feel comfortable saying that –and this is a very elementary description—a major doctrine of his is that the root of all suffering is desire. The reason desire results in suffering, according to the Buddha, is due to the fact that it reinforces an illusion of separateness. We, under the illusion that we are an individual self, distinct from everything else, suffer from a sense of disconnectedness and dissatisfaction or “dukkha.”

However, the Buddha's assessment of the human situation rests on some very different presuppositions than the Christian assessment. In the Christian worldview, separateness or individuality is not an illusion to be escaped but part of the created character of the world to be celebrated. Likewise, (although alienation indeed is the cause of much suffering) it is not separateness itself that is source of suffering but rather a rupture or brokenness in our relationship to God, each other, and the world around us. Indeed, separateness is as much a condition of love as alienation! The fact of our individuality and distinctness makes relationship possible and thus love (a fact that mirrors the trinitarian nature of the Creator— but to elaborate would be a serious tangent!). Desire is perfectly natural and good because human beings were created to be incomplete on their own, which is the reason that, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

All of which brings us to our friend Saint Augustine. According to Augustine, the problem is our disordered love or “cupidity.” All created things are good because they were created by an infinitely good God, but we love them improperly, some too much and others too little. Most of all we have the tendency to love ultimately what is less than ultimate. C.S Lewis calls this “the sweet poison of a false infinite.” It is the substitution of created things for God, or what the Bible calls idolatry. Human beings were created with a desire for God, a desire so great that nothing in this world can satisfy it, but forgetting God we seek to fill this void up with the good things we find in creation. Created things are too weak, partial, and fleeting to ever satisfy us ultimately. The path to virtue and the happy, fulfilled life, according to Augustine,

…requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things; to love things, that is to say, in the right order so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.

In other words, we should love things appropriate to their value and in their proper place. Our lives are teaming with such disordered love and “false infinites.” In future posts, I intend to explore some common idols. Stay tuned!