July 21, 2014

The link between theology and mission

Randy Bloom
This post is quoted, with permission, from the Church-Next Training course manual published by Church Multiplication Ministries (CMM), GCI's U.S. church planting arm. The manual was written by CMM national coordinator Randy Bloom. In this section of chapter one, he helpfully outlines the essential (though often overlooked) link between theology and mission.

The Trinity: Loving Communion

According to Scripture, there is one God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three distinct yet unified Persons sharing the same essence, nature, and will. Father, Son, and Spirit live in a perfect, mutually dependent relationship of love. An ancient theological term used to describe this loving communion is perichoresis. Perichoresis attempts to express the interpenetration and co-inherence of the three persons of the Trinity. Perichoresis refers to the eternal “movement of love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” which is expressed in the outworking of God’s purpose to reconcile and renew the world.

The perichoretic life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is dynamic, highly personal, vibrant, and relational. God in his perichoretic being is also creative. Out of his dynamic love, God created people, in his image, to live in communion with him. Jesus expressed God’s desire to live in perichoresis with mankind (John 17:3, 21-23). This passage states that the Father desires to share with all humanity the very same relationship he has with the Son. This desire is ongoing and includes all of humankind, despite the fact that humans have lost knowledge of our intended relationship with God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1-4).

To remedy the loss, the Eternal Son entered into our humanity and assumed it into the eternal perichoresis of the Trinity (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:4-7; Philippians 2:6-8). He redeemed mankind from sin and opened the pathway for all people to know God and to relate to him as his adopted children. Jesus affirms the fundamental purpose for mankind’s existence – to live in personal communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to glorify God for eternity.

However, knowledge of humankind’s intended relationship with God has diminished over time resulting in the concept of a remote God. In addition, many Christians hold an exclusivist view regarding mankind. Rather than viewing all people as connected to the Father through Christ and invited to join in the life of the Trinity, many Christians have developed a dualistic, forensic theology toward non-Christians in which only a select few are beneficiaries of God’s love and grace. In this view, God remains aloof and uninvolved with most people. Many non-Christians are viewed as not being objects of God’s love and grace as revealed in Jesus. Many Christians believe that the majority of non-Christians are predetermined to eternal alienation from God. Trinitarian theology rectifies these misperceptions.

In apprehending the Trinity we not only learn about the perfect, loving perichoretic relationship shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit; we also learn about the love God has for all humanity. Through Jesus, and by the Spirit, all mankind has access to the Father. By sharing in the perichoretic life of the Trinity it is possible for imperfect people to experience the “give and take” elements of relationship with God. In Christ, broken human relationships are healed and people are able to live within God’s
redeemed community.

Implications of Trinitarian Theology for Church Planting

The Father’s Mission
The doctrine of the Trinity is an inescapable foundation for mission. Mission flows from God’s nature and purposes. The roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the salvific work on behalf of mankind are clearly expressed in scripture.

In John 3:16, Jesus declared that he, the eternal Son, was sent by the Father to save the world and reestablish the avenue that was laid out before creation for people to share eternal Trinitarian life. Jesus is the incarnation of the Father’s mission and the Holy Spirit is the agent through which the Father accomplishes the mission in Christ. It is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26; Acts 2:33), who calls and “fills” people for missional work. It is the Spirit who transforms minds and hearts, gives gifts, commissions, guides and empowers people to accomplish the Father’s mission in Christ. (Romans 1:6, 7; Acts 4:31; Acts 13:4; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

The Triune God, therefore, is in his very essence a missionary God. That which is typically understood as the church’s mission is the Father’s mission (Missio Dei). Church planting, therefore, is not centered on the church. It is theocentric. It is defined, directed, energized and accomplished by the Triune God.

Incarnational Living
Jesus’ incarnation set the pattern for the church as it fulfills the Father’s mission on earth. As Jesus was sent by the Father, Jesus sends his church (John 20:21). As the Father revealed himself in his Son who was made flesh, he continues to reveal himself to the world through flesh – his people. The church is called to be with people where they are and as they are, within their cultural contexts. This requires a form of sacrificial social engagement on the order of Jesus himself (Philippians 2:5-8).

Incarnational mission requires setting aside cultural preferences and abandoning nonessential traditions, without compromising core values and doctrines. It requires living within culture regardless of the cost – a willingness to die to self in order to bring forth new life (1 Corinthians 15:35–38).

The Church’s Role
Jesus commissioned his church to continue the mission he began (Matthew 28:18-20). He delineated the primary principles for living: love for God and love for people (Matthew 22:37:38). God’s perichoretic love, as revealed through the doctrine of the Trinity and incarnation of Jesus, is the motivation for the church’s work – not fear, not church growth, and certainly not the perpetuation of tradition or organizational structures.

In 1 Corinthians 3:9-11, the apostle Paul describes Jesus as the foundation for all ministries. The church is Jesus’ “building”; it does not belong to the domain of men. Church planters are co-workers with Christ and they are exhorted to build with care and grace. As the incarnated Son of God did not become human to serve self-interests, Jesus Christ has called the church not to live for itself alone. It is to be in the world and for the world as Jesus was and is in the world and for it. God sends his church into the world as he sent and sends his Son and his Spirit into the world.

The root of the church’s mission is, therefore, the very being of God. It is a matter of God’s being in action through his people in the world. As Christians are included in the Triune life and participate in the divine nature of God, they are included in, and actively participate in, his divine mission. This participation leads to church planting that is focused on revealing and sharing God’s love – sharing the opportunity to enter into Trinitarian communion – within every possible cultural context. This aim glorifies God and expands his kingdom on earth.

Ministry built on this theological framework helps ensure quality results. This foundation leads to healthy, Christ-centered congregations that effectively engage their cultures, make disciples, and reproduce new churches.

July 14, 2014

The church is a spiritual reality

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 1, 2.

While writing this series on Bonhoeffer's book, Life Together, I've been reading Strange Glory, a life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh, who provides important historical context. He shows how Bonhoeffer wrestled to grasp the essential nature of the church in the face of what the Nazis were doing to co-opt the German-Lutheran Church into its evil schemes. Sadly, many bishops and pastors cooperated. Theirs was a badly misguided view of the essential nature of the church.

Through his experiences in Nazi Germany and elsewhere (including exposure to the Black-African church in America), Bonhoeffer came to understand that the church is a spiritual, rather than a psychic (human/experiential) reality. He learned that the church is "created...by the Holy Spirit," with its basis being "the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ." In contrast, the basis of humanly-devised forms of church is "the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind" (p31, Life Together).

Of course, that darkness was evident in the actions of the Nazis. But sometimes it takes great darkness for Christ's light to be seen in its full glory (1 John 2:8; 2 Cor. 4:6). According to Bonhoeffer, community of the Spirit is characterized by "the bright love of brotherly service, agape," whereas human community is characterized by eros love, where there is a "disordered desire for pleasure" and the "haughty subjection of a brother to one's own desire." Leaders of such community rely on human powers, such as charisma. But leaders of spiritual community are servants who rely on the Word of God alone (see p32).

It is a sad reality that, in the church, well-intentioned, even devout leaders, sometimes work in ways that dethrone the Spirit and thus the Word of God--bringing into the church "psychological techniques and methods" by which leaders gain for themselves admiration, love and even the fear of those they lead. As a result, "the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community." This then results in conversion to the leader rather than conversion to Christ (p33). In such churches, despite momentary appearances to the contrary, there is no true stability, no long-lasting spiritual community, no real life together.

The unfortunate, misguided substitution of psychic/human reality for spiritual reality brings about a church where leaders rely on "human love...directed to the other person for [the leader's] own sake." In contrast, the leader within a truly spiritual community "loves [others] for Christ's sake." In the end, "human love" is mere eros--mere fleshly desire, that has "little regard for truth"--it's a 'love' that can quickly change into hatred and even terrible brutality (p34). In contrast, "spiritual desire" is true agape love that comes from Christ by the Spirit. Such love "does not desire, but serves" (p35), going so far as to love one's enemy as a brother. That sort of love...
Originates neither in the brother nor in the enemy, but in Christ and his Word. Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new, and incomprehensible to all earthly love.
Because Christ stands between me and others [as the one Mediator], I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ's; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ's eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into his own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men. 
Therefore, spiritual love proves itself in that everything it says and does commends Christ. It will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervor and excitement. It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to release him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us by Christ, and it will find full fellowship with him in the Christ who alone binds us together. Thus this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ, and that love of others is wholly dependent upon the truth in Christ (pp35-37).

July 7, 2014

Empathy of the Jesus kind

In earlier posts (click here and here) examining Aaron Root's book The Relational Pastor, we noted that a key attribute of effective pastors is empathy--the ability to join Jesus in his place-sharing "feeling with" others. Empathy is also essential for true Christian fellowship--the topic of our current series exploring Bonhoeffer's Life Together.

Here is a video that helpfully defines empathy. Enjoy (and embrace!).

June 27, 2014

The gift of Christian fellowship

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 1, 3.

Last time in this series exploring Life Together, we noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote during a time when the German Lutheran Confessing Church had to go underground in order to survive. Such times remind us of just how precious the Christian fellowship is that we, in easier times, tend to take for granted. Bonhoeffer comments:
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us... It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren (p20).

The value of the church, is that it is "community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ... A Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ... A Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ" (p21). In Christian community, we come together to hear God's Word, which God has put "into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men" (p22). Indeed, the goal of all Christian community is to "meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation" (p23).

That meeting, that fellowship of the Word, is possible only in and through Christ, the Living Word. Without him, "there is discord between God and man and between man and man" (p23). But in him, the one Mediator who made peace between God and man and between man and man, there is peace. Indeed, Christ is that peace. Through his incarnation, Cross and resurrection, "we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ... We belong to him in eternity with one another" (p24). Thus it is Christ alone who defines our life together.

The implications of that profound reality are many including the importance of forgiving our brethren. Because we have received from Christ forgiveness, and not judgment, we are...
Made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less were we living by God's mercy and love. Thus God Himself taught us to meet one another as God has met us in Christ. "Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God" (Romans 15:7 KJV) (p25).
For Bonhoeffer, the "bottom line" of our life together is this: Christ himself is the basis for Christian community. Sadly, many within our self-centered, materialistic world are not satisfied with that. They demand that the church be something more or at least something other than what Christ has built it to be. Note Bonhoeffer's comment:
Through Christ we...have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. That [reality] dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood (p26).
In Bonhoeffer's day, as in ours, many sought to refashion the church in accordance with their own "wishful thinking" rather than in accordance with Christ's will. Doing so does not serve Christ or his church well, for "every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community" (p27). All such hindrances, "must be banished in genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial" (p27).

These are powerful words that need to be heard by all who would succumb to what Bonhoeffer refers to as "visionary dreaming." Such a dreamer, "sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself" (p27). Instead of "wishful dreaming," we should receive with gratitude the gift of Christian fellowship as God gives it to us, not complaining about what God does not give us (p28). It is here that Bonhoeffer emphasizes the importance of thankfulness in all aspects of the Christian life. Congregants as well as pastors should give thanks for their church understanding that...
Christian community...like the Christian's sanctification...is a gift of God which we cannot claim... Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it (p30).
The point Bonhoeffer is working up to is that Christian community is fundamentally a spiritual reality, not a human reality. Sadly, people often approach the church as though it were human (physical) rather than spiritual. This misunderstanding has disastrous consequences that we'll explore next time. For now let us conclude reminding ourselves that Christian fellowship is a gift of grace from God that we should receive with profound gratitude. Thank you Lord for the church!

June 20, 2014

Life Together

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 2, 3.

As members of the body of Christ (the church) we have a particular communion with Christ and one another that Dietrich Bonhoeffer helpfully explored in two books:
  • His doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio, in which he engaged with social philosophy and sociology in interpreting the church as “Christ existing as church-community.” Karl Barth referred to this work, which Bonhoeffer completed at age 21, as, "More instructive and stimulating and illuminating and genuinely edifying reading today than many of the more famous works which have since been written on the problem of the church." 
This post begins a series looking at Life Together. It will give us opportunity to explore Bonhoeffer's Trinitarian, incarnational ecclesiology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together (originally published in 1938 as Gemeinsames Leben), despite having been forbidden to write by Hitler's Nazi regime, which by that time was ruling Germany (including the life of the German Lutheran Church). Bonhoeffer took the dissenting ("confessing") church and his writing underground and in doing so experienced in a profound way what it means to live together with Christ. He lived and wrote about that shared life until October 8, 1944 when he was hanged by the Nazis.

Though a conspirator and traitor in the eyes of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was a true martyr for Christ and for his church. We are blessed that what he experienced about "life together" has been shared with us in this short book. There is much for us to learn.

Bonhoeffer begins with Scripture: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" (Ps. 133:1) and that leads him to this thesis statement: "In the following we shall consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word" (p17). He then notes that this life together as members of the body of Christ is not to be a "cloistered life." Indeed, it is to be lived in the way that Jesus lived on the earth, namely, "in the thick of foes." That was (and is) Jesus' mission and it is our commission to join with him. Of course, Bonhoeffer, living and ministering as he did in Nazi Germany, knew full well what it meant to live among "foes." Doing so, of course, will sometimes (often for Bonhoeffer) mean suffering. In that regard, he quotes Martin Luther:
 "The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?" (pp17-18).
As was Jesus, his faithful followers have been sown among the people (including the evil ones) of the earth (see Zech 10:9). By God's design, they are to be among them; not run from them. Indeed, disciples of Jesus are called to be, like their Master was and is, "friends of sinners." Doing so will be for them both a blessing and a curse--it will advance the kingdom of God, but it may bring upon those disciples persecution.

But if God's people are "scattered" throughout the earth among unbelievers (as God intends), what holds them together as one? Bonhoeffer's answer is that they remember Jesus in the "far countries" into which they are scattered (see John 11:52). They don't run from this scattered condition, but embrace and pursue it. This is their commission (participation in Jesus' mission). As believers, we look for another time (the Last Day--the eschaton) when we as Christ-followers will live together in visible fellowship. In the meantime, our fellowship is often limited, though we thank God for the degree of fellowship we are able to enjoy now, sharing God's Word and sacrament (the Lord's table).

The physical presence of other Christians is for us "A source of incomparable joy and strength" (p19). We need not feel ashamed in our joy in this physical blessing, for God has created humanity as the union of spirit with a physical body and...
...the Son of God [himself], appeared on earth in a body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God's spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility and joy (pp19-20).
As we proceed through Life Together, we'll see more about the importance of our fellowship as the body of Christ. It is my prayer that this and the forthcoming posts in this series will help us find in the fellowship of the church the beauty and strength with which God has imbued it.