The church: it's about incarnational, ministering community

This post continues a series looking at The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123456, 8910, 11, 12131415.

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These days we're often told that churches must become more "missional." Various models are offered for doing so (including the one at right). Ray Anderson helpfully adds to this discussion with a Christ-centered ecclesiology and missiology grounded in incarnational, Trinitarian theology:
[The] mission of the church is grounded in its nature as the community of the children of God whose lives have ontological grounding in the very being of Christ.... As the inner life of Jesus in his relation to the Father is constitutive of Christology, so the inner life of the church in its experience of Jesus Christ is constitutive of ecclesiology (p113).
Anderson then shows that the church does not need to add something in order to be missional. Instead it needs to live into the reality of what the Spirit has already formed the church to be as the body of Christ in the world: an incarnational, ministering community. 

The church as Incarnational Community 

Just as the self-emptying of the Son of God via the incarnation is the very basis for Jesus' ministry, so too the church is to be a community of self-emptying love:
As Jesus exists in a community of relation with the Father characterized by self-emptying, so does the church exist as a community of self-emptying...in the world. It is this nature of the church...that determines the form of its ministry. Jesus expresses this quite specifically in the prayer, "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18). The "as" and the "so" constitute the hings on which the existence of God as revealer and reconciler turns outward into the world. Ministry thus precedes and determines the existence of the church as the ministry and existence of Christ. Paul can thus appeal to Christians to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Phil 2:5-7 NKJV) (p115).
As the church participates in Jesus' love and life and thus his ministry in the world, it becomes more and more what the Spirit forms the church to be: a truly incarnational community. Just as Jesus was conformed in intimate communion to the Father, so too the church is conformed to Christ---united to him in union and communion in such a way that it is not involved in mere "institutional religion" but in the actual love, life and mission of Jesus. As Anderson notes, quoting Bonhoeffer, "The incarnation has already taken up the the humanity of all people in the body of Christ. And it is precisely this truth that must be announced [by the church] to the world" (p117). Anderson continues:
Along with the re-formation of humanity to the human existence of Christ, the kenotic [self-emptying] community [the church] exists as the formation of Christ in the world. This formation does not take place as an act of separation from the world for the sake of exemplifying certain characteristics or virtues that may be thought to portray an ideal of Christ. Rather it takes place as Christ himself continues to have both a presence and practice in the world. The church thus becomes the form of Christ in the world through Christ's own ministry of reconciliation.... 
It is not only that the world needs the church in order to have Christ. The church also needs to be in relation to the world in order to know Christ and in order to be the body of Christ. Formation of Christ in the world does not take place apart from the world [as seen in Jesus' instructions in Matthew 25].... 
The Christian mission does not bring Christ to the world. That is not its power. Rather, Christians witness by their own presence in the world that Christ has come to the world and has taken up the cause of the afflicted, the oppressed and the estranged as his own cause. Solidarity between the community of Christian believers and the world has already been established through the incarnation.... It is by the grace of God that the church exists in the world and for the sake of the worlds as those who bear witness to the transforming power and life of Christ (pp117-118).  
Therefore, the responsibility of the church is to join with Jesus in lovingly and sacrificially serving the world---being what Anderson refers to as a diaconal community. Just as Jesus was in the world as "one who serves" (Luke 22:27), so too the church is to be known for its diaconal life. This service (diakonia) to the world is one in which love is enfleshed (incarnated). Anderson comments:
The incarnational community does not come to the world offering what it has to those who have not, but comes as those who have not themselves, as receiving for and with all others what God gives abundantly and without favor through Jesus Christ.... 
The incarnational community exists as an eschatological-sacramental presence in the world between the evangelical word of forgiveness [at the cross] and the restoration and liberation of all things [at the parousia] (p119-121).

The church as Ministering Community

Intrinsic to the idea of the church as incarnational community, is its calling to be ministering community:
As the incarnational community in which Christ himself is present and through which he continues his ministry in the world, the church has its existence grounded in this divine ministry or service [latreia] of the Son to the Father on behalf of the world.... Thus latreia is the root paradigm of [the church as incarnational] community (p122).
In addressing the church as ministering community, Anderson raises the issue of church authority noting that its leaders are to be "serving and sustaining" rather than "tyrannical and dictatorial" (p125). Moreover, the church is to be inclusive, rather than exclusive---serving the non-believing world in love rather than standing apart from it in severe judgment (p126). Instead of seeing the evangelistic task as getting people first to believe, so they can then (and only then) belong (included within the community), the church as ministering community offers unbelievers a safe place to first belong where they can explore the faith, coming to believe, then become (grow to maturity as disciples of Christ). Anderson comments:
The true freedom to believe only results from the actuality of belonging which the incarnational community signals by its own existence in the world as the gracious latreia of Christ (p128).
Concerning the related topic of evangelism, Anderson says this:
The Christian mission does not bring Christ to the world. That is not its power. That is the power of Pentecost, where Christ returns in the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather, Christians who are the temple of the Holy Spirit witness by their own presence in the world that Christ has come to the world and has taken up the cause of the afflicted, the oppressed and the estranged as his own cause.... Christopraxis is the continuing Pentecost event that takes place through the growth of the church in the world.... Church growth, as a movement, must become part of church growth as mission, with Christopraxis once more becoming the basis for the theology and praxis of the church as a missionary people of God (p130).
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For another post addressing a belong-believe-become missional model, click here.

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