Friday, June 26, 2009

The God Who Initiates


Several Sundays ago, my pastor preached a sermon on the passage in Luke 15 about the loving father. Most of us call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but the primary emphasis is on the action of the father and, by implication, the action of the Heavenly Father.

The fresh insight I heard that morning was the fact that the father in the story takes the initiative in reconciliation with both sons. First, when the younger son returned home, the father ran to meet the son without waiting for the son to approach him. Second, when the older brother refuses to come in to the homecoming celebration, the father “went out and pleaded with him.” The loving father is not impassive but active in sharing love and grace with his sons.

This text can help us to understand better the nature and mission of God as well as the nature and mission of the church. In the Hebrew Bible, we read that it is God that takes the initiative to redeem humankind. God sends messengers and prophets to inform and entreat the people of God to follow faithfully. In the New Testament account, God sends a son to humanity to share the good news. God is a sending God. Therefore, the church should be a sending church. If it is God’s intention to actively engage the world, then the church in carrying out the mission of God (missio Dei) must be a sending church.

This is the basis of a missional ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology” is simply the theological term related to the study of the doctrine of the church. “Missional” refers to the essential nature and vocation of the church as God’s called and sent people. What’s the difference between “missions” and “missional”? For many years, mission or missions was understood to be a program of the congregation supported by financial offerings, prayer, organizations, and projects. On the other hand, missional is a way of being and doing life (as individuals, groups, and congregations) that asks, “What does God want us to be, do, and become to continue the ministry of Christ within our own community and global context?” rather than “What do we want to be, do, and become to respond to our denominational programs or unexamined beliefs and traditions?”

In the missional congregation, mission refers to those initiatives taken by individuals, impromptu groups and organized entities to respond to identified needs in the world, as a continuation of the mission of God. When a congregation adopts this understanding, it will gain a new perspective and set new priorities.

I believe that the adoption and practice of a missional ecclesiology can have a greater impact on Christian witness in the 21st century than the “emerging” or “emergent” church movement. Whether she intends to or note, Phyllis Tickle makes a pretty good case in The Great Emergence that the emergent movement will have its major impact within denominational traditions as it encourages Christians to learn about, honor, and practice some of the rich traditions of other “tribes.” The emergent approach might be seen more as a tool for dealing with the postmodern situation we find ourselves in than in a reformation of the church. On the other hand, a missional ecclesiology reframes the way we see who we are and what we are about.

How are we carrying out the mission of God? God has reached out to us and we, in turn, are to reach out to our world.


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