Mission and ecclesiology: Cart before the horse?

D.B. Hamill, in Missional Hairstyles: reflections on a weasel word, notes that unless we agree on what the Church is for, we won’t agree on what “missional” purpose and action look like. He writes:

Let’s consider the effect on missionality (I’m sounding weaslier by the sentence) of different conceptions of the missio dei. I contend that quite divergent practical outcomes arise depending on which of the following (simplified) examples of the missio dei informs our thinking.

  1. The notion that God’s mission is to save individuals from his own retributive justice by means of a pardon in accord with justification theory
  2. The notion that God’s mission is to both pardon and conform individuals to Christ my means of his sacramental body (The Church) centred on Rome
  3. The notion that God’s mission is to liberate distorted and trapped people by conforming them to the cruciform Jesus and thus transforming their relation to others and the rest of the created order by means of eucharistic worship (Rome or no Rome) in anticipation of eschatological fulfilment.
  4. The notion that God’s mission is to encourage us to live better lives with less guilt – modelled on the life of Jesus or someone like him.
  5. The notion that God’s mission is identical with the evolution of a higher form of personal existence.

We could go on. But notice, the first three do not work without a central role for Jesus Christ (albeit a very different one for each). The 4th has a marginal role for Jesus and the latter none at all. Imagine the divergent strategies which would inform the missional shape of these different ‘churches’. The first group would emphasise ensuring a clear and strong sense of guilt and the presupposition that justice can only be retributive. Their missionality would involve ways of leading to people to a certain point of intellectual clarity called a ‘decision’. There would be a strongly rational style to this ‘missional church’. The second group would talk a lot about ‘coming home’ to the mother church and would place a premium value on linking people to the institutional structures of ‘The Church’. The third group would place a heavy emphasis on the drama (and its liturgical re-enactment) of Jesus life, death and resurrection. For them sin is profound and pervasive. Communicating the transformative impact of that drama would be central along with participation in eucharistic worship (both Word and Sacrament). The fourth group would seek to encourage people to believe in themselves and to live in ways that are empowering of others, who like them, are able to ‘change the world’ in accord with the values of Jesus. Because Jesus is not needed to save or to reveal God, his role would be marginal to their practice of mission. Their mission will amount to a form of ‘social service’ and a moral drive. The fifth group will be able to sit by happily while the human race evolves to ever more divine forms… They could, of course be quite brutal, if it ultimately serves the ‘greater good’ of the evolutionary process.

These practices do not simply represent many aspects of one concept, they represent the practical consequences of quite divergent views of humanity, God, time, space… etc. To pretend this is not the case is integral to the dull art of using weasel words.

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Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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