Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The New Pew Study and Ecclesiology

The religious landscape in the U.S. is not only increasingly diverse; it is also more fluid, which means that "loyalities to churches prove [to be] more fleeting" according to a new study released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. According to the study, 44 per cent of Americans have left the religious tradition in which they were raised for a different tradition--or no tradition at all. Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, concluded, "it's a very competitive marketplace, and if you rest on your laurels, you're going to be history." As troubling as the study was to read, Lugo's comment is even more troubling. The language of "marketing" may have entered church discourse more than a generation ago, "but there's a reason Jesus said 'You shall be my witnesses,' and not 'You shall be my marketers'" says Mark Galli in a piece in Christianity Today. He's right!

In my new course, "Pastor as Theologian," we have been talking about the identity and mission of the church. The church is a community (koinonia) of disciples and witnesses, not a product to be marketed. As Reggie McNeal would say, the goal is not "church growth" but "kingdom growth." The church is called to be a sign and instrument of the kingdom of God. At the heart of this witness is the power of God's reconciling love that St. Paul speaks of so elequently in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (among other places):
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Back in 2003, I heard Lutheran missiologist Philip Baker call for a moratorium on the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 as the foundational text for Christian mission (his article starts on page 39). He suggests instead that we consider this passage from St. Paul. The idea of "reconciliation as a paradigm for mission" has been echoed and developed by others such as Robert Schreiter, the Forum for World Evangelization, and the World Council of Churches. I plan to explore this idea in ecclesiological terms (i.e., how do we understand the nature of the church in light of this paradigm?) in a paper proposal for the Ecclesiological Investigations Group of the AAR.


R said...

Although I'm sympathetic to Baker's desire to ensure that the church fulfills its entire mission, I'm not sure that we can, or should, attempt to dislodge the Great Commission from its place in the church's missiology. Reconciliation can certainly flow from it, but cannot replace it.

doulosxristou said...

I have always been confused by the idea that only one of Christ's comissions has been termed "great." I've been told by some that it's because "teaching them to obey EVERYTHING that I have commanded" is a catch-all, that automatically includes such vital missions as reconciliation, nonviolent resistance to injustice, and care for the poor. That doesn't do it for me. In addition to the "reconciliation" passage, why not add Jesus' own self-defined mission (borrowed from Isaiah)in Luke 4, or his "Gospel of God" in Mark 1? Neither of these have their basis in the "numbers" game of church growth, but both would add some important dimension to our missiology.
-Tim Jahn, TLS '07

Anonymous said...

As a research person, I too was fascinated by the Pew study. I think the parish pastor has a difficult job as theologian because congregations are steeped in the American consumer marketing model and 'what's in it for me?' Also, many faithful Christians fall into popular culture theologies or settle for literal basics and don't dig into theology a little deeper. That's when ideas creep in that Jesus is God-could've used his powers from the cross, you have to be 'saved'/born again and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and some of the heresies begin to appear vs. the concept of the Holy Trinity, grace and so forth. As for me, I owe it all to Luck. Patricia TLS '05.