Monday, April 23, 2007

Church At The Crossroads

Here's a voice that needs to be heard again. It belongs to a guy named J.C. Hoekendijk. Born in 1912, he was a contemporary of Lesslie Newbigin, who has had the stronger influence on the "missional" theologies and churches of recent decades (and, therefore, within the emergent church conversations). Both men were missionaries; J.C. was born to missionary parents in Indonesia and educated in the Netherlands, his parents' homeland. Both held positions within the World Council of Churches back in the 1960's. Hoekendijk was Secretary of Evangelism. He stirred things up with his stinging critique of evangelistic efforts born of "a nervous feeling of insecurity" and designed only to "restore Christendom" by saving "the remnants of a time now irrevocably past." J.C. was, in many ways, a populist who wrote in plain - and powerful - language. The theological establishment didn't like him much, although his students did, and when Hoekendijk divorced, the establishment had a "good" reason to more or less shut him down. Sidelined - for stylistic as much as for theological reasons - he ended his career pretty far removed from the world stage, quietly teaching at Union Seminary. He died in the early 1970's. Hoekendijk was a footnote in my missiological studies, a foil to Newbigin's more popular work, a voice with something interesting - but not really important - to say. A little tired of hearing the same old within missional and even emergent conversations, especially because I've been able to discern virtually no impact yet on the wider culture (meaning outside the institutional church) as a result of them which I think can be the only true measure) - indeed, more often than not I don't even hear any intention or hope of impacting the wider culture! - I used to locate a used ($4!) copy of "The Church Inside Out," a compilation of J.C.'s writings over about a decade beginning in 1954, and read it cover to cover in one sitting. Then I bought up all the other copies I could find (about 10 of them)to pass out to friends and curious conversation partners I meet along the way. J.C., it turns out, might have some important - and not just interesting - things to say, after all. First(and, remember, this is 1954!), he sets the stage, describing the needed and inevitable demise of Christendom, which has thoroughly corrupted the Biblical concepts of church, the "heathen," and salvation. Notably, from safe within Christendom, we can see only two kinds of people "out there" beyond the church: 1) moral "pagans" - i.e. drunkards and the like, who have fallen away from a pious Christian life, who become the target of our "disgustingly moralistic" preaching, and to whom we offer "moral rearmament" and forgiveness for a wild past, rather than the fullness of God's Shalom, and 2) intellectual "pagans" - i.e. skeptics, who are suspicious of the doctrines of Christendom undoubtedly because they just don't know enough, to whom we are "condescendingly apologetic," and to whom we offer forgiveness for their "stupidity" in this case, rather than the fullness of God's salvation. From within Christendom, we can't even see, much less respond, to those who are in total revolt and completely reject our message...or those for whom the message is utterly irrelevant. We fail to see the world as the primary location of God's activity and the object of God's love. And we lose all connection to the radical gift God, in fact, has given and wants to give. Hoekendijk says that gift is Shalom - "at once peace, integrity community, harmony, and justice." This is the gift the Messiah brought with him and which he came to proclaim. Those who follow him are, likewise, called to proclaim (kerygma), live (koinonia), and demonstrate (diakonia) Shalom. And, as they do this, church happens. The church, in other words, is NOT the point. The church does not "send" us into mission; the church is a function of "the apostolate," The church is, in other words, an instrument that emerges to help us do the work we are called to do; it is "a means in God's hands to establish shalom in this world." And the WORLD is most definitely the point: "Our God is not a temple dweller. In the strict sense of the word he is not even a church god. He advances through time; ever again he lets the new conquer the old. He is not a God of the 'status quo,' but rather the Lord of the future, the King of the history of the world, and, as such, also Head of the church...We must maintain the right order in our thinking and speaking about the church. That order is God-World-Church, not God-Church-World" (J.C. Hoekendijk). There are "missional" movements afoot today to make the church "more the church," it is said, for the sake of the world. And there are other, evangelical and missional movements afoot that often get accused of trying to make the church more "like" the world, for the sake of converting the world. Hoekendijk - I think - would argue that both movements are misdirected because they are both still church-centered...and God is not. Mission is never centripetal (drawing people in to where salvation is), he argues. It is always centrifugal. Hoekendijk describes mission this way: "It leaves Jerusalem and the Jewish group and is on its way to the ends of the earth and the end of time. To join means here: To join the journey away from the center." Practically, what does this mean? A missional faith community won't stick a sign in its front yard saying "Come worship with us!" First of all, a missional faith community might not even HAVE a front yard...because all a building is in this paradigm is a tool and maybe, in some contexts, it wouldn't be a particularly useful tool. But if it DOES have a front yard, the message on the sign might be "Let's make a difference in the world together!" Or something like that. A missional congregation wouldn't promise to take care of would call me to give myself away for the sake of my neighbor. It would invite me to live a life that MATTERS. It would call me to BE the church right where I have been work, at school, in my neighborhood. Isn't that what Jesus meant when he said, "Come follow me"?? That didn't mean, "Come huddle up in this building and pray a lot." Jesus spent his ministry out at the "crossroads" (cf. Matthew 4:12-17). If we're following him, that's where we'll be, too.

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The Bottom Line

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love becomes slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." - Galatians 5:13-14