Happy Saint Patrick’s Day: Missional Christianity

17 March 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Not much is known about St. Patrick, though his life has been rather heavily romanticized by stories that are as much speculation as they are history. But what is known is that St. Patrick, after having been enslaved in Ireland, he escaped and returned to his family in Britain. But when he entered the church, he felt compelled to return to the very country that enslaved him to serve out his years as a missionary. For this reason he is commonly known as the patron saint of Ireland, and for his missional focus, Mark Driscoll calls him one of the greatest missionaries to ever live.

And so we celebrate St. Patrick’s day to commemorate a man who gave his life for the gospel. Commenting on Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography:, Russel Moore writes:

“This biography gives contemporary evangelicals more than a pious evangelist to emulate. It also reconstructs a Christian engagement with a pagan culture, in ways that are strikingly contemporary to evangelicals seeking to engage a post-Christian America.”

And to that end I’m writing a post on missional Christianity, a bit of a re-processing of some thoughts I’ve spoken and taught on in recent years.

MISSIONAL CHRISTIANITY

The role of Christian in society, according to Jesus, is to be “the salt of the earth” and “the city on the hill” (Matthew 5:13-16). Author Mike Metzger writes:

“Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves. For example, if you only practice purity apart from proximity to culture, you inevitably become pietistic, separatistic and conceited. If you live in close proximity to the culture without also living in a holy manner, you become indistinguishable from fallen culture and useless in God’s kingdom.”

Christianity demands that we hold the principles of purity and proximity in tension.

So let’s throw up some categories, shall we?

Combined Result:
Virtue:PurityProximityMissional Christianity

When we live lives marked by purity (living out the Great Commandment) and proximity (living out the Great Commission), this is what may be called missional Christianity. Missional Christianity is nothing new, it simply means that we take seriously Christ’s call to “follow [Him]” and allow ourselves to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

The problem is that these virtues are too easily lost. There are two ways that they are lost:

  1. We pursue their opposite, or:
  2. We pursue their counterfeits.
Combined Result:
Virtue:PurityProximityMissional Christianity
Opposite:AccommodationIsolationHedonism

The opposite of purity is accommodation. Conformity with God’s ethical character is replaced with conformity to the values of surrounding culture. And this doesn’t even mean “sin” in any exacting sense, but simply placing value of one’s purse collection or mp3 player over the revealed values of God.

The opposite of proximity is isolation. Ironically, though this person is in the world, the person has compartmentalized his faith to the point that faith has little to no impact on his day-to-day life, and the lifestyles he lives at work, home and church are radically different.

The combined lifestyle is, for lack of better word, hedonism.

This is the same thing that Paul encountered in the Philippian church, where he mentions those who “walk as enemies of the Cross of Christ…[whose] God is their belly, and their glory their shame” (Philippians 3:17-21).

These people need to be called to turn away from these lifestyles, and allowed to taste and see the goodness found in Christ.

Combined Result:
Virtue:PurityProximityMissional Christianity
Opposite:AccommodationIsolationHedonism
Counterfeit:IsolationAccommodationMoralism

The counterfeit of purity is isolation. Isolation teaches us that purity is measured by the distance one keeps from the “toxic” affects of culture, with particular focus on the arts. The end result is an insular community that values homeschooling (for its religious benefits), Christian radio, seminary degrees (ouch) and the endless pursuit of “busyness” with one’s church. While none of these activities are bad, the moralist turns them into an idol, and replaced Christ’s righteousness for its ostensible counterfeit obtained through association with Christian trends all the while avoiding the culture at large.

But the counterfeit of proximity is accommodation. The counterfeit Christian has reversed the dictum “in the world but not of the world” into “removed from the world yet emulating the world’s cultural forms.” This is the essence of the current Christian marketing machine: listen to “Christian” music, read “Christian” books, wear “Christian” t-shirts, all of which emulate the forms and trends of the culture it seeks to avoid, all the while calling that same culture to adapt to the Christian message.

The counterfeit to missional Christianity is moralism. Again, not something Paul or the Philippian church were strangers to. When men tried to insist on Jewish customs, Paul calls them “dogs…evildoers.” Paul had emerged from a Jewish upbringing that would put others to shame. But he counted all of that as skubala in contrast to God’s grace. Skubala? Yes. It was, for all intents and purposes, the “s-word” of the ancient world. Yes, it was used for shock value, and yes he meant it to be taken more strongly than just the word “crap” (Philippians 3:2-8).

THE EFFECTS

Hopefully you noticed that the opposite and counterfeit values mirrored one another.  Their differences only highlight their similarities.

The moralist reduces his faith to irrelevance by making an idol out of his moralistic subculture; the hedonist reduces his faith to irrelevance by making an idol out of popular culture.

Both ignore the supremacy of Christ, both make idols out of one culture or another, and both reduce the relevance of the Christian faith by failing to deal realistically (i.e., redemptively) with the needs of others.

CALL TO REPENTANCE: HELPING PEOPLE BLEED A LITTLE

We must first recognize our own propensity for each of these errors, otherwise we put ourselves in a position of superiority if not outright condescension towards those we are called to reach. I see both errors in my life on a regular basis (sometimes simultaneously), so it is always good to maintain accountability and personal reflection.

Nonetheless we must be bold in our stance against these errors, and all the more bold in our strong adherence to Christ’s gospel and message. People need to be challenged in their thinking, and awoken from their idolatrous tendencies. Will it hurt? Hopefully, yes. But in this context, that’s not such a bad thing. People need to bleed a little. They need to feel the pain they’ve brought on themselves from their own selfish choices. It was only when the prodigal son felt the pain he’d caused himself that he returned to the father, and only when his elder brother isolated himself from the celebration was he confronted by his own legalism.

And we must expect opposition. Everyone loves to hear “sinners” called to repent of sin, but no one ever likes to hear the religious moralists to repent of their religion. But we must continue to do both – not by coercion or manipulation, but by the inherent beauty and fidelity of the cross and the gospel.

FURTHER READING

If I could recommend any book to you right now, it would be Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God. No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, you must, must must read this book. In it he uses the story of the prodigal son (or rather, “the two brothers”) to illustrate how these tendencies play out in our lives. Those who live nearby?  My copy is yours to borrow.

Additionally, on Tullian Tchividjian’s blog you’ll find a wider spectrum of counterfeits, derived from the ministry of Paul Tripp.

17 March 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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