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What on earth am I doing? | Ali Boulton [ANVIL vol 33 issue 3]

What on earth am I doing? Reflecting upon the pioneering call to join in with the mission of God

Ali Boulton
The Rev Alison Boulton is a Baptist Regional Minister for Pioneer Mission Enabling, who has recently co-founded a national New Housing Hub. She lives on a new housing estate, blessing the community and nurturing the church which has emerged.

As a pioneer minister on a new housing estate, I am seeking to embody what it means to join in with the mission of God. Broadly speaking this has looked like living incarnationally, seeking to lay down my life and unconditionally bless the community. However, members of the team and I grapple with how to articulate this missional calling to others – something which is particularly important for those who are looking to  join us on the journey.

For the first year we simply lived in the area, unconditionally blessing people, making friends and sharing with people. However, as friendships deepened and spiritual curiosity developed, local unchurched people asked to be part of our church and meet with us, so The Gathering emerged. While I am delighted about this and the way that God was has met and is meeting with people, I have become conscious of some of the effects it has upon the understanding and outworking of our calling.

“Going to church”

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What on earth am I doing?
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Firstly, I began to notice that a short-hand of “going to church” was being used to describe what we were doing. Although the core team referred to us getting together as The Gathering rather than “going to church”, to indicate that it was just one aspect of what it meant to be church, the wider community, both those who came to The Gathering and those who didn’t, ascribed the term “going to church” to the activity. This threatened a shift from an outward community focus to an inward worship focus. I know that this isn’t the focus of our calling here, but we struggled to articulate that without devaluing the importance of either gathering together or of worship.[1]

Secondly, as people came to faith and others joined us, questions concerning more explicit discipleship and teaching arose. Should I be intentionally teaching a set of beliefs? This sat uncomfortably alongside a call to lay down our lives and agenda to journey with people – and felt like the work of the Holy Spirit.

Practice over belief?

Stanley Hauerwas states that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what Christianity is in our liberal democratic society as it encourages Christians to believe that being a Christian is “primarily belief”.[2] He critiques this stance, noting,

This is a deep misunderstanding about how Christianity works. Of course we believe that God is God and we are not and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit but that this is not a set of propositions—but is rather embedded in a community of practices that make those beliefs themselves work and give us a community by which we are shaped. Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you'd perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is—a drama.[3]

“A community of practices” helpfully articulates what we are developing. This is not about rejecting beliefs in favour of practice but rather embodying faith in action in an authentic rather than dogmatic way. The metaphor of bringing a play script to life through performance is also helpful.

Jesus modelled this perfectly – the Word became flesh, the embodiment of all that God is: bringing good news to the poor, sight to the blind alongside forgiveness, redemption, loving our neighbour and acceptance of foreigners. This goes far beyond adopting correct beliefs and going to church to worship. But is also much more challenging. A set of beliefs and worship practices is much more manageable – and allows us to remain self-centred and god of our own lives.

During his earthly ministry, people also struggled to understand what Jesus was calling them to. When Jesus said that to be true followers, selfish ways had to be laid down and replaced with a cross, did they understand that he meant it? Or did they think that if all laws and religious practices were maintained was that enough? Perhaps these issues were at the back of the rich man’s mind in Luke 18:18-23 when he asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. You must keep all the commandments, Jesus told him. Perhaps the rich man was reassured as he had done that all his life. Maybe the rich man made to leave confident of his salvation. But Jesus had one more thing to add, “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor.” He had go beyond following a set of rules and practices and embody God’s heart. It was too challenging – the rich man walked away.

Authentically embodying God’s heart remains immensely challenging. It’s easier to pick through Jesus’ teaching and construct a set of beliefs and religious rituals rather than lay down our lives and pick up a cross.

Enfleshing the Word

The way John 4:24 is quoted may be an example of this. This is part of a narrative where Jesus talks to a woman at a well. Within the context of the day, this is a shocking encounter. Jesus strikes up a conversation in a way that was culturally taboo. As a Jewish man, his society would have told him that he was superior to this person in every sense – racially, religiously, on the basis of gender and, the story suggests, morally. Jesus refuses to adhere to these prejudices and throughout the encounter respects, affirms and then empowers the woman with a revelation of who he is. During the conversation, the woman realises this man has some kind of spiritual authority so, also bound by her cultural context, she asks him something ‘religious’ about worship. Jesus almost dismisses it. That’s not going to be important – worship will be about Spirit and Truth.

Essentially this story seems to be about Jesus enfleshing the Word by laying aside issues of gender, morality, race, religious tradition, worship practices and inviting someone to drink life-giving and transforming water. However, it is verse 24 “worship in Spirit and in truth” that I see quoted most often verbally, on posters and at the front of large gatherings. This powerful story of Jesus embodying the wonderful loving, inclusive and empowering character of the Godhead is reduced to a pithy statement about worship that isn’t even central to the story. I wonder if God metaphorically has his head in his hands and says “Is that what you got from this story my children?”

And yet, I understand why we do! Laying aside issues of gender, morality, race, religious tradition, worship practices and inviting someone to join us in drinking life-giving and transforming water, even strike up a friendship with them, may be too challenging for us. It is potentially threatening or life changing. It’s much easier to discuss which songs, readings, prayers and style of worship might most enable us to worship “in Spirit and in truth”.

Yet I am not seeking to belittle our call to worship God or the importance of ascribing glory to God and place him at the centre of our lives, I simply want to understand how it fits into an outward looking incarnational calling.

A call to be ‘image-bearers’

Tom Wright, in his recent book The Day the Revolution Began, places worship within a wider framework of our mission, calling and purpose as human beings. Drawing on his understanding of “image” in Genesis 1:26-28, he argues that the purpose for which humans were created was to be “image-bearers”:[4]

Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the “mission”... the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, [is] to be “image-bearers,” reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.[5]

Understanding our call to this community as a bearer of God’s image sits comfortably alongside Hauerwas’s “community of practices”. We bear God’s image by embodying his heart in our practices. It also encapsulates worship as an important aspect of the outward mission,  

We are created in order to reflect the worship of all creation back to the Creator and by that same means to reflect the wise sovereignty of the Creator into the world.[6]

Inauthentic, inward-looking, corporate worship which doesn’t transform our day to day behaviour has no place in our calling here. However, true worship will be part of seeing God transform this community.

“Worship” was and is a matter of gazing with delight, gratitude, and love at the creator God and expressing his praise in wise, articulate speech. Those who do this are formed by this activity to become the generous, humble stewards through whom God’s creative and sustaining love is let loose into the world.[7] [my emphasis]

In articulating how we embody the calling to join in with the Mission of God, it’s useful to explain that we are developing a “community of practices” rather than a statement of beliefs and that we understand our mission and purpose as bearing God’s image in our neighbourhood. By doing this we are seeking to continue Jesus’ ministry of enfleshing God’s Word in our day to day lives. When we gather for worship our focus is on ascribing glory to God and being transformed to reflect his love out into the world. As I reflect upon this it is clear that this is not just a calling for pioneers but for all followers of Jesus.

Notes

[1] Michael Frost, Exiles Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006) 275

[2] Bonhoeffer: The Truthful Witness, interview with Homiletics, accessed September 2017    

[3] Ibid

[4] NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2016) 99

[5] Ibid, 356-357

[6] Ibid,100

[7] Wright, Revolution (London: SPCK, 2016) 100

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