by Darren M. McClellan
And now, for a continuation on a previous post regarding a theology of mission. Specifically, I invite you to reconsider the stereotypical notion of the church as a “place.” I get it, you say. The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple…the church is the people. Hand motions are optional.
Most of us get the idea, but reality is another matter. What is the consequence of failing to execute the practice of church and settling for the mere existence of place?
In his work The Missional Church: A Sending of the Church in North America, Darrell Guder explains that
This perception of the church gives little attention to the church as a communal entity or presence, and it stresses even less the community’s role as the bearer of missional responsibility throughout the world, both near and far away. ‘Church’ is conceived in this view as the place where a Christianized civilization gathers for worship, and the place where the Christian character of a society is cultivated. Increasingly, this view of the church as ‘a place where certain things happen’ located the church’s self-identity in its organizational forms and its professional class, the clergy who perform the church’s authoritative activities. Popular grammar captures it well: you ‘go to church’ much the same way that you might got to the store. You ‘attend’ a church, the way you attend a school or theater. You ‘belong to a church’ as you would a service club with its programs and activities. (p. 80)
It should be noted that the missionary movement of the nineteenth century did little to alter the western churches’ self-conception that the church was primarily a place. As David Bosch went on to say, it was not until the twentieth century that this self-perception gave way to a new understanding of the church as a body of people sent on a mission.
Again from Guder,
Unlike the previous notion of the church as an entity located in a facility or in an institutional organization and its activities, the church is being reconceived as a community, a gathered people, brought together by a common calling and vocation to be a sent people….From the mid-twentieth century on, biblical and theological foundations for such a communal and missional view of the church have blossomed…A now global church recognized that the church of any place bears missional calling and responsibility for its own place as well as for distant places. The church of every place, it realized, is a mission-sending church, and the place of every church is a mission-receiving place. (p. 81, italics mine).
I am struck by Guder’s influence here, as evident in my own work Out of This World. There, I examine this missional mindset through the lenses of John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The task, if I may borrow a line from John’s little brother Charles, is to reassess what must be done “to serve this present age, our calling to fulfill.”
What would it mean for us to be the “church of every place”? What change would be necessary?
To what degree are we both a mission-sending and mission-receiving church?