The Loss of Missionary Consciousness in the Modern Church

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

A core conviction animating my ordained leadership is that there is a direct correlation between a congregation’s communal vibrancy and its missional outreach. That is, I believe that the internal vitality of a church is strengthened as it increases in obedience to our Lord’s external calling to “go forth” (Matthew 28:19).

As we consider what it is to be missional, it helps to remember that the Greek word we translate as “church” (ekklesia) literally means an assembly of people called out for something. Thus, in my practice and study of ministry over the years, I have been formed by a theological framework wherein mission is not a single aspect, characteristic, or task of the church. Rather mission lies at the very essence of all the church is. This belief is woven into all these reflections I am calling “A Light for the City.” And as I teach and preach, any faithful reading of Scripture reveals that the essence of the church is missional by nature. The original call of Abraham was ultimately about God’s chosen ones being a blessing to all people (Genesis 12:1-3).

If the missional essence of the people of God is so plain on the pages of Scripture, a puzzling question for many leading Christians of the last several generations has been why modern churches have needed to be re-formed and re-catechized in our missionary calling. How did we lose our missional self-awareness in the first place?

Of all the missionary theologians I have read and admired, none has been as influential to me as the 20th-century British bishop and missionary to India, Lesslie Newbigin. You will hear me reference him often. Newbigin identified three modern cultural realities that crippled a strong missional consciousness in established churches of the West. These three realities are 1) an outmoded Christendom perspective; 2) the privatization of faith; 3) the specialization of church missions. I would argue these three factors continue to contribute to the ongoing decline of many mainline churches in the US.

Christendom: In many of his writings, Newbigin bemoans the failure of modern churches in the West to discern the collapse of Christendom. Christendom may be defined succinctly as the cultural situation wherein most members of society are presumed to be members of the institutional church. Historically, Christendom exists in contexts where there are few perceived lines of demarcation between the church and the primary shapers of culture (politics, the arts, education, communication, entertainment, etc.). Clearly, this is no longer the case in our 21st-century North American milieu. While the historic factors leading to the demise of Christendom are complex and beyond the scope of this reflection, suffice it to say, the assumption that most people around you are already Christian does not fuel missionary fervor. When Christian communities fail to have a clear vision of contact with people and cultures outside the life of the gospel, mission becomes subservient to the maintenance of existing churches (see The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, page 235).

The Privatization of Faith: A second important historical factor that has diminished missional energy in the church is the entrenched Western idea that one’s individual faith should be merely personal and separate from public forms of life. The privatization of faith according to Newbigin is a part of the intellectual fallout of the Enlightenment’s investiture of autonomous reason and scientific rationalism as the gateways to “real” truth. Since claims to divine or spiritual truth cannot be objectively verified through science and reason, they are necessarily subjective and therefore can only be true within the private sphere of convictions held by the believer. Such mental dualism in modern churches discourages Christians from sharing their faith with others. Newbigin argues that Christians cannot “accept the view that the only task of the church is to provide for individuals a place in the private sector where they can enjoy an inward religious security but are not required to challenge the ideology that rules the public life of nations” (Foolishness to the Greeks, page 124).

The Specialization of Missions: A third cultural reality that shrunk the missionary consciousness of the Western church in Newbigin’s view is the relegation of mission itself to one ministry among others in the church. While church fellowship and gospel mission were utterly intertwined in the early congregations of the New Testament, Newbigin observed that by the 20th century in most churches of the West mission is thought of as an “obligation… that has to be met after the needs of the home have been fully met (The Household of God, page 144).” Thus, mission is a cause worthy of the church’s support rather than the central identifying feature of the entire fellowship. Increases in outreach funding may arise from “leftover” resources only after the budget needs of the congregation are met. Outreach volunteer activities are one of a variety of ways some members can get involved rather than characteristic of every member. Missionaries are regarded as highly specialized ministers God calls out to share the gospel. But most Christians live out their faith among other believers and are not called to be missionaries. These unfortunate assumptions unwind a vision of church wherein mission and community are integrally bound like the twin strands of a single DNA.

I am convinced that strong, growing churches in our post-Christian and uncertain times will be those that embrace the Great Commission as central to their very reason for being and not as an extra activity or volunteer option for interested members. I am grateful for keen missional thinkers such as Newbigin and many others who have shaped my personal vision of ministry and who call the church back to our core purpose: to be lights to the world. I wonder how this reflection causes you to think about that purpose as well.

Wisdom for the Week

Weekly Wisdom Issue 13
"In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged us to be salt and light in our increasingly desperate world. He was saying we should live in a way that makes people thirst for God and which shines his message of love and redemption into the dark areas of despair. Discover how you can become stronger salt and brighter light for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God. Along the way, you’ll have the time of your life doing it!"

—Lee Strobel

One Good Recommendation

Above is a talk given by a friend of mine, Dr. Paul Weston, a Lesslie Newbigin scholar at Cambridge in the UK. I took a course from Paul during my doctoral work at The University of Toronto and believe he is the preeminent voice on Newbigin’s life and work. For a brief introduction, I encourage you to listen and/or watch this 37-minute presentation.

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