Recently I had occasion to consider why in one context I said that location was not a factor in missional engagement, while in another context I said it definitely was. I was convinced I was right both times, but the two statements are clearly contradictory — at least at face value. Faced with having to explain myself, I sat down to work it out. Specifically, I’m to consider whether or not location is an inherent aspect of missionality. To do this, I began with a kind of “stream of consciousness” writing whereby I asked and answered questions of myself, thinking it through as I went along. I’ve since gone back and revised those notes to add a bit of explanation and to string them together so that no great leaps of thinking are needed to make sense of it. Or so I hope. In the process, I add to my notes on location by getting into what it means to “share our faith,” but that comes at the end, and we haven’t yet done the beginning.
Firstly, I can say that location is important to missional activity, but this must not be stated as such in a manner which allows the interpretation that location is a requirement in qualifying missionality, viz., that some locations are missional and others are not. In particular, I would say that missional activity can occur anywhere, and typically begins wherever you are — such that while a person may feel called to relocate to engage missionally in a different context, the call to relocate is not an inherent aspect of missional engagement.
It is the statement that location is inherent to missionality that causes potential misinterpretation. It is of course inherent in that you can’t be missional in a vacuum… to say it’s irrelevant is ludicrous — where would you be if not in a location? Even “cyberspace” is a location. That we seek God for a calling to one location or another is merely a part of Christian life and can therefore be taken as axiomatic. If, however, we posit that that missionality requires calling to a location (or to relocate), then people who don’t feel a “calling” concerning their location are not therefore missional because calling to a location is an inherent component to missionality, we have a problem… there may be those who feel no particular calling to location or may perhaps not believe that God calls people in just that way — that is, specifically and not generally. Our definition of missional would categorically exclude them from being “missional” despite their being otherwise able to express their faith in ways that are outwardly indistinguishable from those who we would say are engaging missionally.
And that’s the problem.
To say that location is inherent because we can’t be missional without a context can be taken as axiomatic, almost to the point where saying it at all starts to create confusion. Can we live missionally immediately while waiting on God for clarification on location? Of course. Can we live missionally without feeling a specific calling to do so? On the basis that missional living is often described with reference to general guidance given in the Bible — love your neighbour, care for widows and orphans, visit those who are sick and in prison — I would say yes, a person can (and should) live a missional life even without an understood calling to a specific location or context. To state otherwise would discount all missionally-characterized activity by anyone unclear on their calling, or who, as stated above, does not believe that God actually issues a calling in such specific terms.
Now, if by “inherent” we mean “more than incidental” then yes, because the kind of missional engagement one takes on is often driven by location as much as it is by special interest or social grouping. Here I prefer to speak of the wider term “context’ rather than simply “location.”
In other words, context is inherent to the outworking of missional action without being a qualifier to it. However, to say simply that “location is inherently linked to missionality” makes no such distinction and therefore leaves both interpretations open, viz., that it could be read both as being an outworking and as being a prerequisite qualifier.
Could we call location a “precursor” to missionality? Note that in this explanation, we could equally substitute the wider concept of “context” in lieu of “location.” This would suggest that it is necessary but not intrinsically so. And the answer is perhaps… but the understanding that then presents itself may be that a locational call is required in order to qualify as missional, and we’re back to the aforementioned problem in judging what qualifies and what does not, excluding many. We might say that location is a precursor to (missional) action, since you need to decide where you’re going to do something if you’re going to do it at all… but in this exchange, it subtly shifts from precursor to outworking as location becomes part of the expression itself.
Taking careful notice of that last phrase, here occurs an interesting idea. Is the medium perhaps the message? Ah, let’s take that for a spin. Wikipedia says,
“The Medium is the Message” is a phrase meaning that the generic form of media is more important than any “meaning” or “content” that the medium conveys. For Marshall McLuhan, the content of media is irrelevant. The form of the medium itself is what changes our consciousness.
Now perhaps we’re onto something. In this sense, we can posit that location is a part of the expression of missionality, or of the incarnation of the gospel. In that light, part of the gospel message itself becomes, say, the giving of food to a stranger… because the medium is the message, we can suggest that the giving of food to the stranger is a part of the message itself, informing what the message is like and helping us to understand it better. So it is that location can play a part, filling out an “even here” aspect to the message, answering a sometimes incredulous question with a firm “Yes.”
We notice that the message is not changed in this exchange: it is what it always was, but the expression itself is a pointer to the message, telling the observer (or recipient) something about the essential character of the message, so this linking of location to message has a way of characterizing it without changing it, of explaining it without being a part of its definition. Where the gospel is concerned, the nugget of the message is therefore allowed to remain an absolute. As with other aspects of the demonstration of the message, the location is therefore a personalization or contextualization of it. The gospel being the gospel in Georgia only matters if you’re in Georgia. If you’re in Tennessee, you want to hear that message a bit differently, so make the gospel the gospel in Tennessee, and your interest is peaked. The fact that the gospel is the gospel everywhere may be a bit too abstract for some though, so it won’t generally get their interest up.
Consider the God of Israel in the Old Testament, where the fact that he wandered around with his people and dwelt among them (in the Tabernacle) was in stark contrast to the territorial deities of the day. One side of a conversation on a street corner in the Ancient Near East might well have been, “Have you heard about this God of Israel? He goes about with his people wherever they go… and when they enter a new territory, they actually drive out the gods that are there! Can you believe it? How powerful their God must be! He was with them in Egypt, and he led them out, he was superior over the river gods and over the snake gods, and over every other god they met!” Location in this exchange is both irrelevant and very important, at the same time. To God and to the message of his being God, location doesn’t matter, and the fact that it doesn’t matter actually enhances the message in its absoluteness. In the expression of the message, location becomes a part of it, and enhances the message through its contextualization, or personalization. The priests hoist the Ark and dip their toes in the Jordan, and we discover that God is God even in the land of the river-gods. They cross over to the other side, and God is God even there. Later on when Israel was sitting in Babylon crying “Woe unto us!” a gentle reminder that “God is God, even here” becomes an exceptionally powerful message.
So if the missional message were (and it could be stated in a myriad of variants, so don’t quibble with this or any other single version) “God is God, he sees you and he cares” then the message of the missional act or action is transformed by the contextual aspect of its missionality to be “God is God even here, he sees you in this place, and he cares for you enough that I give you this cup of water in his name.” Naturally we’d just give the water and trust the Holy Spirit to impart the message unless we got around to some other kind of conversation that might begin when we’re asked, “Why are you being so nice to me?” In other words, location matters not a whit to determining what is missional action, but it matters every bit to who benefits from missional action. It matters coming out, but not going in.
If missional were thought of as a metaphorical box for the communication of a message, things like location wouldn’t matter going in, but in the transformation of passing through the box and out the other side, they would be changed and would exit being associated with — in the sense of â€œexpressingâ€? — the nature of the message itself. Perhaps this transformation is not entirely unrelated to “the observer effect,” except that in missional engagement we know well that we are participants and not observers. There is however one thing we observe as we participate in missional activity, and that is the message itself. Something transpires in us as we engage missionally as well as in and for those for whose sake we act.
I direct our attention to Philemon 1:6, which in the NIV with which so many are now familiar says “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” I’ve said I have a problem with the phrase “sharing your faith,” yet here it is. A closer examination of the word here translated as “sharing” yields a startling revelation, for the Greek word is koinonia. Didn’t expect that one, did you? The NLT yields, “I am praying that you will really put your generosity to work, for in so doing you will come to an understanding of all the good things we can do for Christ.” The Message renders it, “I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it.” I like that. Some of the literal translations are almost an affront, but let’s say that the implication here is that we are to koinonia our faith, wherein the depth of our understanding of that faith (and its message) is somehow increased as the koinonia of our faith transforms us together with all those with whom we koinonia it.
Now, this is perhaps the first volley in what I hope will become an extended discussion about the mechanics of missionality. I think I’ve put forward some good insights toward the way in which location (or context) matters to missional engagement, and added onto that the introduction of the concept of the transformative effect of missional engagement on all concerned, both in the person who engages in missional activity and in those who derive benefit from the activity. So the floor’s open for discussion: what say you all?