This afternoon I watched the online video of a roundtable with Brian McLaren, John Franke, Scot McKnight, Darrell Guder, and Tim Keel hosted by Lance Ford. (Recorded October or November 2008, currently on the front page at Shapevine.com; sorry no direct archive link.) This group represents quite an exceptional emerging/missional brain trust, and the conversation is a good one from which one can pick bits to ponder almost at will. Here’s a bit of conversation that stuck out for me:
I’m a little worried that we go too quickly to trying to fix the systems when I don’t think we’ve gotten anywhere close to fixing the theology that creates the system. ….[Darrell,] you said this sort of individual eternal destiny preoccupation with the gospel goes way back. How far back do you think it goes?
— Brian McLaren
Well, Jaroslav Pelican, who’s done this massive work on the history of Christian doctrine, points out that by the time of Augustine, by the fourth century, we no longer find any evangelistic preaching that relates to the theme of the Kingdom of God. They just separated. The message of Jesus which was centered on the Kingdom of God has been gradually translated into heirarchical structures and medieval Catholicism and so on. So I think you can make the case that from the end of the classic period moving into early medieval Western theology and ecclesial practice, the focus is more and more upon “saved-ness” as a status rather than as a promise, as a pilgrimage, and upon the church’s primary function to administer the “saved-ness.” I think you can even interpret the medieval seven sacrament structure as a system to “manage” salvation, and so that’s why I think that it wasn’t the contemporary consumerist church that invented the idea that the church is here to meet the needs of its members, it’s been doing that for a very long time.
Avery Dulles, the Catholic theologian, talks about the great models of the church, and the three models that are the more traditional Catholic models all focus on the members and the benefits members get from membership. That is not missional. But that is probably the most pervasive mindset and that moves into every expression of the church, from the storefront to the cathedral.
— Darrell Guder
This is an important realization concerning consumeristic church. Typically we lay the blame for this attitude squarely on modern evangelicalism and the megachurch, but as Guder points out, it goes back for several centuries. As such, this idea has become so ingrained in Christian faith and theology that it affects everything — and staunchly opposes (somewhat by instinct!) the radical shift necessary in our thinking to be truly missional in our theology and practice. This may be one of the reasons why the term itself gets stretched into so many different molds. As McLaren aptly implies, trying to fix the structures without grappling with the theology behind them is a grave error, and I expect it will only lead us back around this same bush in a few more centuries. Or sooner, but it’s still an unnecessary cycle.
Praxis is vital, but for those who get frustrated with us theologians and “talkers,” there is method to our madness that has nothing to do with laziness or inactivity… it’s simply wanting to get the structural foundation — the theology — right so that our practice can be built upon. It is imperative that we be concerned both with the future of the individuals around us and with the future of the the Christian faith generally. And clearly, there is some deconstruction that’s still necessary.