At the conclusion of the 2004 M. Night Shyamalan movie, The Village, we discover that the world we believed to be observing is not the world we are actually experiencing. Courtesy of an ivy wall at the edge of town, we uncover that things aren't as they seem to be.
(Spoiler alert) As the story goes, in the late 1970s, a University of Pennsylvania professor asked individuals at a grief counseling center if they would like join a "village" -- a quarantined town in the middle of a wildlife preserve that would be shielded from any air of the outside world. Once the village was fashioned, the town elders "rolled back" time to the late 19th century to what they believed was a simpler, more peaceful time. They almost succeeded.
The most interesting facet of the movie was not the typical Shyamalan twist but the subtle storyline that the answer to protect yourself from the recurrence of grief is to separate oneself from reality.
It's uncanny the similarity between this ripped-from-fiction cinematic theory and the philosophical actuality played out in the lives of Christians and sanctuaries of churches. The ideology goes something like this: cultural cross-pollination is bad and societal severance is best -- lest you catch the sin bug.
The only problem with this lack of cultural interplay is the person and work of Jesus.
In John 17:15-19, we find Jesus praying three things in His high priestly prayer:
Don't take them (his followers) out of the world.
Keep them from the evil one and sanctify them in the truth.
Send them into the world.
It is interesting to notice that Jesus' answer to engage with society was not secession but rather immersion. This posture towards culture is what some would call missional.
The word missional is the adjectival form of the word mission and captures the heart of how Christians are to do the "in the world" portion of Christian community.
Most willingly grasp the concept of Jesus being sent to the world. The idea that Jesus was the "sent one" is one of the most fundamental understandings of the person of Jesus. But just as Jesus was "sent" his prayer is that his followers would also be "sent."
Why be missional? Living as a missional church is a cognizance that God is a sending God and we, the church and its believers, are to live as sent ambassadors into culture as well. Our sending identity is affixed ontologically with the very existence of the church.
Research indicates that the vast majority of church activities and groups, even in a healthy church, are aimed at the insiders and fail to address the missional issues facing the church in any situation. If evangelizing and discipling the nations lie at the heart of the church's purpose in the world, Alan Hirsch, a missiologist, claims that it is mission -- not ministry or fellowship -- which is the true organizing principle of the church.
Sent as Missionaries
The old adage was this: If you preached to believers, you were called a "pastor." If you preached to non-Christians in your own culture, you were an "evangelist." If you needed a passport to get there, you were a "missionary."
I'm not sure where this began but it's unhelpful. As theologian Theodore Gill said, "...all Christians are missionaries or they are not Christians. The only kind of Christian there is, is missionary." And the way we live sent as missionaries is via incarnation and contextualization.
In living incarnationally, we identify with a people by entering into their cultural milieu, seeking to understand their real existence in such a way as to genuinely reflect the act of identification that God made with us in Jesus. The coming of God among us in Jesus constituted a "dwelling" among us (John 1:14) and geography itself took on a sacred meaning.
Jesus became Jesus of what? Nazareth. Geography matters! If you want to incarnate the Gospel in a particular setting, you will have to think about living in that setting to identify with us. Separation is not an option.
In living contextually, Christians engage in the dynamic process where the never-changing message of the Gospel interfaces with culture's specific, relative human situations. A simple definition of contextualization comes from Keller: "Contextualization is not giving people what they want but rather it is giving God's answers to questions they are asking and in forms that they can comprehend."
Sent as Missionaries to Be Witnesses
There are two sides to the missional coin. In other words, there are two primary ways that every Christian should become missional.
The first is by sharing a verbal witness -- more commonly known as evangelism. This is when one proclaims the good news of the gospel message with your words. Unfortunately, as Steve Timmis and Tim Chester have noted, many people want a form of evangelism they can compartmentalize in their schedule, switch off, and go home from. But Jesus calls us to a lifestyle of love that is engaged in consistent gospel proclamation.
The second way we fulfill the mission of God is through the social aspect of our witness. God is concerned about the poor, the orphans, the widows, the needy of the world. The word of the Lord tells us that we are commissioned to care for those around us who cannot take care for themselves. So we enact the gospel through acts of mercy and justice
In the abstract, evangelism is more important than acts of mercy and justice not because the soul is more important than the body -- the eternal is more important than the temporary. However, practically, if you don't care for the needs of people, why will they listen to you? The reality is that the more we do acts of mercy and justice the more effective our evangelism will be.
Scripture is clear -- Christians are not to divorce themselves from culture but rather immerse themselves in it. Churches are to be a "city on a hill" not a "compound in a field."
Ed Stetzer has said, "Crossing the barriers is more important if the world is our focus. We don't accomplish this by throwing away the truth; we achieve this by holding the gospel close and climbing the fences with it in order to share it on the other side."
My prayer is that more Christians and the churches they are a part of scale the ivy walls of their fortress mentality and risk taking the gospel of Jesus to world that is need of the hope that it brings.
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