Today I finished reading a essay titled “Evangelical Conversion toward a Missional Ecclesiology” by George Hunsberger. The essay is chapter four of Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? edited by John Stackhouse. Dr. Hunsberger is Professor of Congregational Mission at Western Theological Seminary. He is also coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network in North America.
I had the privilege of sitting between Dr. Hunsberger and Dr. Lois Barrett (also a contributor to GOCN) during dinner one evening last year when the GOCN annual conference was in town. I have since grown to appreciate Hunsberger’s insight and try to keep up on his numerous writings.
Here is a extended portion of the essay where Hunsberger presents a helpful summary of the continual stranglehold Christendom has on the church in North America. He then goes on to ask if evangelicalism’s emphasis on “missions” has made it more difficult for the church to grasp the “missional” purpose of why it exists. I urge you to carve out a few minutes to read his thoughts and tell me what you think.
The Reformers lived in what was still a Christendom world, and they continued to think and respond to issues of the nature and form of the church with assumptions inherent in that world. It should be no surprise that they did so. But it should surprise us that Christendom ways of thinking of the church still persist in our own time. Evangelicalism, no less than any other of the streams flowing from the Reformation, bears the stamp of the reduction of the church of the church to a place where certain things happen.
What was most lost to the church in the period of Christendom was its sense of missional identity. This pervasive eclipse of mission continued to be evident in the Reformational confessions. Wilbert Shenk summarizes (Write the Vision, p. 38):
Ecclesiologically the church is turned inward. The thrust of these statements, which were the very basis for catechizing and guiding the faithful, rather than equipping and mobilizing the church to engage the world, was to guard and preserve. This is altogether logical, of course, if the whole of society is by definition already under the lordship of Christ.
The gradual emergence of Protestant missionary ventures to newly discovered parts of the world (after a couple of centuries!) does not really contradict this assessment. What is new is that missions are organized apart from the magistrate’s initiative and sponsorship. From the time of the Reformation until the eighteenth century, this official direction and support were understood to be chiefly responsible for the evangelization of new regions.
But while the emergence of missionary societies and denominational missionary sending agencies added foreign missions to the tasks of the church, recovery in the church’s image itself as essentially missionary was not immediately forthcoming. Missions were sent out by and from the church to newly contacted areas of the world, but in a Christendom-shaped West it was not generally a part of the church’s thinking to see itself as a distinct community that itself was sent by God into its own social arena.
Too fused were the sinews of church and society for such a thing to be seen. To be sure, there were precedents and anticipations in a number of movements that formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that lent tangible form to the awakening of a new consciousness. But it was well into the twentieth century before the need for a recovery of missional identity came more generally to be grasped.
A rapidly decolonizing world helped to spur on a shift from an ecclesiocentric mission outlook, under which the church advanced itself toward other parts of the world, to a theocentric vision of the missio Dei, within which the church is understood to be the called and sent people of God, whether in the West or elsewhere.
The missional identity this implicates has the following results: The church knows that its reason for being is that it has been sent; the church makes it a missional priority to be a distinctly Christian community in contrast to the perceptions and practices of its surrounding society; the church is continuously shaped by the gospel to be a demonstration of its claims, promises, and invitations; and the church relates itself to its surrounding world, near and far, as a community of the coming reign of God.
The full impact of this shift is still waiting to settle into the consciousness and self-understanding of churches in North America. We have instead continued to follow the script bequeathed us by our Christendom heritage, with an overlay of the Enlightenment’s way of viewing persons and societies in terms of autonomous reason, social contract, and linear progress.
Increasingly, formal organizational structures are what we use the term church to designate. The structures have thus become a functional substitute for the social organism the New Testament calls “church.” In the end, in America the church has come to be understood as a “vendor of religious services and goods” in what Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have dubbed our “religious economy.” We live then in a world of religious consumers and religious firms in the business of serving them.