Mission-Shaped Church 2: Book Review

This is part two of my engagement with Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions in a Changing Context.  This post offers a critical assessment of the incarnational principle found in Mission-Shaped Church. Find my summary of the book here.

With the previous post's summary in view, this post will consider one of the most central missiological challenges with which the report grapples: contextualization.  Bishop Graham Cray, chair of the committee that authored the report, captures the challenge of contextualization when he says in the introduction: “The gospel has to be heard within the culture of the day, but it always has to be heard as a call to appropriate repentance.”[1]  Thus, mission modeled after the incarnation is not simply a matter of accommodating the forms of the church to those resonant with contemporary life, but also to ensure proper dissonance between the church and wider society.  Citing Newbigin, the report acknowledges “In the attempt to be “relevant” one may fall into syncretism, and in the effort to avoid syncretism one may become irrelevant.”[2]   Mission-Shaped Church seeks to walk this fine line, but settles for too-easy distinctions and a resolution that is perilously close to cultural accommodation.

This issue is most evident in relation to two features of contemporary life that the report highlights: consumerism and network community.  In each case, the report distinguishes neatly between the fact of these realities, and the insidious ideologies that are paired with them.  The two extended passages below are illustrative of the report’s approach to contextualization:   

"There are two distinct social processes at work here.  Community is increasingly being re-formed around networks, and people are less inclined to make lasting commitments.  While the two are not unrelated, the first is a change in the structure of community, with which the Church must engage.  The second is a corrosive force that the Church must resist, because it undermines all community."[3] 
"It is important to distinguish between ‘consumer society’ (a term that describes the current shape of Western capitalist societies) and the ideology of consumerism (which can be seen as the dominant idolatry of those societies.)  In one sense there is no alternative to a consumer society.  That is where were are, that is where we must be church and embody the gospel.  To fulfil our Lord’s prayer for the Church (John 17.15-18) we are called to be the church ‘in’ consumer society, but we dare not let ourselves be ‘of’ consumerism."[4]

Both passages embody the same resolution to the challenge of contextualization: accept and operate within the fact of consumer/network society but reject the ideologies that undermine community and inscribe persons as consumers.  What is not clarified is how these ideologies are rejected in practice.  Instead, its prescriptions are dominated by an impulse to appeal to consumer choice and relational homogeneity.

The one place where the rejection of consumerist ideology does manifest more concretely is in the determination that the missionary team ought to be willing to deny their own consumer preferences for the sake of mission.  As Bishop Cray told an audience at Fuller Theological Seminary, starting a church that suits your preferences is not planting a missional church.  Indeed, for Cray and the authors of Mission-Shaped Church, mission must follow the incarnational principle of Christ, which calls for a willingness to “die to live” manifest as a “commitment to lay aside one’s own preferences, give priority to a different culture” so that authentic Christian life might take shape there.[5]   

According to the report, this self-emptying is “the opposite of self-centred consumerism.”[6]   True as this is, it is clear that the abandonment of consumerism is here expected of the missionary but conspicuously not incumbent on the missionized as a dimension of their response to the gospel.  Quite to the contrary.  The missionary disregards her preferences so that the missionized might have theirs fulfilled.  The report suggests that one aim of planting is to “increase choice for people who are not drawn to any existing churches.”[7]  Rather than offering a gospel which frees one from captivity to ones own preferences, this approach reserves such discipline/freedom for a later stage in which the Christian engages in mission.

A similar logic of postponing the most challenging demands of the gospel undergirds the report’s approach to contextualization in a network society.  While acknowledging the decades-old controversy surrounding Donald MacGavaran’s homogeneous unit principle, the report defends it on the basis of the diversity of creation, the incarnation of Christ into a single culture and the sociological witness that “when two cultures are together in a social context, a healthy heterogeneous mixture does not result—one tends to dominate the other.”[8]   Is this not precisely the normal social reality that the gospel purports to make it possible to transcend?  Seemingly aware of the inadequacy of ecclesial homogeneity, the report suggests the answer may be to “accept initial cultural similarity while seeking gradual cultural diversity expressed in interdependence between groups unlike one another.”[9]  Once again, the gospel-required rejection of fellowship with only those like me is postponed rather than regarded as intrinsic to the call to discipleship.

By accommodating to the consumeristic and tribalistic tendencies of modern society, Mission-Shaped Church has compromised the evangelistic work by proposing a bait-and-switch approach.   It advises church planters to invite non-believers to make a consumer choice for church with people like them, and only later teach them that Christ calls them to abandon their consumer ideology and enter Christian relationship with those unlike themselves.  They should not be surprised when congregants object and refuse to make the transitions fueled by a sense that “that’s not what I signed up for.” 

One of the sources of these problems is the too-easy distinction imagined between the facts of society—as consumerist and network—and the ideologies that drive them.  The report suggests accepting the former and rejecting the later, but it is far from that simple.  The ideologies inhere in the practice of accepting said facts of society.  Appealing to people as consumers in hopes of (later) discipling them out of a consumeristic ideology is akin to using violence as a means to recruit peace-makers.  As Bryan Stone has demonstrated, the means of Christian witness must be consistent with its ends.  Selling church to untapped market segments can only reinscribe consumer identity under a veil of Christianity.

Perhaps the most concrete recommendation of Mission-Shaped Church is that church planting take a network-approach that demotes concern for geography in preference for attention to relational “flows.”  While this change in Western patterns of community cannot be ignored, neither should it be exaggerated.  A recent study of the geography of Twitter relations has chastened those who imagine that relational networks have now been untethered from geographical considerations. Though “Twitter offers a promise of transcending distance” the study finds that “distance considerably constrains ties. Two fifths of ties (39 percent) connect users within the same regional cluster, typically the size of a metropolitan area.”[11]   Thus, geography still matters, even if the scale has enlarged from the neighborhood to the metropolis.

Furthermore, it is worth asking whether this technology-enabled development is innocuous or whether, as Dr. Mark Lau Branson has provocatively asserted, “Commuting is not gospel-neutral.”[12]   Indeed, with the emergence of New Urbanism, which strives to (re)make human-scaled neighborhoods that are “walkable” with diverse housing and retail options, theologians and practitioners ought to consider whether a theological anthropology that acknowledges the scales of creatureliness of humankind, does not include an inherent critique of network-based society that neglects to recognize the natural conditions of embodied human existence.[13] 

The above critiques, while rather strong, do not negate the valuable contributions which Mission-Shaped Church has made to contemporary efforts to undertake a missiological analysis and approach to Western culture.  While the proposals may be, at times, naïve and in danger of syncretism, two of the theological reflections offered are promising foundations for the development of future proposals.

First, as noted above, the report calls for the incarnation to been seen in double perspective, as both the affirmation of culture and its intelligible critique.  Indeed, this critique of culture must be not only spoken—and targeted at immaterial ideologies—but it must be embodied in the form of the alternative community that is the church.  The church itself, brought into existence by a call greater than consumer preference and consisting of a supra-network of relations, is a living critique of the “facts” of mainstream society.  While the report’s proposals lack a clear call for embodied critique of the ideologies embodied in society, the formulation Bishop Cray proposes—the gospel as a hear-able call…to repentance—is exactly right.

Second, and in conclusion, Mission-Shaped Church echoes the wisdom found in Lesslie Newbigin’s Open Secret when it proposes that forming a church that embodies the gospel in an appropriate way occurs through the dialog of: “the historical gospel, uniquely revealed in Holy Scripture and embodied in the Catholic creeds; the Church, which is engaging in mission, with its own particular culture and history; the culture within which the gospel is being shared.”[14]  Such a three-way conversation has the potential to break the duality between the culture of the missionary and the missionized.  This fissure is needed to avoid contextualization proposals as old as Vincent Donovan which call for wholesale renunciation of the missionary’s culture and wholesale embodiment of the gospel in the receiving culture, without recognition of the biblical gospel’s own historical and cultured perspective(s). 

[1] ibid, xii. [2] ibid, 91.  Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, Eerdmanns, 1997, p. 7.  [3] ibid, 7.  [4] ibid, 10.  [5] ibid , 92.  [6] ibid , 92. [7] ibid, 109.  [8] ibid. [10] ibid, 109. [11] Yuri Takhteyev, Anatoliy Gruzd, Barry Wellman, “Geography of Twitter Networks,” Social Networks 34 (2012), p. 81.  [12] To a class at Fuller Theological Seminary, 2005-2006.  [13] The Charter of the New Urbanism says, “We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice. For an example of theological engagement with New Urbanism, see Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith by Eric Jacobsen (Brazos, 2003).  [14] Mission-shaped Church, 91.  A footnote on this quote cites Sally Gaze’s unpublished M.Phil thesis St Paul and Inculturation, University of Birmingham, 1998, 4-13.  

For more on church planting, see these posts. 

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