Q & R: Who influences whom?

Here’s the Q:

My name is X, and I’m the new minister of spiritual formation at Y Baptist Church in Z. I had the opportunity to hear you preach last Sunday night at BB and have also read some of your books. As a young pastor and writer, I have an interesting background– grew up Catholic, a M.S. in marine and environmental science from CC, licensed in the Church of the Nazarene, attending Wesley
Theological Seminary, and having helped launch a new church … that had over 200 people show up for Easter– before I moved here a month ago for my new position and seminary. I might be only 2 years in ministry, but have experienced a lot. I am passionate about preaching the gospel in a real life, relevant, out-of-the-box way, and communicating to the people of today.
Anyway, I have a question for you about the whole model you showed, using the world-church-you series of circles as a model. I realize that many pastors and churches, especially in conservative circles (literally) reject what you are saying because what they fear is the arrows going the opposite way- meaning, that the world will infiltrate into the church, which will infiltrate into ‘you,’ corrupting the true gospel. I know many (and have been friends with) who are afraid of ‘the world.’ My question is: what do we do? I’ve had friends hide behind the theory of following ‘false teachers’ and shrink further into their walled circles. What do we do?
Thanks for being an influence on me and for sharing a new way to look at
things. I hope God will someday use me to plant a church where people are
unafraid of the real world. God bless!

Reply after the jump

Thanks for your question. You’re right – you have an interesting background and you’ve experienced a lot in a short time!
Let me try to restate the important question you’re raising. My understanding of the missional church means that the church is, in essence, sent into the world as an agent of God’s mission – participating in “tikkun olam” – God’s redemptive work of healing the world of human sin. If it’s not in the world on God’s redemptive mission, it’s not being the church as God intends it. But that raises the question – how can we be in the world but not of it? How can we avoid being influenced by the world? Isn’t it safer (some of your friends – and my critics! – would say) to retreat into walled communities of religious conservatism – that way we will be removed from worldly influences that might tempt us to corrupt our gospel?
I think this question sets up an analogous question: Is the church a community of doctors, sent into the world to continue Jesus’ work, or is it a colony of people desperately afraid of getting sick? Yes, it’s dangerous to be a doctor. Your very calling requires you to sit down next to people who are sick with highly infectious and even fatal diseases. If you’re not careful, you can get sick and die.
But it’s no less dangerous to become an elite enclave of people who think themselves healthy. In fact, it’s impossible to be such an enclave if you want to follow the Jesus of the gospels. He came as a physician, he said. Not to be served, but to serve – and give his life. And then he sent us into the world “as the Father sent him.” To create such a disease-phobic enclave would be to join the scribes’ and Pharisees’ club, not Jesus’ band of disciples. (I’m thinking of Jesus in John 9, when he says to them that their real guilt is that they claim to see.)
The sad misconception of many people is that they already have the true gospel because they have remained faithful to what they were taught in their walled-in religious enclave. In that enclave, they may have been taught the anti-Catholic Northern European gospel of the 16th century, or the anti-Protestant Southern European gospel of the 17th century. In Europe, they may have been taught the Spanish imperial gospel of the 16th century, or the British imperial gospel of the 19th century, or in the USA, they may have been taught the pro-slavery gospel or the Manifest Destiny kill-the-Indians gospel of the same century.
In my lifetime, they may have been taught the anti-Communist McCarthy-era gospel of the 1950’s, or in Latin America, they may have been taught the Marxist-flavored anti-imperialist gospel of the 1970’s. In South Africa, they may have been taught the Apartheid gospel of the 1980’s. Or in the 90’s, they may have been taught the Religious Right neoconservative gospel or the televangelists name-it/claim-it Prosperity Gospel. And through the 00’s down to today, they may have been taught one of the fashionable gospels of the current moment – such as the anti-social-justice gospel, or one of the anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim gospels that are growing in popularity, or whatever.
They may have been taught one of these versions of the gospel as the pure gospel, and they may faithfully defend it because it’s what they were taught in their little religious enclave … What folks in these enclaves need is to get outside their walls so they can have their “pure gospel” adulterated with Jesus’ unsettling but liberating gospel of the kingdom of God.
That little excursion tells me that walled-off religious enclaves are one of the most dangerous places on earth to be!
At the end of the day, life is dangerous wherever you are, and all safety is relative and ambiguous. The best life, the one I’d recommend for you, is a dangerous life, lived on the knife edge of God’s mission where you are risking all in seeking God’s kingdom and God’s justice. It’s in the forward momentum of that mission, I believe, where you are most vulnerable in some ways and paradoxically, the most safe in other ways.
Thinking that you see, that you’re pure, that you are at the top of the mountain and every change is moving downward on the slippery slope – that’s one of the greatest deceptions and corruptions of all, all the more horrible because you are so oblivious to it. That’s a danger all of us should take care to avoid.
By the way, you mentioned being from Church of the Nazarene. Your founder, Phineas Bresee, really got this danger. He saw the “holiness movement” of the 1800’s slipping into an enclave mentality of legalism and elitism, and he wanted to get the holiness movement moving again – outward, downward, incarnationally and missionally, to be among the poor, the outcasts, the despised (which is why he chose the name “Nazarene,” since it evoked the outcasts and marginalized). What a great heritage!
My guess is that you already knew all this, but perhaps it’s helpful in some way for me to say it anyway.