From an evenmtential to a stylistic paradigm of mission

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What if we could shift our vision of what mission is; to zoom out from a focused idea of mission as events, or doing certain things, in certain times, and in certain places; to mission being the overarching context of our entire lives and our way of living.

Craig van Gelder argued that a vision of the Church as a social organisation that must accomplish something is a uniquely American invention, an unheard of change in the history of Christian ecclesiology (British missiologist Andrew Walls makes a similar argument in his article American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions; I’m sure I’ll post a summary at some point). Van Gelder argues that we should reestablish a conception of the Church’s vocation as incarnating what God is doing in the world, rather than accomplishing something, either for people or for God.

I find the French term évenémentiel particularly well suited to describing what has become a dominant way of thinking about missions – a paradigm that is becoming less and less helpful to the Church. L’évenementiel has the a revealing double meaning: on the one hand, as an adjective it signifies “relates to events”, in a very broad sense. But it has also been taken up as the name for the professional domain of event planning – those who work in l’événementiel do the logistical job of planning and executing events, concerts, conferences, festivals and so on. Like every professional domain, l’événementiel commes with a built-in set of values: excellence of execution, polish, marketability, growth, profitibility. These things describe the consumer entertainment industry very well, but don’t really look much like Jesus’ way of living out his mission. Instead of fighting the losing – and exhausting – battle of competing with Disney, Netflix and Youtube on their own terms, maybe we can start thinking differently about missions. Maybe we can set aside both the lotistical perfection of event planning, and the relegation of mission to special moments or activities.

Last week I joined the orientation time for a missions trip entitled PRAXIS, which describes itself like this: “PRAXIS is an opportunity to practise being a whole person who lives an integrated life.” What if we could adopt this as a definiton of mission?

What if our vocation could simply be, “being a whole person who lives an integrated life”? Of course there are whole, integrated lifestyles that can’t be mission, because they’re incompatible with Jesus’ life and teaching, but can the reverse be true? This is the heart of the idea of lifestyle mission, a paradigm which resonates in a special way with our social and cultural context. Sociologist François Gauthier calls this tendancy lifestylization; Charles Taylor speaks in terms of an Ethiscs of Authenticity. Either way, it’s a transformation that manifests in every sphere of social life, including religion.

At PRAXIS, I spoke on the topic for 45 minutes and barely scratched the surfice, so in a short blog post I can’t do much more than introduce the idea.

My missions organisation likes to think of our participation in mission as three concentric circles: mission, witness, and evangelism.

This third point is where we most clearly see the idea of mission as lifestyle. All we are and all we do is a part of mission, of notre vocation – and not only, not even mainly, on an individual level. As Lesslie Newbign writes in Sign of the Kingdom,

“I believe the Kingdom of God suggests that Christian Mission should take the form of community, an environment in which God’s rule is recognised, whereby the values of justice, peace and love operate. Without the hermeneutic of such a living community, the message of the Kingdom can only become – once again – an ideology and a programme; it will not be a gospel.”

Newbigin is clear that a lifestyle of mission must be communal. But it is just as important to realise what he says mission is not. The Kingdom of God is neither an ideology – a system of thought or of behaviours that we need to impose on others or on society – nor a programme – a set of activities that will accomplish a given goal. The Kingdom of God is a gift which God gives us, and it is God who is responsible for accomplishing it. (As a side note, please stop saying that as the church or as missionaries, we build the Kingdom of God. We don’t. We seek it, and we receive it from the Father, who gives it to us [Lk 12:31-32].)

But what about evangelism? Is it possible that evangelism is not an event either? If the term evokes prepared conversations, lectures, tent revivals, public debates or church services with polished preaching and music, suggesting that evangelism can be something else than an event goes against the whole of our Christian experience. In its worst deformations, an events-based vision of evangelism can become a sort of salvation by works – the works of the evangelist, in this case. A vision of mission and evangelism as lifestyle is a helpful corrective for this mistake.

Here again we meet the perfect concordance of word and deed, like Jesus who “says what he thinks and does what he says” (Cited here). Let’s tear down the wall between spiritual conversations and other conversations; between evangelism events and every other moment of our lives. The only difference between the two is our hesitation in broaching certan subjects. This will take two adjustments: First, realising that evangelism does not always mean a complete exposition of the plan of salvation. Jesus, for example, often did nothing more than ask questions or tell a confusing story. The second is living a radically Christ-like lifestyle.

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