It is a common tendency to look back at the good old days with nostalgia, thinking “those people really had it right.” I actually think this is better than looking back with condescending criticalness of people or eras that we don’t fully understand. But there is also value, if handled gracefully, to look back at the good old days and see where people may have gone off course. We don’t do this to blame or put ourselves above them, on the contrary, we need to be honest with the past mainly because we are more like them today than we are different from them. We look back with a wondering eye not out of pride, saying “look how much smarter we are,” but instead we look back saying, “I know that I/we are more like people of antiquity than we are different from them, so maybe I can learn something from where they missed the mark or veered off course.”
"Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged." – Abraham Lincoln
A mission historian who I have greatly appreciated is David Bosch. His book, Transforming Mission (1991) does not waste words and speaks frankly about what we can learn about missions from the early church and how we can apply those lessons to ministry today. In this post I’ll submit two principles that Bosch asserts we can learn from the early church. Each of these failures continue to be potential rabbit trails in missions today. Not that we look back and say, “how silly of them,” but instead we need to regularly look back with an honest humility and say, “how might we avoid those pitfalls today?” I also offer a few reflection questions to help us listen to how God might shape us like clay into a noble vessel that engages the world with the love of Christ.
The Church Exists for the Benefit of It's Non-Members
I have suggested that Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion. Those who followed him were given no name to distinguish them from other groups, no creed of their own, no rite which revealed their distinctive group character, no geographical center from which they would operate (Schweizer 1971:42; Goppelt 1981: 208). The twelve were to be the vanguard of all Israel and, beyond Israel, by implication, of the [known world]. The community around Jesus was to function as a kind of… community for the sake of all others, a model for others to emulate and be challenged by. Never, however, was this community to sever itself from the others. -p. 50
Centuries ago, William Temple also reflected on the same principle: “Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” A helpful exercise in missions or evangelism is to remember how much we are like non-believers than how different we are from them. When we remember our testimony and see how much grace God has shown us, we drop facades and walls that separate us from people and begin to function as a “community for the sake of all others” rather than severing ourselves from community:
- What things really bother you or make you mad about the culture you are surrounded by?
- How might those emotions reveal subtle ways that you have distinguished yourself from other groups rather than relate with them?
- In what ways are you more like those you don’t like than you are different from them? How might God help you love and engage in relationships with people you struggle with rather than push away from them?
Churches That Value Movement Mobilize Missions. Churches That Settle for Sustainability Often Don't
Intimately linked to this first failure of the early church is a second: it ceased to be a movement and turned into an institution. There are essential differences between an institution and a movement, says H.R. Niebuhr: the one is conservative, the other progressive; the one is more or less passive, yielding to influences from outside, the other is active, influencing rather than being influenced; the one looks to the past, the other one looks to the future. In addition, we might add, that one is anxious, the other is prepared to take risks; the one guards boundaries, the other crosses them. p. 50-51
We cannot have it both ways, then: purely and exclusively a religious movement, yet at the same time something that will survive the centuries and continue to exercise a dynamic influence. Our main point of censure should therefore not be that the movement became an institution but that, when this happened, it also lost much of its verve. It’s white-hot convictions, poured into the hearts of the first adherents, cooled down and became crystallized codes, solidified institutions, and petrified documents. The prophet became a priest of the establishment, charisma became office, and love became routine. The horizon was no longer the world but the boundaries of the local parish. The impetuous missionary torrent of earlier years was tamed into a still flowing rivulet and eventually into a stationary pond. It is this development that we have to deplore. Institution and movement may never be mutually exclusive categories; neither may church and mission. p. 53