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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

moving beyond the self

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

True to form, Pete Rollins has posted an excellent reflection 'here' on the problem of much conventional evangelism being essentially self-focussed (i.e. getting yourself into heaven or avoiding hell). The crux of his argument lies in the following quote...

Yet is it not true that within Christianity we are encouraged to transcend ourselves, to move beyond the mundane aspects of our own existence by engaging in an outward focus towards the other? Is this not what we find in the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew when asked by some Sadducees' and Pharisees' about the greatest commandment. In reply Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbour as yourself"

I agree wholeheartedly with Pete that the essence of Jesus' call is to look beyond yourself to the building of the kingdom marked by giving love. I've always been concerned when I hear so-called evangelistic talks that seem to be using fear tactics to get people to become Christians - the kind of 'tell them how bad hell is and then how to get out of it' kind of preaching!

However, I am struck by a paradox in all of this, in that we are only truly able to look beyond ourselves when secure in ourselves. This is why, for me, the personal aspect of relationship with Christ is so important. I'm reminded of a discussion that took place earlier in the year on the Dream blog 'here' in response to an article by Professor John Suk. There I wrote the following...

I find myself split on this, because on the one hand I do worry that the emphasis on personal relationship reduces (and I use that word purposely) the mission and ministry of Jesus to nothing more than pampering to a consumerist individualism (not what Jesus was about and certainly not the cultural milleau in which he lived!) Jesus' constant reference to the 'Kingdom of God' would have carried clear societal meaning to his hearers - the society of God. In other words, the mission and ministry of Christ is nothing less than a transformation of the world - the building of a new order where God's values are the rule of the day. Salvation is not just about what we're saved from but what we're saved to - participation in this new society.

However, my fundamental belief in the missio dei keeps me anchored in the 'earthed' gospel (REAL good news) of God's intimate involvement in this world. The ascension of Christ does not indicate an absence of God as Jon Suk seems to suggest. It was followed by Pentecost which signified the exact opposite - a fuller and more intimate engagement of God in the world. For that reason, I am comfortable to speak of a real and dynamic relationship with God, through Jesus, by the powerful presence of his Spirit. BUT, and it's a big but, this 'relationship' does not end with me - it's not about a fluffy feel-good factor! This relationship compels me to be engaged with God's world too - to be in relationship with those around me living out the society of God.

Incarnation was not only a one-off event (God becoming flesh for 33 years) but is a timeless truth - God is engaged and calls his Church to be the same.

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:39 AM


"However, I am struck by a paradox in all of this, in that we are only truly able to look beyond ourselves when secure in ourselves."

And the truth is, that we are only truly secure in ourselves when we are able to look beyond ourselves....

It rather blasts apart the either/or 'inward/outward', 'self/other-focussed' dichotomies to realise that our ultimate self-fulfilment is only to be found in complete self-giving. The logic is that to be fully outward-looking is also to be wholly selfish, and therefore justly open to accusation.

As a young and driven Christian I was disturbed by the extremes advocated in the New Testament - pray without ceasing, chop off your hand if it offends you, be a sheep or you'll be a goat, that kind of thing. Resolution came when I realised that Jesus chose what to say and what not to say in the light of a Love that gave him permission, authority, and power to say either (or neither). Why? Because the Love that we all participate in, in which our lives are hid, and which forms us, infuses our debates and decision-making from beyond our day-to-day life. We can consciously draw on this 'kingdom-life' - make it explicit to ourselves - as we take decisions, or we can accept it as implicit and concentrate instead, perhaps, on pursuing social justice outside ourselves. (Whereupon, infuriatingly, we'll see the Kingdom materialise before our eyes!) But we won't fail to embody it. It's truly win-win. And therefore we'll always be open to the accusation of having our cake and eating it.

The same must go for evangelising. Whether we choose to focus others on themselves or on those in need, the Kingdom will be embodied. It's fun to swing from one extreme to the other, or to plough a middle way, but in truth, for those who are Christians everything is preaching the Kingdom. It's the flipside of Paul's statement: 'the important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached' (Phil 1:18).

I've mentioned before how I've elected to 'evangelise without evangelising' - in fact, to 'do church' without 'doing church'. That's my personal extreme, one particular selfish/self-giving choice. I'd love to see a world without churches, because everywhere is church - or to use imagery from Revelations, a world without suns, because everywhere is sunny. Then I realise that, by my logic, those who choose to have churches and to evangelise traditionally are making their own particular choices, and the Kingdom is growing through them.

In fact, in the freedom of Love I am persuaded to push my position on evangelism to its limits: revealing Christ in other cultures and religions by immersing myself totally in them. And I swear I am finding Him there already. But then, in the Gospel of Harry Potter, I still believe Professor Snape is one of the good guys.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 12:58 PM  

Your blog states that god is intimately involved in the world -I assume part of this is inspired by mission of god theology?
Is it possible to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit in society/church in any way - I am very skeptical. As an ex-charismatic/evangelical refugee from the shepherding movement who has recently returned to faith after 10 years out of the church I have seem many emotional and spiritual abuse by leaders claiming to be led by the Spirit.
I am much more comfortable with the mystery of God inspired by negative theology these days

Best wishes
Rodney (from NI)

email rodneyneill@hotmail.com

commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 12:24 PM  

Thanks Steve and Rodney for your comments.

Steve, I think you're right in challenging the either/or dichotomies in the way that you do. I guess it relates to the old chestnut of humility, in that striving to be humble can, in essence, be the opposite of humility if the motives are about gaining recognition for being humble! However, this doesn't, of course, negate humililty as a 'virtue' or 'good thing'.

I guess one thing that your post does raise for me though is whether there is any distinction between the Kingdom and the Church? I think I'm happy to see that Kingdom=Church if we're talking about a fuller (not yet fully realised) 'Church', but I would certainly want to see kingdom as a whole lot more encompassing than simply the visible 'structural' church.

I guess this relates to Rodney's comment too. Thanks for posting Rodney; I share that sense of anxiety over 'the Spirit says...' type of theology that gives one person undue power over another, that can lead to the type of abuse that you have sadly witnessed. Despite this, however, I am also totally sold on the belief that God is at large, active in the world, motivated by his love. I think we can begin to recognise this when we see kingdom values take precedence over other values. So, for example, last year's 'Make Poverty History' compaign I would argue was a work of God's Spirit. This needs qualifying, however, because what I'm not saying in this is that it was only the church doing this, or that it was really Christianity's triumph or anything like that. It's not a hijacking of something to argue for the superiority of one belief system over another. It's a simple statement suggesting that in seeing people work towards a vision of justice we are seeing something of God's mark on humanity and activity within it, because it is an embodiment of God's own kingdom values.

I don't know if this makes sense or not! Please do come back on me if you want to!!

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 1:09 PM  

Been on holiday! Norfolk. Big sky.

"I think I'm happy to see that Kingdom=Church if we're talking about a fuller (not yet fully realised) 'Church', but I would certainly want to see kingdom as a whole lot more encompassing than simply the visible 'structural' church."

The Big Church/little church question is like the Love/love question. Where does the one start and the other stop? Or are they fluid?

How's about this for a thought? The power of God is precisely seen in His ability to pour the love of the future fully-realised Church/Kingdom into the present. We are exploring the future Church/Kingdom through our imagination and realising it through our actions. How far can that imagination take us? Can we imagine a world fully-realised in love? Then we can live it.

But I wonder, really, what in that world we would ask to be different from the process of 'becoming' which we are currently engaged in. Would Israel - the struggler - really want to stop struggling? Or simply to struggle in the power of love? There's a good argument for seeing the fully-realised Church/Kingdom as being identical to the struggling Church/Kingdom of the present. After all Jesus did say that the poor would always be with us.

Just a thought. I wonder where it takes us? What might our future struggles be? Should we be anticipating them in our pursuit of new forms of Church/Kingdom? Will the hoped-for success of Make (economic) Poverty History result in our future (church) History being the poorer? How can we begin the struggle against such cultural/historical/narrative impoverishment? Are we in fact called to put new struggles into the world? (Probably.)

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 2:55 PM  

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