Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch “The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century”

Christ, the Eucharistic and Incarnational Gift

Sue Garret forwarded me an interesting article by Luke Timothy Johnson about the Intrinsic (mystical, personal, free) and Extrinsic (ritualized, communal, legislated) expressions of religious experience (http://diversejourneys.com/?p=981 “Ðry Bones:  Why Religion Can’t Live Without Mysticism” from Commonweal Magazine). Johnson posits that all of the world religions have followed an impulse to separate the intrinsic and extrinsic, privileging the extrinsic.  Intrinsic experiences have been left to “specialists” – recognized and often persecuted mystics who live outside the regular life of the community.  He observes that Liberation Theology has been particularly prone to privileging the extrinsic over the intrinsic.  But, Johnson believes that religious communities that can hold intrinsic and extrinsic experiences together will reap the benefits of both, while offering protection from some of the pitfalls of each.  A community that includes mystics even as it tends to its external affairs will benefit from the spiritual depth that the mystics bring, providing clarity of vision and spiritual power for the social liberation that is at hand.  Mystics, when included in the broader community, are also protected from isolation and the danger of becoming irrelevant.  Their experience counts for something, and it finds its purpose in the work of the community.      

So, to place “Mystical Union with Christ through the Eucharistic meal” as the foundation and motivation for solidarity is a welcome integration of social justice and our spiritual foundations.  I think that Copeland’s impulse is to connect the intrinsic and extrinsic, strengthening the work of the church by drawing on the strengths of each.

Hirsch, interestingly, comes out at the same place.  What Copeland calls “Eucharistic,” Hirsch calls “Incarnational.”  Both reflect on the need for Christ to be enfleshed in the work of the Church.  More on that next time.

Incarnational Theology and the Holy Trinity

Both Copeland and Frost/Hirsch locate the motivating force of the Church in the “enfleshment” of Christ.  For Copeland, we first participate in this enfleshment through the Eucharist, then move Eucharistically into the world, carrying within us the image and power of the crucified Christ.  Through union with the crucified Christ, we are able to live in solidarity with the oppressed and have words of both rebuke and compassion for the oppressors.  Freedom comes as we live out our mystical union with Christ.

Frost and Hirsch also make an argument for the over-arching importance of the incarnation of Christ.  “This ‘enfleshing’ of God is so radical and total that it is the bedrock upon which rests all subsequent acts of God in the world. . . It is from inside the human condition and experience that God fulfills his own requirements for the salvation of the human race. (35)”  As God sent Christ to be enfleshed in the world for the sake of the world, God sends the Church into the world, interacting as disciples (people whose lives are being transformed to more clearly enflesh Christ), for the sake of the world.  This sending is the same impulse that propels Barth as a witness into the world.  However, for Frost and Hirsch, the responsibility of the Christian is more holisitic than just witnessing and proclaiming.  For Frost and Hirsch, Christians are to embody the Gospel, to “exhibit the features of Christ’s radical lifestyle (love, generosity, healing, hospitality, forgiveness, mercy, peace, and more). (49)”  Rather than attracting non-Christians into the Church, the Church is to go into diaspora – to permeate the culture, functioning as leaven, salt, and light.  The diaspora church is to enter into solidarity with the broken and the downtrodden, building long-term relationships in particular communities, honoring the practice of the local culture, working within the system for justice and health, and living as leaven, salt, and light by exhibiting the Jesus’ radical lifestyle. “The emerging missional church combines the concern for community development normally characterized by the liberal churches and the desire for personal and community transformation normally characterized by the evangelical movement. (27)”

Frost and Hirsch hold a high Christology – “All true perspectives of God must pass through the very particular lens of the man called Jesus of Nazareth.  To say this more technically, all theology must now be understood through Christology. (37)”  In their thought-world, “it is Christ who determines our purpose and mission in the world (discipleship), and then it is our mission that must drive our search for modes of being in the world. (16)”  In other words, Christology determines missiology which determines ecclesiology. 

With such a high Christology, the other persons of the Trinity are downplayed.  I’m interested to see if they do anything with the gifting of the Holy Spirit, allowing intrinsic religious experience to provide creative vision and spiritual depth for the extrinsic work of living in the world.   Although Frost and Hirsch haven’t said anything in particular about the creative work of God the Father, the emphasis on transforming communities and individuals implies a fundamental brokenness of the quotidian.  In the lecture you presented in Scotland last fall, you very nicely gave the shape of a fuller-orbed trinitarianism that celebrates the goodness of the quotidian on its own merits, without the intervention of the incarnate Christ.    

Christ and the Lost?

“Another question to ask Hirsch/Frost is whether Christians going out into the diaspora ever FIND Christ among the people with whom they are in ministry, or do Christians exclusively bring/incarnate Christ in the world. If it’s the latter, than it really isn’t structurally different than a proclamation/witness oriented ecclesiology. Christians have Christ, and their task is to share Him with others.”

I’m glad that you keep posing this question.  I keep sliding over it.  I would think that Frost and Hirsch do not expect to find Christ out among “lost tribes,” as they call them.  It’s hard to maintain urgency in sharing/proclaiming/incarnating the Good News if you think Christ is already there.  I have some Biblical reflections:

1)       The second person of the trinity (Was he/she/it Jesus or the Christ yet?) was present in creation as the creating Word that went out from God.  (Genesis 1, also John 1:  “In the beginning was the Word. . .”).  The Word didn’t leave creation between the beginning of the world and the incarnation of Jesus.  Rather, “the Word was in the world, but no one knew him, though God had made the world with his Word (John 1:10, CEV).  The issue seems not to be Christ’s absence, but our failure to apprehend him.

2)      Luke’s Gospel points us to understanding Jesus both as Lady Wisdom (present to Israel through wisdom literature and the wisdom incarnated in our lives) and as the fulfillment of the prophets.  Again, the issue isn’t Christ’s absence, but “seeking the Lord where he may be found.”  In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom reminds us that we don’t see or experience that which we haven’t devoted ourselves to seeking. 

3)      In Luke chapter 10, Jesus sends the 72 out to “bring in the harvest.”  Their task is to bless receptive homes with peace and proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom (it will soon be here – implying that it is not yet fully here).  They are also to warn those who are not receptive.  When they came back, they reported that they also had power over demons, presumably to heal.  In Matthew Chapter 11, Jesus gives more specific directions to the 12, including instruction to only go to the Jews.  The Spirit from the Father will go with them to tell them what to say.  In another passage, Jesus promises to go out ahead of the disciples.  The disciples will not go anywhere that Christ hasn’t already been (although Christ has not become known or accepted everywhere).  

4)      Paul approached the Athenians with great gentleness. “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious.  As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, ‘To an Unknown God.’  You worship this God, but you don’t really know him.  So I want to tell you about him. (Acts 17:22-24)”  Paul assumed that God has been with the Athenians, but that the Athenians haven’t been taught about this God yet.  Paul doesn’t teach about Christ, but about the Father.  Am I heading to Gnosticism here? 

5)      What does it mean to find Christ already in a place?  How does it change our approach to people?  Peter, in 1 Peter 3:15, admonishes us to “Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.”

6)      This all brings me back to the Barth’s idea that Christians should watch and point out what Christ is doing.  “I notice that Jesus is here with you in this particular way.”  “Oh, and since you asked, here’s what he has done for me.”

7)      If we say that Christ is already out there, are we saying that everyone is already united with Christ?  I haven’t studied the idea of the anonymous Christian since college, but remember liking it tremendously, and being disappointed when objections about honoring people by allowing them to define their own faith or spirituality (or lack thereof) were raised.     

8)      I seem to have more problems than solutions:  Do Christians “take Christ” to “the lost,” ignoring Christ’s’s prior presence, do we “make known an unknown God,” perhaps leading us into a Gnostic stance, do we designate others “anonymous Christians,” disregarding their right to define themselves, or do we just try to live in a way that might exude attractive beauty, being ready to account for our hope? That last option seems to give the best chance for living with integrity and allowing others the dignity of defining their own spiritual reality.    

Organic, Reproducible, and Sustainable

I like the way the Frost and Hirsch use contemporary leadership, systems, and organizational theory to shape their proposal for the 21st century church.  In part IV – Apostolic Leadership, they reference corporate life-cycle diagrams, learning organization and systems perspectives, sociology, and even Seth Godin, my favorite marketing guru (his book Linchpin reads like a Cliffs-notes version of Theory U, which I read for my leadership APC).  What comes of this collision of theological, sociological, systems, and marketing perspectives is a proposal for re-invigorating the 21st century church as a missional movement.  As an organic organizational model, the missional movement will “create organic, implicitly reproducible, and self-sustaining systems. (175)”

The movement is organic:  In the New Testament, the church is described with a number of biological terms:  the body, ligaments, a balance of unity and diversity.  The missional movement seeks to re-member the Church by returning to its biological roots – cells, all with the same core DNA (justification by grace through faith in Jesus, who is a member of the triune God), but with diverse expressions and functions.  The movement seeks to grow mostly by reproduction of cells, rather than by creating large bodies (which isn’t to say that congregations can’t grow large numerically, but that a more effective way to sustain rapid growth in most contexts is by cellular division.

The movement is implicitly reproducible:  A ministry system that values and nurtures the whole scope of ministry gifts (Ephesians 4 lists 5:  Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher) will be in the business of equipping each person for their particular ministry.  The movement becomes reproducible as it attends to the equipping of disciples with a variety of gifts, and teaches them to equip others.

The movement is sustainable:  The focus on a diversity of ministry gifts which are nurtured and encourages to reproduce creates a “learning organization” (I think this language originates with Ronald Heifetz, but could be wrong), in which the body is mobilized to engage its tough issues.  The leader doesn’t solve the dilemmas or adaptive challenges for the group, but encourages them in a process that brings diverse personalities, spiritualities, leadership styles, and charisms into conversation for the sake of the Gospel.  Each person is invited to discern their own vision for ministry which uses their unique gifts and context (the one that is compelling enough to lay down your life for), that is held under the umbrella of the larger organization’s more general vision.   (a note:  while Frost and Hirsch may talk about welcoming diversity under the unifying umbrella of salvation through Christ, my experience with the “missional” leaders in our area is that required theological unity limits the amount of diversity actually tolerated.  I think that this has more to do with the self-differentiation of the leaders than a necessity of missional thought. The family systems thinker Edwin Friedman teaches that people (leaders) who are more self-differentiated will be able to tolerate more diversity, with fewer rules and a smaller “center” than people (leaders) who are less differentiated.  If we can invest in our leaders to increase their self-differentiation, spiritual maturity, and leadership capacity, we’ll have churches that embrace diversity more readily).


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