Jun 30, 2012
A Sheep in Wolf Clothing
After re-gifting stuff from the previous year, we purchase the silliest gifts, don’t we? Ferbie. Elmo. Need I say more? It was a hard year, though for the trendy gifts and presents we’re all used to getting and giving. For instance, one-third of Americans complained last Christmas that they couldn’t find a gift for someone because there was nothing new. There was no “it” gift. Ferbie had died. So had Elmo. And nothing else appeared to have raised to the glory seat in our cultural worship of Christmas consumerism. Except, in my opinion, the “Jesus Toaster.”
The Jesus Toaster, clearly, provokes in all of a very important age-old question regarding the never ending intersection of faith, God’s mission, and the church. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus on mission in our world today?
Put simply, there’s an exponentially large and expanding list of books, articles, speakers, and conferences on the topic of the missional church. Whole shelves at bookstores are collecting dust on its behalf. Pastors are wrestling with it and preaching about it. Seminaries are offering classes on it. And bloggers are blogging about it. By virtue of this rapid expanse, a long list of trendy words and phrases (missional church, God’s mission, missio Dei, missionality) have not only found their way into the vernacular of the contemporary church but have made lots of people lots of money. Despite this, no one can explain just exactly what it means. Like the word “postmodern”, seemingly hip language continues to be used in the church even though no one seems to know what it means or what those who claim to know what it means are talking about. It’s become, quite simply, hollow language; a language replete with buzzwords for who we believe is really doing ministry and who is really not doing ministry.
Increasingly, it’s possible to be completely non-missional while having the most profound missional language possible.
Now, don’t misread me. The missional conversation should rightfully sell lots of books. People should make money off it. It’s an ever-important topic that the church should have entered into long ago. This’s why, honestly, I’m joyful that people continue to talk about the subject. The missional church is important. That’s not the question. The question is something else: what is it? What is the missional church and what does it mean to be missional?
As I see it, the idea of mission starts with the words of Jesus. The Gospels report to us that Jesus directed his disciples to, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matt. 7:15) This not-unlike-Jesus, in-your-face saying from a messianic upstart in Nazareth served as a warning sign to his community to perpetually keep their eyes peeled. But what were they to be warned of? What was the danger? Jesus persuasively warned them to watch for any lurking folk who’d seek to destroy his message and his Kingdom paradigm. This implies that they were out there. Or perhaps even in here.
This strikes me for a number of reasons; none more than the image itself. What a provacative image for a people who’d undoubtedly know what it’s like to lose sheep. These were farmers. People who grew tired of their flocks being destroyed by lurking wolves who yearned for a midnight snack, this image of “sheep-eating” and wolf meandering made complete sense. There were certainly dangers to the flock!
In so utilizing this metaphor, Jesus dealt with false prophets; a crew of malicious liars who sought to pervert his message of the Kingdom and of grace. Some church historians might call these people heretics. What they were came in many forms. These individuals may have looked, smelled, and acted like real honest-to-goodness sheep of the pasture, but inwardly had it out for the destruction of the flock and Jesus’ work. They were dangerous, Jesus warned.
Now, while Jesus may have been teaching sheep to look out for those wolves in sheep clothing, I contend there’s another side to this whole thing. The missional side. Jesus’ dream—what we call the “Kingdom of God”—comes by his sheep intentionally choosing to put on wolf clothing and live in the world. If wolves in sheep clothes are heretics, then sheep in wolf clothes are missionaries. Not missionaries who are all huddled up in a safe bundle under a rock or in a church. Rather a people in disguise living in the real world.
Missionality is being a sheep and wearing wolf clothes.
Thus, all this missional stuff is about one thing: having a new and loving heart inside while choosing to risk a life in a rough and challenging world; a people who are soft-hearted in a hard world. As expressed, I’ve had the opportunity to listen and share in many dialogues with Christian leaders, pastors, lay-people, and professors on the topic of the missional church. Concerned, I believe we totally miss the point of what the whole deal is truly about. We think (in our overly-simplistic drive-through way) that we can take the bread of church with all its methods, practices, and ideas and put it in the toaster oven of missional church conversation and out will come one perfect missional church that we can sell on the internet as an icon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being missional doesn’t start with looking different outside, it starts with being different inside.
Michael Gorman this week critiqued the church (I believe rightly) for its practice of “Independence Sunday.” As I see it, at no point can the church problaim its independence. Every Sunday at the table is a proclamation of depedence. Dependence for God’s Kingdom and mission. Gorman continues:
We are never dependent in mission.
Trust me, I’m the first to have fallen victim to this way of thinking. Imagining that if I’d just gotten a tattoo or something my Christian walk would be marked by God’s mission. I’d imagine: “now they know I have a past. Come follow me.” Or if I drank more, or cussed more, or went to raves more. But that’s silly. Tattooing, with all its religious undertones, isn’t the mark of missionality. I’ve had to remove that idea from my mind. I’ve taken off the mental tattoo in realizing it isn’t me. At all.
Or into thinking that being missional meant not doing whatever the big churches do (which can, don’t get me wrong, be part of the deal). But I’ve found this to be perhaps the most religious form of gossip available within the church. We spend so much time defining who we aren’t that we forget to become who we are. In so doing, we verbally rip apart all the big churches that we don’t like. I simply don’t buy it. Gossip is, as one put it, “raising ourselves by standing on the carcasses of others.” That can’t be the mark of missionality. Mission can’t succeed on others’ defeat.
So what is being missional? The climax and crisis of mission, as I see it in our contemporary world, is sheep gracefully, persistently, painfully, and passionately choosing to wear the clothing of their neighbors in their everyday world and on their terms. This is an act of moral living—living God’s mission locally. Our neighbors aren’t wolves. But there is something about being our neighborhood. Mission is an act of wearing our neighbors clothes because God has called us here. And because cultures always change, so must our outfits. And, as Gerard Kelly has illustrated, cultures are constantly changing and they are changing faster than ever before. And it will require Spirit-filled people to smell and look like culture in order for it to work as it should.
So, the first step in being a missional people is quite simple.
Sell our Jesus Toaster.