Change & Mission

The following is an excerpt from Peter Steike’s book “A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission & Hope”

Today’s rapidly changing world is pressing the church to respond to a shift in paradigms – but not for the first time. In previous shifts, the church has both responded slowly and responded imaginatively. More than once, much of what people have though and done has had to be reworked. As the Jesus movement spread beyond Israel in the first-century Mediterranean world, profound Jewish traditions had to be examined. Questions about how to handle the Hellenistic influence required new thinking. A second century bishop named Marcion separated from the mainstream church. Hostile to the Old Testament, Marcion argued that the God spoken of there was different from the God of the New Testament. In the sixteenth century, the Copernican revolution brought new thinking in the church regarding the cosmos and people’s place in it. In that same era, the sale of indulgences became the tipping point for the breakdown of the Western church. In more recent times the ongoing tension between science and religion has required new thinking.

Each shift carried both the danger and opportunity. In today’s context, the church is challenged by the astonishing pace of change in the world. We are in some ways ill prepared to act rapidly, since the church is as an entity made up of people who are creatures of nature, subject to seasons, rhythms, and stages. We cannot be mechanically geared for shifting quickly.

Regardless of the nature of change, the church affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God who has been active in history and who will be active in the future. Faced with a strange, new world, the church is challenged to be true to its purpose and attuned to its context. I believe the paradigm shift of rapid change constitutes a rich opportunity for the church. God has set the door open to the future. God’s future arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. The church’s response to God’s restoration of the whole creation through Jesus is the vocation to which we are called. N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar, states it eloquently: “But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind the tomb of Jesus, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.”

But the new day is as perplexing as it is promising. “It is abundantly and unmistakably clear that we are in a deep dislocation in our society.” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, “that touches every aspect of our lives.” We are living in a new context where old certainties are disappearing, old institutions are less dependable, old assumptions are questionable, and old neighborhoods are less cohesive. Of course, the dislocation touches the church. Brueggemann names a few of these dislocations: “bewilderment about mission,” “mean-spirited dispute,” and “anxieties about members and growth.”

Logically, if not spiritually, we may even have to allow for the possibility that these dislocations could be part of God’s new creation. It may be God working through the unknown that contributes to the destabilization of the world. God is no stranger to Eden’s deportation, Babel’s scattering, the exodus, the exile, and crucifixion. God can be surprising, mysterious, taking history into unexpected turns.

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