Let me begin this essay by responding to some critiques of the series up to this point, and especially about last week’s essay, “The Church Does Not Exist for the Sake of the World.” While most readers seem appreciative, I expected pushback for the counterintuitive emphasis I’m trying to bring to bear in the series.
Note that word—emphasis. The careful reader sees that I’m not saying that we should forget about loving our neighbor and that I’m not arguing that in glorifying God the church should not reach out in mission. Thus the charges of “binary thinking” or of offering a “false dichotomy” are a failure to read what I’ve actually written.
More to the point: I’m arguing that the evangelical movement in particular has made an idol of activity for God, to the point that God has been increasingly eclipsed from our hearts and minds (though he is still on our lips, to be sure). To call us back to our first love does not mean that I deny the importance of our second love—the neighbor. And to question our idolatry is not binary nor a false dichotomy any more than it was for Jesus when he cleared the moneychangers from the Temple.
Let me be absolutely clear here: I am not like Jesus; I am very much a moneychanger, caught in the nexus of daily life and worship of the horizontal at the expense of a deep and abiding love for my Lord.
One critique I agree with: I failed to note that many missional thinkers are not first and foremost talking about the church’s mission but God’s. That is, it is God’s mission to bring the world to himself, and we just participate in his mission. Fair enough. I will say, however, that I wonder if this picture of God is an instance where we’ve created God in our image. That is, we are so absorbed with doing and acting that we just can’t imagine God as anything other than one who has a mission himself.
I grant that there is a theological argument that says God’s essence is not so much a static “being” as much as a dynamic “doing” or “pure act” (e.g., Barth). Suffice it to say, I’m not completely convinced—the main problem being that if God has a mission, that means he is unfulfilled in some way and thus has to complete a mission to be fulfilled. This strikes me as anthropomorphic and only tempts us to rationalize our addiction to activity. Instead, we might be called to abide in the reality that God, whose Son called himself “The Lord of the Sabbath,” is characterized as living in a reality described as “rest” (Heb. 4:6–11). This is how Thomas Aquinas, among others, thought of heavenly perfection anyway. But I will also admit my thinking here is merely suggestive and that this subject deserves more of my attention.
Another critique is more ironic. One respected professor says I’ve written nothing but a “college essay” that doesn’t take into account the thinking of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and other theologians. Actually, I’m sorry to hear that my essays are at as high a level as a college essay! Like most good journalists, I want my essays to be comprehended by a high-school reading level (the usual target for most journalistic outlets), but apparently I’ve failed.
The writer went on to quote Protestant theologians, like Barth, who think the church’s mission is, in fact, to make the world a better place. Though I’ve written a biography of Barth and am fairly well read in Protestant theology (and Catholic and Orthodox as well), I’m making a starting argument that the Bible itself does not support this common Protestant view. It nearly goes without saying—but apparently I have to say it—that I am not writing a “theology of the church” as such but mostly making an argument that we’ve made an idol out of neighbor love at the expense of the first and greatest commandment.
I acknowledge that the argument cannot really be proven—for idolatry of the heart is not subject to proof of the sort one can make in an argument. I’m assuming that my half-century of being embedded in evangelical culture may have given me some insights into the movement’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, I’m mainly asking readers to review their own experiences, as well as their own hearts, to see if my analysis is anywhere close to the truth. If someone replies, “Well, it doesn’t reflect my church experience or my heart,” I can only say praise God! But the responses I’ve received so far suggest that the problem is a serious one in many quarters and needs attention and prayer.