Birthing Missional Faithfulness: Accents in a North American Movement

Article excerpt

What I share here is not directly a report on the North American Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) and its activities. Some of the details of the network's activities are tucked in here and there. However, a strictly organizational report would mask the fact that what we do as network is only a small slice of what we do in our congregations, ecclesial streams and tangible contexts. There are many discernible signs that there has come to be a far-reaching ferment on the issues with which we are dealing. In a quiet but deeply-rooted way, something like a movement has been emerging that is in part spawned, stirred, and illumined by collaborative efforts within this GOCN network.

The stated purposes of the network have been, "to provide useful research regarding the encounter between the gospel and our culture", and "to encourage local action for transformation in the life and witness of the church." Pursuing those goals together, we have come to know and value the synergy of making common cause, and we have fashioned work patterns that, i) bring face to face the diversities of our ecclesial traditions, ii) sustain a critical dialogue between theological and social scientific approaches, and iii) engage the stubborn frictions between academicians and practitioners.

In order to depict the character and trajectory of the GOCN in North America, and in the course of that to give some indication of how we read our context and what we discern our vocation of the moment to be, I will describe something of the basic vision we have been following and the ground from which it arises. This will be my own rendering of it, but I believe it is a rendering shaped by what I have learned from colleagues and what I experience them to be seeing and pursuing. Each of them would undoubtedly have other ways of putting it, but from the place I have been privileged to inhabit at the intersection of visions, I offer this brief sketch to suggest what lies at the heart of the movement.

1. The churches of North America are experiencing a two-sided identity crisis

It is well documented that two things have become true of the churches of North America. On the one hand, we are largely accommodated to the culture of which we are a part, and we live largely in terms of its most basic assumptions and values. Lesslie Newbigin has demonstrated this with respect to the undercurrents of the facts-values, and public-private dichotomies in Western culture generally. (1) Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon have observed, that the churches' "primary social task is to underwrite American Democracy", and that they tend to operate as though they have "no fundamental quarrel with the powers-that-be". (2) The churches have, to use Newbigin's terms, accepted relegation to the private realm, and in the process have become voluntary societies for the nurture of a private faith option. The churches have also, to use the terms of Hauerwas and Willimon, accepted the role of a religious civic club, and now run errands for America and, in the process, confuse citizenship and discipleship.

To this we may add another of the forms of the churches' accommodation, viz. the way in which they have been pressed into an "economic" mold. David Bosch observed (in lectures a year before his death) that Reformational churches have inherited from the Reformers and their creeds a notion of the church that, if unintended, has nonetheless proven to be powerful. The church, it has come to be assumed, is "a place where certain things happen" (i.e. the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, the exercise of church discipline). In this century, he said, we have reclaimed the biblical notion that the church is "a body of people sent on a mission." Bosch's assessment about this recovery is certainly true of global theorizing but not of the local structuring of the congregations of North America. I suggest that we have maintained the "place where" notion and extended it to its distinctive American form. …