Believing without Belonging? Reflections on the Consultation

By Shenk, Wilbert R. | International Review of Mission, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Believing without Belonging? Reflections on the Consultation


Shenk, Wilbert R., International Review of Mission


I want to begin with an expression of gratitude to those who conceived, organized, and led us through this consultation. Hopefully, this event marks the beginning of a process that will continue. This conversation about the renewal of the church is urgently needed at all levels of the church in contemporary culture, and is one that should take place in a thousand places as rapidly as possible.

These reflections are organized around four points. Each one deserves much greater elaboration than I can give here. My purpose is to identify themes and issues that this process has stimulated, and which are of continuing relevance.

1. Naming our reality

The first task of leadership is to name the place where we are. The various papers, case studies and interventions throughout the past several days have served us well. They have helped define where we are by pointing up critical issues and themes. And yet, as we all recognize, this is only a beginning. To "name our reality" and relate this reality to the position and role of the church in contemporary culture, means we must develop a more comprehensive and thorough description and analysis from a missiological viewpoint. Consider these five dimensions -- of course, by no means the only ones -- that are essential to understanding our reality: historical perspective, social theory, older church members, youth, and the population group that has never affiliated itself with the church.

(a) Historical perspective

The church in contemporary Western society is an aging institution if for no other reason than that it has been present in the West for some 1500 years. Although there have been repeated renewal movements, basic ecclesiastical patterns and structures, together with an accompanying theological framework, have proved to be durable. Much of the energy of the ecclesiastical hierarchy throughout this long history has been devoted to reinforcing and guarding the institutional forms of the church. In the modern period, when innovation rather than stability has been valued and society has experienced continual and far-reaching change, the church has frequently come off looking like a defender of a disappearing past as it reacted to the dynamically changing. cultural norms and forms it confronted. The temptation has been to reify structures and systems that are subject to the law of entropy. The 1960s' study, "Missionary Structures of the Congregation" focused especially on the ecclesial situation in Europe and North America. In a contribution to that study, J. C. Hoekendijk defined "morphological fundamentalism" as indicating "a rigid and inflexible attitude toward the morphe (structure, 'Gestalt') of the congregation similar to the attitude prevalent in 'biblical fundamentalism'." (1) This approach regards forms as fixed for all time, and thus confuses "organizational" arrangements with ecclesiastical "order".

This is not the whole story. Historians characterize the 20th century as the "Pentecostal century" because of the emergence and rapid development of the Pentecostal movement. Other churches kept Pentecostal Christians at arms length for several generations. Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th century the polymorphous Pentecostal movement had spread worldwide. After 1960 the charismatic variety of Pentecostalism mutated, with a wide range of the historical churches, from Roman Catholic to conservative Protestants, stimulating innovations in worship, piety and theology.

We cannot predict the form renewal of the church will take in the future, but the history of the church gives us warrant to believe that the Holy Spirit can renew the church in the 21st century to be God's missionary people.

(b) Social theory

Discussion of contemporary culture is framed today in terms of the transition from the modern to the postmodern, or from modernity to postmodernity. Social theorists have put forward a range of theories to explain modernity. …

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