Best book on ecclesiology I read this year: Body Politics by John Howard Yoder
Reflections on Twitter

Impotent or missional? Is Bush right that the Chinese need not fear religion?

Headline: Don't fear religion, Bush tells China

Aug 9, 2008

"Laura and I just had the great joy and privilege of worshipping here in Beijing," Bush said. "You know, it just goes to show that God is universal and God is love, and no state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion."

We could respond to Bush's comments by saying, "But religion (like Christianity) should be subversive!  It should undermine nationalistic values.  It should empower the vulnerable.  It should be a conscience to the state.  A state should fear it."

But before we are too hard on Bush, some people think that the book of Acts was written partially in the hope that the Roman Empire would recognize Christianity was harmless with regard to the state.  The book of Acts depicts Peter and Paul as innocent healers and reasonable people who had unreasonable detractors.  Luke implies that the church of Jesus was a law-abiding religious community--that the Roman state had nothing to fear.  As it turned out, the Roman Empire did not regard Christianity as innocuous for long--persecuting it and then later submitting to it.

One of my professors at Duke, sociologist Mark Chaves argues that indeed congregations in the U.S. are not all that "scary" because they are not very influential with regard to political and social issues.  Bush is right, China has little to fear if congregations are as tepid there as they are here!  Chaves bases his comments on the largest congregational survey ever conducted in the USA.  Chaves concludes, "If we ask what congregations do, the answer is that they mainly traffic in ritual, knowledge, and beauty through the cultural activities of worship, education, and the arts; they do not mainly pursue charity or justice through social services or politics"
Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 14.

Chinese government leaders worry about Christians like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and William Wilberforce who helped achieve great social changes.  I remember reading Charles Colson's The Body in college which anecdotally describes how Christians had a significant influence in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe.  

John Howard Yoder argues throughout his writings that a congregation's internal practices should inherently have social impact.  Christianity need not jettison its Christian practices to be missionally impactful.  Even baptism and communion “are not ‘religious’ or ‘ritual’ activities, they are by nature ‘lay’ or ‘public’ phenomena” (Yoder, “Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture,” The Royal Priesthood, 370). 

My conclusion is not a profound one.  Chaves and Yoder are both right.  As Chaves's data shows, congregations too often have very little social and political impact.  But Yoder is right that congregations have potential to have great social and political impact if they would only recover their missional focus.

Yoder writes,
"Pietism later sought to fill this gap by creating circles of believers.  Yet, without the dimension of outward mission, this type of gathering around common pious experiences is immediately threatened with stagnation and becomes little more than communal introspection." (Yoder, “A People in the World,” The Royal Priesthood, 78).

I recently read Luther Seminary professor Pat Keifert's book about the way he helps congregations think through their missional effectiveness. His church consulting method is called, Partnership for Missional Church (PMC).  He urges congregations to analyze their sense of mission together, rather than merely have leaders implement a new small group structure or contemporary worship service without this step.

“Absent that shared sense of mission—a deep cultural reality—strategic plans, no matter how well gathered and formed, fail to gain the commitment of energy, time and resources for transforming mission.”
We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era, 50.

Other comments:

See also Keifert's colleague at Luther Seminary Van Gelder's book:

The Missional Church in Context: Helping Congregations Develop Contextual Ministry (Missional Church Series) by Craig Van Gelder (Paperback - Oct 26, 2007)