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Church and Mission between Gospel and Culture

Tuesday, 5 June 2012  | Graham Hill

A central theme running through much of Miroslav Volf's writing is the relationship between gospel, church, mission and contemporary western culture, and this has some significant implications for the church in Australia it seeks to develop a missional understanding of what it means to be church (i.e., a missional ecclesiology).

For Volf, the question of how the church and the gospel relate to culture naturally emerges from the church's growing awareness of the profound influence cultures have on shaping who human beings are, the diversity of cultures colliding and communicating across a shrinking globe, and the rapid evolution of cultures. Cultures are the substance from within which churches emerge and are immersed, and these cultures have characteristics and expressions that may be adopted, adapted, transformed from the inside, discarded, and replaced. 

In ‘It is Like Yeast’, Volf writes, 'There is no single correct way to relate to a given culture as a whole, or even to its dominant thrust. There are only numerous ways of accepting, transforming, rejecting, or replacing various aspects of a given culture from within. This is what it means for Christian difference to be internal to a given culture.' 

The implications of this are that the churches, and individual Christians, make a difference from within a given culture that they and others naturally inhabit, our transformations are piecemeal this side of the new creation, and accommodation to culture should be replaced by an emphasis on difference. Not only so, but disruption from cultural identity is normal at conversion, yet it remains internal to a given culture, and inculturation is best done by Christians themselves as they wrestle with appropriate expressions of faith in their own cultural context. 'The key issue is how to maintain the Christian difference from the culture of which we are a part and how to make that difference a leaven in the culture', since difference is essential to authentic and transforming faith and ecclesiology, and without it the church is left with nothing.

Discernment is needed in order to identify the appropriate points of difference and non-difference within a given culture, while keeping ourselves open to God's reign without extracting ourselves from our culture. The mission of the church is innate to its essence and identity, for 'if the church is the image of the Trinity, then the church's very being is a form of mission.' The church, in Volf's ecclesiology, is intrinsically missionary and is called to the following:

  • Continue the mission of Jesus, through the proclamation of the truths of the new creation, forgiveness, transformation, trinitarian embrace, and rebirth;
  • Place reconciliation, grace and the pursuit of justice at the heart of its social mission, allowing healing to spring forth, even in the context of remembrance;
  • Care for human beings in their entirety - their bodies, spirituality, and larger social and ecological environments - and in this endeavour discover the presence and inbreaking of the Spirit of God going before them;
  • Demonstrate both hiddenness and openness by rejecting the lure to become one more social institution among many, while continuing to offer an alternative vision shaped by the future and present reign of God, and to 'subvert, challenge, and transform' the culture around it and in which it is immersed. In doing so, the church pursues 'the very mission at the core of the church's identity';
  • Practice 'unaggressive evangelism', by recognising that it is God's task to change a person's heart and religious or spiritual allegiances;
  • Focus on the cross of Christ, through the celebration of the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), in such a way that injustice, deceitfulness and violence in our world are resisted, and public engagement is inspired by remembrance of the Lord's death 'until he comes';
  • Practice radical worship that is both adoration of God, and vigorous action in the world; Provide a 'robust alternative to the pervasive culture of late capitalism' in anticipation of the new creation - by being aliens and sojourners who engage in a 'soft missionary difference' of both difference to and acculturation in contemporary culture (that is, both commensurability and incommensurability), and by being both a prophetic community and a sign of hope in the context of modernity and postmodernity.

Volf's insights into the relationship between church, mission and culture certainly leave much to ponder and practice.

Graham Hill is a lecturer at Morling College in Sydney, and Director of the Morling College Centre for Leadership. His new book is Salt, Light and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology.  

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