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Church in World: Willie Jennings and the Christian Social Imagination

August 21, 2011

"I may not know much about God, but I sure built a nice cage for him."

(This is part three. See especially part one: “On Niche Churches and Prefab Christian Cultures: Why Driscoll is right but he’s got it all wrong”.)

If you are just joining us, a couple weeks ago I challenged the seeker-church notion that after the “sin-gap” has been crossed by Christ it is the church’s job to cross the “culture-gap” that stands between them and the world. Although we must note the positives of this movement (i.e., being culturally engaged and aiming to “reach people where they are at”), we must also note that the values of the marketplace have also lead to some negative trends. Thus in part one this week I flagged the common propensity of churches to choose a particular target audience, create a sort of “Christianized” version of its pop culture,  and gear the whole worship and ethos of the church to them. I noted the tendency toward “niche churches and prefab Christian cultures,” called it unnecessarily alienating, and insinuated that at worst the results can be like a Homer Simpson church plant. This may all sound a bit cynical, but if you read those posts I hope you’ll see fairness as well as indications of a positive alternative. I’d like to conclude the series now by offering some clarification in that regard, via a reprisal of some of my past reflections on Willie James Jennings’ 2010 The Christian Imagination. 

John William Colenso

The Christian Imagination is concerned primarily with the origins of race in the colonial period and secondarily with the failures of the missionary enterprise and the renewal of a gospel-driven social vision for the church. In it, among other things, Jennings tells the incredible story of a 19th century English bishop to the colonialist settlement of South Africa named John William Colenso who set out on a mission to translate the Christian gospel into the language of the African tribes with the added motivation (and this is crucial) of bringing them “civilization” as well. When push came to shove, the greedy and arrogant impulses of the colonizers won the day and nearly took Colenso all the way with them. Remarkably, although he had already done much damage, Colenso realized this and ended up siding with the oppressed African at great cost to himself (159-165). The gospel this European meant merely to translate ended up – with the help of the African recipient – translating him.

As Jennings puts it, Colenso came to discover that colonialist Christianity offers “a gospel that is for everyone” but “joins no one” (166-167). Though he had himself contributed to the violence of South Africa’s colonization, it was the very impulse of the Christian gospel which, despite being utilized for colonialist purposes, ended up leading Colenso toward self-giving communion with those he had been unwittingly sent to oppress.

Time and again Jennings underlines for us the problem that can arise when we treat every instance of engagement with another person as an opportunity to underline (or even modify) our own views rather than to really engage the other.   He suggests that where Colenso’s translation efforts were all in one direction the very dynamic of the Christian gospel was subverted and all but lost.  Says Jennings: “Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered … and yielded a form of religious life that thwarts its deepest instincts of intimacy.” But when Colenso allowed himself to stand alongside the  African as a Gentile mutually grafted in to God’s people he rediscovered the gospel he’d come to share:

Israel’s particularity bound up in Jesus means that his scandalous particularity is the means through which Christian faith acquires its social and political materiality. That social and political materiality draws our imaginations not first to the translation of the gospel message but to the joining of peoples in the struggle to learn each other’s languages in the process of lives joined, lives lived together in new spaces, and constituting a new history for a new people (160-161).

I am reminded of a time when my wife and I were privileged to have over for supper a leading thinker in the “church leadership movement” that captured so much of the attention of evangelicalism in recent decades. This kind and eloquent man was in town to speak to our Bible College students, and did a really good job describing a leader as one who was able to be hospitable in the best possible sense of the word. In pastoral situations this meant that a leader would seek to effectively”host” the discussion for the common good of those gathered. Sounded good to me, and much of it still does. But I also recall the oddness I felt when, around our supper table, this engaging man illustrated all of this beautifully with his ability to “host” the dinner conversation in such an amicable and enjoyable way. It was all very pleasant, and I don’t want to make too much of it, but it sort of stuck with me that it had actually been my wife and I who were supposed to be the hosts of that meal. No big deal, but it illustrates what can be quite a problematic posture.

After all, it was precisely this constant “host” mentality which Colenso had to overcome. By pointing this out I think Jennings pushes us to consider the possibility that whenever the Christian assumes the role of host alone, even if it is for the spread of the gospel, perhaps that Christian is in danger of subverting and usurping that very gospel! Churches and Christians are not only proclaimers of the good news but also ministers of reconciliation. As such they must always be open to being ministered to, lest they make the good news out be “for everyone” without actually letting it “join everyone”. So what does this say to ecclesiology, missiology, and pastoral theology? Certainly, when I accept a church’s call to lead or to minister or to preach, I must take seriously the notion that God has asked me to bring something to the table. However, I can never assume that I am always the bringer and not the acceptor, nor that the gospel is something we can exchange like a consumer good without all of us being changed by and participant in it. After all, what am I leading, if I am always the leader and never the servant; always the host and never the hosted? I may be leading a movement, but I have to always ask myself whether it is the movement of God’s kingdom in this world. Thankfully, this is a movement that He continues to undertake for us and among us by the grace of Christ.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad A. permalink
    August 25, 2011 1:11 pm

    Nicely said, Jon. I wonder anymore whether the church’s foremost priority in any new situation like this should be repentance, and then an openness to see where the Holy Spirit takes things, including through the agency of those to whom the church presumes to minister.

  2. August 25, 2011 7:09 pm

    Thanks Brad.

    Just came across a great bit from Barth along the lines I’m talking about here, from his section on love your neighbour in Church Dogmatics I/2, 430-433:

    “The fellow-man who is unaware of his actual plight, the fellow-man to whom we can look and about whom we can concern ourselves, above all the fellow man who helps to confirm and enhance us in the role of benefactor, mentor and ameliorator: this fellow-man does not constitute any serious problem, and any headaches which he may incidentally cause will not be mortal. But this in the last resort not at all disconcerting fellow-man is not our neighbour in the sense of the second commandment. He is not the one who, sent and authorised by God, shows mercy upon us. He is lacking in the most important quality, in which alone he could do so, an actual similarity to the crucified Jesus Christ. At least, he is so in our eyes and in his relation to us. That is why he is not at all disconcerting. That is why we do not experience any serious unwillingness in relation to him. But that is also why he cannot help us seriously. This fellow-man will not summon us to the praise of God. Only afflicted, sinful fellow-man can do that….

    As those who are already redeemed in faith, we may easily prefer to be left to ourselves, to praise God according to our own fancy and free choice, bringing forth, and offering of ourselves, in a splendid isolation with the invisible God, what we think to be the work of thankfulness appropriate to His glory….

    [But] God wills from them, from them particularly, not an arbitrary but an obedient praise. Their neighbour is put before them for that very reason, that their praise may be obedience. And their neighbour is the afflicted neighbour. But the afflicted neighbour reveals that they are themselves afflicted, are sinners, as he is. And the fact that they are, even as the children of God, is nowhere more clearly seen than in their unwillingness as the children of God to be revealed and recognised as such. It seems as though the age-old revolt of Adam, all the wickedness of idolatry and self-righteousness, is again trying to become an event. There is a new and we might almost say a more frightful danger: that even as those who are saved, we might still be lost. That is the surgeon’s knife. That is how God’s mercy comes to His children.”

    In other words if your church is a bunch of people who like to be with, or if your church is a place where conflicts and discomforts are shoved aside for the sake of a “peaceful” communion, you may be short-circuiting the mercy of Christ in your midst and setting up, in place of the church, a sham.

    Thankfully, Barth says, God has ways of disturbing this and reconfirming us in the faith and love and praise of God by which He gathered us in the first place. So it comes to a point where you put off the niche church and you grasp the real thing. That happens all the time in these churches, so I’m not disparaging them in that sense. I’m just saying our ecclesiology needs to change as well.

  3. August 26, 2011 1:50 pm

    thanks, great stuff

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