What Did You Go Out to See?
Since the days of Columba, Patrick, and Augustine of Canterbury, the British Isles have been home to more than their share of missionaries. So it may be appropriate that as the Christian Vision Project turns its attention to Christianity's global scope and mission, we begin with an essay by Andrew Jones, a globe-hopping consultant on church planting who lives in the Orkney Islands off Scotland's northern coast. Jones, best known as the writer of the weblog tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com, is an irrepressible New Zealander who chronicles the wide and sometimes wild world of innovative efforts to proclaim the gospel in the midst of "emerging global culture." He is the first respondent to our "big question" for 2007, posed as Western Christians adjust to their minority status in global Christianity, and as technologies of travel and communication make cross-cultural encounters ever more accessible to the majority world and minority world alike: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?
Pilgrim, Pilgrim, where have you been?
I've been to London to visit the emerging church scene.
Pilgrim, Pilgrim, what did you there?
I found a little queen sitting on her chair.
What did we go out to see? The same thing we always see. The same thing, but in a different place. We seek out sameness. We go to a foreign city to eat noodles, and end up with a hamburger and fries. We know that global church growth is largely happening in the margins, among ordinary people, without big budgets or impressive credentials. But when we go out to worship with the "indigenous" church in Colombia or Malaysia or Italy, we end up sitting on a pew singing expat choruses with a national pastor who has colonized himself for our approval. To be discovered. To be seen by people who do not have eyes to see.
We search for the ubiquitous but discover the obvious. We hunt the exotic but are haunted by the echo of our expectations. We seek judges but we see kings. Or in the allegory of my inverted nursery rhyme, we go out to watch mice but get wooed by a monarch.
By focusing our attention on Western look-a-likes rather than the God-breathed expressions of ekklesia, we miss the joy of participating with the global church. We also miss the blessing these networks and ministries can offer us. But even more tragic is the reinforcement of our western stereotypes as superior models, each one another mega-brick in the colonial tower of Western Christian supremacy. Any attempts at finding a third space, where their world and ours could meet, are thwarted by our search for what appears successful in our own eyes.
We need to learn to see the unexpected and unlearn our compulsion to see the expectable.
"What did you go out to see?" Jesus asked the crowds, in reference to a popular desert pilgrimage to John the Baptist. They expected a monarch, but God sent a monk. Outmoded expressions of prophetic ministry, warped by the greed of the Sadducees and the short-sightedness of the Pharisees, had to be unlearned.
Jesus' disciples had to be taught how to see. The disciples saw the clean robe of Jairus; Jesus saw the stained garment of a bleeding woman. The disciples saw a prostitute groveling at Jesus' feet; Jesus saw a servant preparing his body for burial. The disciples saw a threatening alien force teaching in Jesus' name; Jesus saw more partners for the harvest. Jesus saw a woman giving two coins, illustrating the mysterious generosity of Kingdom economics; the disciples would not have seen anything at all if Jesus had not pointed her out.
Paul had to teach the Corinthians how to see. They saw a church composed of small élite circles, each well-defined group following their own celebrity, whether Apollos, Peter, or Paul. But there was only one church, Paul told them. God's servants were watering it, but God was causing the growth. Being agents of God's mission starts with seeing what God is bringing to life, in order that we may water it. But before we water it, we have to find it.
The tiny: At a recent meeting in Johannesburg, Bindu Choudhrie explained how she and her husband Victor, a medical doctor, started several thousand churches in their region of India over the last decade. But if you went out to see something spectacular, you might miss it completely. The leaders are workers, housewives, students, and, in some cases, children. There is no large Easter or Christmas celebration to photograph—they don't celebrate those festivals. There are no weekly services to attend—they meet daily in homes over meals.
In his book Greet the Ekklesia, Victor describes it as a secret fellowship. "We do not go to church, as we are the Ekklesia, wherever we happen to meet, in a house or anywhere else. The house ekklesia is not a series of meetings in someone's house on a particular day, at a certain time, led by a particular leader. It is a household of God consisting of twenty-four-hours-a-day and seven-days-a-week relationships."
Tiny like a mustard seed. To see the tiny, we will need to unlearn the value system that has guided our vision. Thomas Friedman has called it the Cold War Mindset, a way of seeing that places undue value on size, weight, and longevity. That not only sums up the inhumane system of the grinding mechanical-industrial world: it pretty much describes how we used to introduce Christian conference speakers.
What did we go out to see? The influential missionary Roland Allen was once asked by his board to report some spectacular stories from the field. His response was unexpected: "I do not trust spectacular things. Give me the seed growing secretly every time."
The virtual: Much of our life has been relocated to the Web. But when we try to see church online with old eyes, we miss it. If older folk find themselves squinting awkwardly into the mysterious world of new media, our screen-age children have less of a vision problem. "Generation Text" are at home with the computer screen, which is replacing the movie screen as the primary visual medium. Cinematography taught us to see a sequential world where the future was always replacing the present and displacing the past. A disconnected world of cuts and invisible edits. We looked for the new as the old dissolved in a cross fade. Interestingly, the worship services of Western churches reflected the same mindset.
The computer screen shifts this way of seeing toward complexity and modularity, placing the power of navigation in the user's hands, teaching the eye to look for different things and in different ways.
We see that new media images are actually composites of nested layers. We can send layers to the back or bring them to the front. We can fade them with transparency or composite them with other layers—but we don't have to delete them.
We value continuity over cut. We expect navigation. Our eyes look for hyperlinks, places where we have been, places to go next. We seek the romance of virtual pilgrimage through what Lev Manovich has described as "navigable space."
We see the visible representation as less permanent than the invisible code that informs it—say, a sequence of numbers in a database that may or may not be accurately represented, depending on the operations performed on that data or the quality of the screen itself. Young people find it easy to see church this way also. Invisible and yet experiential, mystical yet tangible, global and yet aggregated locally and uniquely each time.
What do you go out to see? A cyberchurch with regular service times? You will probably find it if you look hard enough, but you might miss Church 2.0, that strange collection of new church forms native to the Web. Pastor and blogger Tim Bednar describes it this way: "I participate with bloggers who collectively link the cyberchurch into existence." Whatever ekklesia will look like on the web, we first need to learn how to see it.
The indigenous: What do we go out to the desert to see? Do we see cheap fireworks, casinos, and tacky souvenirs? Or a special people called out by God for global missions in this new millennium? That's what my friend Richard Twiss sees. Richard is a member of the Rosebud Lakota/Sioux Tribe and President of Wiconi International. "No other people group is so uniquely positioned for global missions as First Nations people are today," says Richard, whose mission sends out teams of "Native men and women who follow the Jesus Way and are skilled traditional drummers, singers, and dancers, to communicate the love of the Father with audiences worldwide." In the past three years teams from Richard's mission have seen thousands come to know the Creator in outdoor events and house meetings in the country of Pakistan. It seems God is raising up a post-colonial mission force out of the margins of our own culture, out of a people who have felt the sting of colonialism themselves.
The Kingdom of God is at once tiny and massive, both of which are hard to see. Kingdom potentials are tiny like mustard seeds, buried like treasure, sunken like fishing nets, inconspicuous like yeast working its way through the whole lump of dough. And yet the final product is blatantly visible. The mustard seed grows into a tree so large that the "birds of the sky" see it from a distance and nest in its branches. Caged fowl do not see it. They only see a coop and a fence. They need to leave the familiar, to seek out a bird's-eye view of what God is doing—to be flung out into all the world.
Andrew Jones leads the Boaz Project, which supports church planting movements in the global emerging culture.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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