Archive for June, 2013

What is Christian Discipleship?

June 23, 2013

On October 2, 2012, Scott Sundquist, former professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, gave his installation address as the new Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Below are some excerpts from his address:

“Missional church is really an unnecessary epithet. Is it possible to talk about church and not mean missional? Unfortunately it has been, and so we need to add the adjective missional to remind us what a church is supposed to be. I believe that we not only need to add the term missional to church, but to Christian. Especially in the West, we have forgotten that it is not possible to be a Christian without being missional; without being a sent one.

I suggest that mission today must return to all of our theological and biblical studies (even our understanding of pastoral counseling) as a central concern. I was taught that we cannot (or should not) read the Bible without seeing that all of Scripture points to Jesus. Jesus is the Word. I think this is true. But Jesus is also the missionary of God. He is the sent one, and so if we are reading the Bible with a Jesus trajectory, then we are reading with a missional trajectory. For example, how can we ever talk about the Apostle Paul and his great doctrinal and practical sections of his letters without noting that these were missionary letters written, as it were, on the fly? Doesn’t this shape our understanding of theology as well as biblical exegesis? If this is true, then what about the Gospels, all four of which end not with the institutional church and liturgy, but with diaconal communities commissioned with an impossible task. Ecclesial existence is missional existence, Christian existence is missional existence.

And then I might ask, is it really the task of pastoral care and counseling, or of family counseling, to leave people healthier than before? Yes, but what does it mean to be healthier? In fact, Jesus had a much higher view of the kingdom than of the nuclear family. Sometimes families pay the cost of basic Christian discipleship: Discipleship that seeks to save the lost and defend the oppressed. Sometimes families pay the cost of mission, evangelism, or of justice. In our pastoral care shouldn’t we prepare people to be healthy enough to lay down their lives for their friends? Isn’t this part of what it means for us to participate in Christ?

What is Christian discipleship? At the end of discipleship – even in the heart of discipleship – is mission. A healthy disciple is a sent disciple. Another way to look at this is to recognize that
• Sanctification involves sentness;
• Holiness requires justice; and
• Receiving Jesus means we are sent by Jesus.
Therefore we should take even more seriously Christian spiritual formation as a response to the Great Commission. Spiritual formation is not personal improvement, it is boot camp for imminent kingdom battles.

There is no other way to be a Christian. Any other way of being a Christian is a cheap imitation. Either taking up our cross, or laying down our life as a Christian is a work that is done for others. Taking up and laying down, we might say, is for going out. Love always requires others – others who will receive the love. But, Christian love also crosses frontiers.

What is needed today is innovation in spiritual formation. We need to see spiritual formation as missional formation; more like training to be a decathlete than a couch potato. Don’t you find it a great mystery, that with so many Christians in the United States, that we still have such an unconverted culture? I think it has something to do with Christian character and the unwillingness of Christians to live a consistent countercultural lifestyle.

The heart of innovation will now be the transformation of the human heart. The world needs little Jesuses more than it needs professional missionaries or even technical scholars. Those little ones who are crushed by the injustices and poverty in the cities need a person to walk with them as the presence of Jesus, reaching out with a pierced hand to cradle the crushed heart.

My goal as dean of the School of Intercultural Studies is to see that every one of our graduates will become embedded in godless communities inhabited by the unloved, bearing in their bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be revealed. They will fast and pray the heavens down and will not stop praying and loving and serving until they see the total conversion of these cultures… or until Jesus returns.

I would like people to notice that Fuller produces extreme disciples and, therefore, extreme missionaries. Fuller graduates are so consumed by the love and the passion of Jesus Christ that they love recklessly. Jesus did. Jesus says, “I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy.” In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Living in a Time of Great Change

June 17, 2013

Many movie fans consider director Steven Spielberg a visionary – but his most recent vision is one of doom for the movie industry. During remarks at the University of Southern California on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, Spielberg predicted the “implosion” of the film industry, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Things could get so bad, according to Spielberg, that “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next ‘Iron Man,’ but you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see ‘Lincoln.’ ”

He said the changes could come after several high-budget, high-profile film flops force the industry to be altered. “That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown,” Spielberg said. “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

Spielberg was not alone in his estimation. Fellow filmmaker George Lucas, on the panel with Spielberg, agreed with his assessment and said cable television is now “much more adventurous” than the movie industry. The pair both warned students that they are living in a time of great change for films and those who make them. “The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller,” Lucas said.
What is interesting to me is that people have lavished all kinds of praise and respect on Spielberg and Lucas for their amazingly successful films and for the innovations they have brought to the screen in recent years, and yet when they make comments like these, hardly anyone seems to pay attention. These comments make people uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with them. We don’t have the imagination or the mental categories to process them and understand what they mean, so we just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We laud them for being visionaries, but we don’t listen to what they are saying.

I see the same thing going on in the Christian church in North America. Spielberg’s and Lucas’ description of the movie industry could be written about the church. I believe that our ‘industry’ is being altered. I believe we are in the midst of an implosion – a meltdown. We are going to see more of our attempts come crashing to the ground. The paradigm is changing. But, rather than trying to get out in front of the paradigm change, and attempt to figure it out before it severely alters what we do even more, we continue to stay busy with our daily routines and hope against hope that our house of cards will continue standing long enough for us to retire.

We are in a time of great change. The pathway to our churches is getting smaller and smaller. So, what do we do? Instead of trying to figure it out, we ignore our visionaries or attack them, try to silence them, and make them go away. The church is in the midst of a crisis of faith and imagination. As our history and theology remind, we must always be about discerning what Christ is up to, joining in the mission of God that the Holy Spirit has already begun around us, forming communities of worship and witness, leading people to Christ, helping people become more like Him, and being the mission agency that constantly sends people out into the world to seek the welfare of the communities where God is sending us.

We must be open to new ways of doing ministry, but often we are not. The more our congregations and our denominational systems decline, the less flexibility and creativity we see. The more we lose our influence in society, the more we turn on each other and attack and blame each other. We focus on internal squabblings rather than on God’s big mission to the world. We live in a dysfunctional system that makes ministry harder when we ought to be giving people more freedom to innovate and discover what God is up to. We have internal systems that are broken. Instead of making it easier to do ministry, they make it harder. And some of the very people who can help us imagine a new future are leaving for other environments that are more open to God’s change than we are.

If the film industry won’t listen to Spielberg and Lucas, and figure out the paradigm change they need to make, who will they listen to? Will the church be more open-minded than the film industry? Can we figure out the paradigm change we need to make? Instead of rigidity, we need more flexibility. Instead of more judgment, we need more grace. Instead of asking God’s mission to serve our polity, we need to ask our polity to serve God’s mission. If God is leading the church to function differently to witness to a different world, will we be open enough to see that, and will we choose to do something about it?