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March 19, 2020

Church as a Pioneering Community

by Elie Haddad

Many of us continue to write about the recent uprising in Lebanon exploring how the people of God can respond to a crisis such as this. We continue to wrestle with the big question: What is the role of the Church in society? Our June consultation will provide a good platform to continue this conversation. The theme of this consultation will be The Gospel in Public Life: Biblical Foundations for Engaging Politics and Society in the MENA Region and Beyond.

In my last blog, I reflected on the role of the Church as priesthood. In it, I made mention of the Church as a pioneering community. In this blog, I will attempt to unpack what it means for the Church to be a pioneering community.        

   Many theologians and ethicists have used this language, most notably H. Richard Niebuhr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the comparable language of Church as representative or deputy. John Howard Yoder used the language of alternative community to refer to the same concept. Glen Stassen and David Gushee have synthesized these various thoughts in several of their works.[1] I will be drawing on Stassen and Gushee in this blog.

The Church acts as a pioneering community when it is ahead of the world, leading the world, in response to God’s will and direction. It is when the Church acts on behalf of the world, modeling to the world a different way of responding to the prevailing realities. Of course, being a pioneer has no merit on its own. Neither is leading others. The intended use of this language is to highlight the importance of influencing the world rather than being influenced by it. Pioneering is the willingness to be faithful to God even when no one else is, while exploring new ways to impact the world for God. Pioneering is saying yes to God and no to the world.

The challenge for the Church is to lead the world rather than be led by it. This is difficult. We live in the world and we tend to draw our standards from it. It is easier to avoid being influenced by the world in the case of flagrant sin. However, it becomes more difficult to discern when it comes to areas that seem harmless. Stassen and Gushee call this “ideological captivity” to the world.

For example, we tend to get our definition and criteria for success from the world. Why not? Pursuing higher education, better pay, better position in society, more responsibility and authority, would lead to better impact in the world. Nothing is inherently wrong in any of these, except when they become our purpose in life. Nothing may be wrong in pursuing a prosperous career. But when this becomes my driving goal in life, it becomes an idol. I start making many adjustments and compromises to attain that goal. Serving God becomes secondary.

What about our church experience on Sunday morning? Do we assess our time together by the performance value of the experience, such as the quality and professionality of the music and sermon? Or do we base our assessment on changed lives? Within our Church community, success should be defined as faithfulness to God’s calling.

It is very easy for harmless goals to enter our Church community. These supposedly benign goals become idols that compel us to make small, gradual, and seemingly inconsequential adjustments. Suddenly, we step back to assess only to find out that we have become followers of the world. Inevitably, we lose our ability to lead the world.

A pioneering community is a repentant community that deliberately desires to reverse this trend. The first thing that a pioneering community does is purify itself by identifying the sins of the world that have crept into the church and then repents from them. It is possible for a church to purify itself by isolating itself from the world. But that is not what a pioneering community does. Rather, it purifies itself from the sins of the world so that it can stay in the world to engage it and to model and lead in faithful living.

A repentant community takes responsibility for its actions, or lack thereof, and for the way it has impacted the world, rather than point fingers at the actions of others.

A pioneering community leads differently. In times of political crisis, economic crisis, or a viral pandemic, a pioneering community does not respond through fear, panic, or self-preservation. Rather, a pioneering community responds by acknowledging God’s sovereignty and putting its full trust in God, and it leads by having a vision for God’s ways and by caring for others. It is easy in times of crises to become consumed with our own needs. A pioneering community is concerned with the well-being of others.

A pioneering community shepherds its society. Niebuhr uses the image of Church as pastor. Not out of a position of authority but out of a position of service and care for the society – out of love for the sinners and the broken. A pioneering community is a self-giving community.

A pioneering community is political, concerned with the public affairs of its society. Nevertheless, a pioneering community does not align itself with any political party or political system. We have seen many examples, in our context and in other contexts, of church communities that have closely identified with certain political positions. This is detrimental to the community’s witness. The community quickly loses its ability to speak impartially and loses its credibility as a voice for the Kingdom. A church community cannot align itself with both political positions and the Kingdom of God. A pioneering community keeps a distance from all political actors so that it can highlight what is wrong and what is right across the political spectrum.

A pioneering community is an embracing community. It does not tolerate any kind of racism or prejudice. A divided and segregated community has nothing to teach the world about unity and integration, or about love and acceptance.

A pioneering community takes risks and is willing to go where no other community has gone before. It does not compare itself to other church communities and does not follow the lead of the majority, for this leads to mediocrity. A pioneering community is willing to leave its place of security to find its security at the frontline where God wants it to engage the world.

A pioneering community is free from the entanglements of the world. It is also free from the entanglements of the expected traditions that have lost their meaning or the religious norms that have become flawed. A pioneering community frees itself of other influencers so that it becomes a moral compass for society.

The problem with the world is not that we are experiencing one crisis after another. This is expected in a fallen world. The problem with the world is that our churches are not being this consistent pioneer-model of faithfulness. It is at the center of God’s design that He sends His Church into the world to participate in His mission to redeem all things. I pray that our churches become these pioneering missional communities that God can use to change the world.

[1] Example: Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, “Politics: Toward a Christian Social Ethic of Salt, Light and Deeds,” in Evangelical Ethics: A Reader, ed. David P. Gushee and Isaac B. Sharp (Louisville, Kentuchy: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).

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