Living the Missional Calling
SAPMC Missional Conference
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
– Henri Nouwen
1. WHAT IS A PLUNGE?
At the outset, I want to make a few remarks about culture. Culture refers to a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.
We all take part in, and are part of culture, and e.g. all churches are cultural institutions. They are governed by this shared sense of what it is all about.
It is often said that culture is like air to a human being, or water to a fish. Fish are actually not aware that they are surrounded by water. Water is just there, water is the way things are around here, it is accepted as an invisible part of life. But take a fish out of water, place it in fresh air, bring it to other possibilities, and the cultural shock is very concretely and immediately there.
A plunge is to deliberately move from the context of your dominant culture to another culture. It is like a human being plunging into water and moving around in water. Suddenly everything changes. Your weight change in the water, movement is different, you need to use your muscles differently, strengths on land, may become weaknesses in water, etc.
For churches to leave the safety of the religious culture they own, to leave their perceived moral high ground behind, to perhaps speak of the deepest experiences of their hearts in a different language, amongst people who do not see life in the same way, who do not value the same things we do, is very threatening.
Our culture is often blind to other possibilities, it is often a closed system where we cannot imagine other ways of being and doing, which make it very threatening for us to jump into the murky water of groups we do not feel comfortable with.
2. WHY PLUNGE?
2.1 To re-connect with our context and with God’s actions
In the Reformed tradition, as is the case with many mainline churches (old or more traditional churches), reality is defined for us by our theological convictions. We fit our theology likes glasses or lenses to our eyes and we see what our lenses permit us to bring into focus.
We are being taught that God speaks to us only through the Word, and specifically the Word as it is preached to us by well trained theologians or pastors. In their sermons they (we, us) keep our understanding of the world, with its many cultural groupings (that is groups with a particular way of life, not only ethnic groups) intact.
That disconnects it with the world in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are active agents, bringing healing and restoration to. We can re-connect with God’s actions by dwelling, plunging in our world.
It reminds me of the inner-city congregation in Port Elizabeth which started to distribute Bibles to people form other nationalities living in the downtown area. They were welcomed by these people, friendships grew, the outsiders started to attend church services. A complicated set of circumstances and leadership challenges grew out of this initiative, with conflict amongst members too, but the congregation feels alive, in tune with God’s mission, and energised in a way you could not imagine a short while ago.
2.2 To grow in our teachability
Within our boundaries we have our ways of describing our world and our set ideas about what is going on.
Once we move beyond our boundaries, once we plunge, we experience I different reality. Suddenly our ideas become problematic – we realise that we do not understand, that we need to be taught how to minister in realities that are vastly different from our presuppositions.
When God sends us to another group, we better learn out of personal experience about that group, we need to connect with them in spaces in which we are not in control of the situation, in order for us to learn.
We often learn what the Gospel is all about. We may enter a culture thinking we know what the Gospel can offer people. But as we see, learn, and grow we often grow in our own understanding of the Gospel and about God’s agenda in the world.
2.3 To become aware of our own invisible walls, which keep people out
Your own culture is like air, or like water to a fish, it is not visible to you. The walls, habits, customs, values, and rituals created by your culture are not visible to you, but it is real, it is there, and it is keeping others out.
A few examples:
• The role of silence in the church – for us silence may be holy, for people with small kids, or youngsters, the silence may be threatening;
• Assumptions about proper dressing, proper language, proper greeting; etc.
2.4 To form new community (the Gospel of Plunging)
If being missional is about forming new community, and welcoming the people to whom you are sent into community, and it is, then plunging is the way to go. The desire behind plunging is to be taken up into new community.
2.5 To form a bridge community that will be able to guide our ministry forward
We do not know how to minster to those to whom we are being sent. Therefore we need to learn together with them how to minister to them, and how to receive ministry from them. By plunging into communities the invaluable bridge communities are formed that guide us forward.
3. THE GOSPEL AND PLUNGING
3.1 The plot of the gospel
According to Luke 10 the peace of Jesus is extended by strangers entering a world, a city, a place, a house, where a harvest has been prepared in advance by the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The plot of the Gospel is the Holy Community, the Holy Trinity, sending the Son as a stranger into the world to bring us into communion with God. We partake in that mission when we are taken up into this ever expanding search of God to extend this communion.
To plunge is therefore at the heart of the Gospel. When Jesus originally sent the first disciples into the world my forebears were living in Europe, far from God. It was by plunging, and plunging, stretching over centuries, that new community was formed.
That dynamic repeats itself over and over as we take part in the dynamic crossing of boundaries wherever we are.
3.2 Taming the gospel?
We can tame the gospel by institutionalising it, by making it our way of caring for existing members. It often happens in congregations. We exchange the dynamic character of the gospel for the idol of mutual care for existing members. Mutual, Christian care is part and parcel of the gospel. But it is not the whole gospel.
The danger is that we may use the gospel to further the church’s institutional interests by changing it into a way of caring for one another.
It reminds me of our dog, a Belgian Shepherd, called Zoë. She looks like a wolf – to some extend – but she is domesticated, tame. We may domesticate the gospel, which turns the gospel into pseudo-good news to those fortunate enough to be included in or company. By plunging we re-connect to the wild gospel, the gospel that never respects any border or boundary, but sweeps us into companionship with strangers, in order for us to meet God.
STORY: ZOË, THE BELGIAN SHEPHERD
4. THE BIGGER PICTURE OF PLUNGING
As a way of taking up ministry, plunging is part of a way is understanding that is vastly different from the traditional way we do theology and practise ministry.
We are trained to work with a theory – application model. You need to see the truth, you need to have a good theory about ministry, and then you apply it. You have a vision of the “true”, ideal church, and then you do “true church” at ground level.
This type of approach goes back over centuries and is deeply rooted in Western thought. It reminds me of the metaphor the Greek philosopher Plato, used in his Republic-dialogue, likening us to prisoners being chained in a cave. Behind us people are carrying stuff around, and a big fire is burning in the mouth of the cave. We see only shadows against the walls of the cave, and we take the shadows for reality. We need to be released from our chains, we need to walk in the light to see the real truth, in order for us to apply truth, in this case in the governance of the city.
It is first about theoretical seeing, and then applying it. This model is the death in the pot for missional ministry. It is this model that isolates us from real, vibrating, pulsing life, and which isolates us from God in our midst.
Plunging is part of a model of doing ministry that we may call an emergent model. In an emergent model, the rhythm is doing – reflecting – doing – reflecting. It is dwelling in the world (plunging) and reflecting (dwelling in the Word). It is about the Christian community seeking for God’s guidance by reflecting with the Word in one hand and the world (community) God is sending us to in the other hand, reflecting about our Christian identity and God’s preferred future for us. And then to follow God into that unchartered future, while we keep on doing and reflecting.
In this model mistakes are important. We need to give one another permission to take the risk of making mistakes. By reflecting on our mistakes, we grow, and we learn.
Welcome to the dynamic, adventurous world of plunging!