“God’s Unpredictable Plans”

The following is a response I was invited to recently give to chapter 1 of Matt Brough’s forthcoming book Let God Send: Crossing Boundaries and Serving in Christ’s Name.  Matt is the Minister of Word and Sacraments at Prairie Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  He also serves as the Program Coordinator for the New Worshiping Communities Initiative of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

In academic contexts, when a person is asked to respond to a book or article of some sort, the response usually takes a predictable form.  A significant portion of the response is devoted to carefully summarizing the argument.  Perhaps a few words of appreciation about the insights and style of the piece are shared, before the reviewer proceeds to demolish some aspect of the work—often inane—in order to demonstrate his or her intellectual superiority.  Thankfully we are not in an academic context!  You have presumably read the chapter or will soon read the chapter, so I don’t have to spend time summarizing it.  And since you have read the chapter, I don’t need to tell you that Matt writes in a clear, winsome, and engaging manner.  Furthermore, since tenure is not on the line in this context, I can forego the academic posturing and pretensions.  Instead I’d like to riff on Chapter 1, “God’s Unpredictable Plans” for a few moments, in a way that I hope will be encouraging to Matt and edifying for all of you.

In 1952, the International Missionary Council met in Willingen, Germany.  The reports and proceedings of the conference introduced a theological term that would dramatically impact upon the self-understanding of missiologists, theologians, and pastors in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st century.  That theological term was the Latin phrase missio Dei, which means “the mission or sending of God.”  Inherent to this term, was a radical questioning of a missionary movement that had become focussed on expanding the institutional church through establishing new franchises in previously under-saturated locations.  The emerging missio Dei theology involved a paradigm shift that sought to re-center mission not in the activity of the church, but first and foremost in the works and ways of God.  This reframing of Christian mission became encapsulated in memorable sayings like:  “The church does not have a mission, rather God has a church for His mission”; and, “The church exists by mission, as fire existing by burning.”  Some of the preeminent voices within this conversation were those of the British missionary to India Lesslie Newbigin, the South African missiologist David Bosch, and the American theologian Darell Guder.  They are all worth reading, but if you have to choose only one, go with Newbigin.

But as time passed, something strange began to happen to the movement.  For a while, the term “missional” was a sexy adjective that was appended to all sorts of terms with the result that it was reduced to sheer banality.  “Missional church” became the name of just one more church program or strategic plan to be enacted by aspiring church leaders, rather than the identifier of the church’s being or essence.  What started out as a theological movement became coopted for various human agendas and ends.  Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, as this has been the proclivity of fallen humanity since the Garden:  grasping for knowledge to control the future so that we can transcend the limits of our creatureliness and be freed from our dependency upon God.  For this reason, I think Matt’s subtle polemic against planning that runs through chapter is quite salutary.

Although it is written for the whole church and not merely theologians or missiologists, I read Let God Send as offering a corrective to some of these unfortunate developments in the missional church movement.  Matt recognizes that “being sent” is not about developing a better program or refining a clearer strategic vision, rather “being sent” first and foremost represents a spirituality borne of theological convictions.

I’m reminded at this point of one of my favourite scenes in the movie Rudy, which tells the story of an undersized, working class young man’s pursuit of his dream to play football for the University of Notre Dame.  After receiving yet another rejection letter from the University, Rudy meets with the priest at the Community College chapel.  After hearing Rudy’s story, the priest counsels him by saying, “In all my years of studying theology I have become confident of one thing . . . There is a God and I am not him.”  Matt reminds us that there is a Sender and we are not Him.  The spirituality of being sent, therefore, involves the prying open of our fists that have been closed through our attempts to control, in order to receive with open hands the free gifts of God.  The name for this self-dispossession or learning to live out of control is simply discipleship.

In our reading for this week, Matt wrote, “Knowing your exact calling, what God is asking you to do, is never as important as simply being with God.”  I want to take this a little further by reading it in light of something Matt said in the introduction, “Being sent is at the heart of Jesus’ identity.”  If we take these two statements together, we see that being with Jesus is being on mission, for you cannot be with Jesus apart from being where he is and He is the Sent One.  Newbigin put it well when he said, ““The deepest motive for mission is simply the desire to be with Jesus where he is, on the frontier between the reign of God and the usurped dominion of the devil.”  This is on preeminent display in the lives of the disciples.  In responding to the call of Jesus—“Come, follow me”—the disciples find themselves feeding a hungry multitude with just a handful of bread and fish, witnessing the healing of the lame and the blind, and drawing the fire of the religious and political establishments in their staunch defense of the status quo.

To begin to wrap things up, if God is the Sender, and Jesus is the Sent One, and we are his disciples, then, as Matt emphasizes, the most important step to take is the next one.  We are not called to have all the answers or to have the journey completely charted out, we are only called to step forth in faith, relying on the God who shows up and provides for us in unanticipated and remarkable ways.  In this way, Matt is laying the groundwork for a missional spirituality characterized by patience and humility.  This is important, for if we share in the sending of the Son, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” entrusting the success of his mission entirely into the hands of his Father as he endured the shame of the cross, what other form of spirituality for his disciples could there be?

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