Competition, Cooperation or Communion?

Evangel – Christmas 2011

Faculty Profile

The Relational Ground of the Missional Church

RyanEverything missional is all the rage these days. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an important theological renewal that has the potential to reinvigorate the church. Nevertheless, there is one thing in particular about the craze that has me concerned: If mission is about being-sent1 into the world, why is there not a corresponding fervor surrounding the spiritual ground of our sending? The spiritual ground I am referring to is communion, or being-in-relationship.2

The fundamental missional insight is that “it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world, as that God has a church for his mission in the world.”3 The mission is the realization of God’s reign, such that God’s will is accomplished on earth as it is in heaven and all creation is redeemed.

In theory, this is all good. The problem is that theory and practice do not necessarily accord. For example, many young people are excited about the kingdom of God (the mission) but fail to see the place or role of the church (the communion) in living out that mission. As such they may be devoted to social justice issues and at the same time have one foot out of the church door.

Now, however we might like to stop here and blame the church’s problems on youthful idealism and a corresponding lack of commitment, in truth the roots of the problem go much deeper. Part of the issue for many young people is the intuition that much that passes for church today is inwardly rather than outwardly focused. In theological terms this is called ecclesiocentrism; in lay terms it’s the “feed me” mentality. In my opinion, this mentality is predicated on a lack of communion not only at the level of the local church but also at the level of the universal church. The proliferation of denominations over the last two centuries (especially) has created the conditions for consumer churches today. Many churches now busy themselves with market-driven techniques for the purpose of customer retention rather than with spiritual attentiveness to the needs of the world. They must in order to survive the competitive spiritual marketplace!

Mission without communion is our problem. Locally, this is the failure to recognize that the kingdom of God does not arrive apart from the person of Jesus
Ryan Scruggs
made present in his body — the church. Globally, this is a failure to recognize that the mission is not driven by market competition, nor is it even best served by inter-denominational cooperation; nothing less than the communion Jesus prayed for in John 17 can provide the spiritual ground necessary for the fruitful sending of the church into the world.

Why? Because the mission of the church participates in the mission of the triune God. Only as the Father sends his Son into the world does the body of Christ go with him by the power of the Spirit (Jn. 20:21). Mission depends on communion because in Christ we are sent from the life of the triune God who is Being-in-Relationship (Jn. 4:8), and because the purpose and goal of the mission is reconciliation with the triune God (Col. 1:20). Communion-Mission-Communion — this is the theo-logic that gives meaning and significance to the great story of creation, fall, and redemption. The sending Father is calling us into eternal loving relationship through the mission of the Son and the Spirit who were sent for our redemption. Yes, we are called to join that mission through the power of the Spirit who unites us to Christ in baptism (Rom. 6:3-5) and who invites us to share in his life through the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16). But, we are called to do so from the loving ground of ecclesial communion and for the ultimate goal of communion with the triune God.

1. The term “mission” is derived from the Latin missio, which means “sending”.

2. The term “communion” is a translation of the Greek koinonia, which means “sharing”.

3. Christopher Wright, The Mission of God, 62.

Ryan is currently Registrar and Instructor in Theology at Alberta Bible College. He holds degrees from Alberta Bible College, the University of Calgary, and McGill University. His academic interests lie at the intersection of theology and spirituality, and most of his scholarly research is focused on the work of Thomas Merton. Most recently he has published an article in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and a chapter in the book, Thomas Merton: Monk on the Edge. Ryan is married to his beautiful wife Jani, and is the proud Father of Rowan and Danae.