Nate Kerr has co-written a piece with Halden Doerge and Ry Siggelkow on the missionary nature of the church. It is natural that Nate would return to this question since it was such a hang-up during the hugely disappointing discussion of his book on various theology blogs — the fetish for “the church” is strong among theology bloggers, and in many cases it seemed to actively impede the understanding of a book that many of those same bloggers claimed to love more than life itself.
In general, the position advanced in the piece is what one would expect Nate to advance — a Barthian “insubstantial” ecclesiology, where the church exists for the salvation of the world rather than the world being saved through incorporation into the church as a substantial entity. I think of the Barthian church (and here one could also draw a connection to Dorothee Soelle) as a kind of avant-garde of humanity that is waiting in joyful hope for the day when it will cease to exist as such and simply be dissolved into the redeemed world, and in my forthcoming book Politics of Redemption I wind up putting forward a similar view of the Christian community.
There are plenty of responses to Nate that berate him for having an insufficiently strong ecclesiology, and those of you who are bored at work might find them to be a good way to kill an hour or two. (Executive summary: Nate needs a stronger ecclesiology.) I’d like to ask a few questions from another direction, centered on Nate’s key concept: “mission.” I understand that history is not destiny and terms can overcome their historical baggage, etc., but if there was ever a term with unfortunate historical baggage, surely it is “mission.” Indeed, it is inextricably tied up with the very Christendom that Nate and his co-authors all stridently oppose.
The strategy of reclaiming and reversing a term is certainly fine, but I worry that the Christendom-oriented idea of mission is always going to exercise an inertial effect — particularly when the church is conceived of as a matter of “religion” or “piety.” Nate does embrace the Barthian critique of religion, but I wonder if this avant-garde church might not need to exercise a little more asceticism in this regard. Why take the risk of turning the true God into another idol by means of worship? Idolatry critique starts at home: the first object of Christian idolatry critique today must be the idol that Christ has become.
In short: I wonder if a truly post-Christendom concept of mission can be anything but a purely secular mission. I take this from Yoder’s Body Politics: the church models for the world how to live better, in ways the world will recognize as better (even if the world wouldn’t have thought of these improvements on its own and could even be surprised by them). What role can a weekly liturgy have here? What place can there be for any vestige of a hierarchical power structure? Indeed — and here is another question — what is all this talk of “prayer” doing in the piece? I have trouble viewing that as anything but a pious gesture, empty of content. Perhaps someone can fill it in for me.
A final, somewhat stupid remark: I don’t get why “Kingdom-World-Church” vs. “Kingdom-Church-World” is supposed to be an evocative or helpful way of putting the central contrast of the piece.