Within the missional conversation there is a common mantra: “God is at work already in the world, we are called to join in with what He is already doing.”
I have always found this missional mantra helpful as a corrective to evangelicalism’s patterns of engaging the surrounding community. The evangelicalism of my youth saw engagement with those outside the church primarily through what we called one-on-one evangelism. Christians were sent out into the neighborhood as individuals armed with the truth. We were sent to proclaim the truth which usually meant giving a presentation of a particular gospel one on one to a lost person seeking a moment of conversion. There was little room for God’s work of restoring all things in that gospel presentation. And it always felt like the Christian carried the truth as his/her possession to those who didn’t have it. Once they received it, they would then be expected to come to our church. For many reasons (which I can’t go into here now) this approach is built on the back of a Christian society. It makes little to no sense for those worlds that are now post- Christendom culture.
And yet I remain unsatisfied with what has become the alternative approach to cultural engagement. This “missional mantra” of “joining in with what God is already doing” seems to imply that Christians bring nothing with them into the context to which he/she has been sent. What then does it mean to be sent? As a result, we are left wandering looking for God assuming He is at work in anything in the world named justice. We end up exhausting ourselves in mission/social work/ good deeds because we have no theology as to how God’s reign/power/authority works in and around us (in a way that is not us). We have become so worried, it seems, about colonialist imperialism, that we shy away from owning that Christians bring something with us into our neighborhoods and places of mission(society/culture /world etc.).
All of which leads me to the very dangerous but stunningly important point of this entire post: Sentness extends the authority of the Kingdom. In “being sent” by God through Jesus by the Spirit into the neighborhood, we bring the authority of the Kingdom with us. Yet this does not deny that God is already at work and indeed Lord of the world. And this does not deny that this inbreaking authority is not ours and we can never be in control of it. In essence, when we accept our identity as being sent, we become carriers of the authority of the Kingdom. But this authority of Jesus Kingdom only becomes present when we as subjects submit to His rule and authority and let Him reign. The minute we pretend to be in control or own it or get coercive with it, it is gone. Nonetheless, our entry into a neighborhood, as people already in submission to His Lordship/Kingdom sets loose a dynamic in which God’s Kingdom can become materially manifest in a way in which it wasn’t before. This dynamic overcomes both colonialist pretension and accomodationist passivity.
Luke 10, John 20
There is a stunning array of passages in the New Testament which reference this dynamic. But let me just offer two. Luke 10 is a foundational missional text detailing Jesus’ “sending” of the seventy to every town and place (10.1). They are “sent” and told God is already working (“the harvest is plentiful – ready to be picked” 10.2). Yet they are told that when they proclaim the “Kingdom has come nigh” (10.9) that they speak in the authority of Jesus (10.16). When they return from the mission they are stunned at the authority of the Kingdom that has been let loose in and through them. “Lord even the demons submit to us in your name” (v. 17). Jesus says he saw the powers of Satan fall in the midst of the gospel proclaimed. “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.” The power and authority of the Kingdom has been set loose in the sending. Yet Jesus says “don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, it’s not your authority, rejoice that the authority of heaven was set loose through your participation in it as members. The dynamic is brilliantly illustrated: even though God was at work already in these towns and villages, it was the presence of the sent ones in submission to his name(authority) that became the space for the inbreaking Kingdom to become manifest.
Likewise, in John 20:21 Jesus says, as his disciples are being deputized as the first apostles – the sent ones , “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Then he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit and says “receive ye the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This “binding and loosing” is the sign that indeed the authority of the Kingdom of heaven is being released with this sending. They are the keys to the kingdom (Matt 16.19). They are the sign that the Kingdom of God is breaking in (Matt 18.18). “Binding and loosing” is the very authority of the King becoming manifest among flesh.
This manifest authority, the presence of Jesus via the Spirit, breaks in wherever space is cleared for his work or hospitality, with-ness, Kingdom prayer, reconciliation, the gifts of the Spirit and the contextual proclamation of the gospel. We spent ch. 7 of Prodigal Christianity talking about this a little. I have a full book coming out on these practices and the dynamics surrounding them in 2014. But the point here is, God is surely already working there in this context, but the kingdom actually becomes visible when God’s people meet together submitting to it in time, place and context, i..e the neighborhood.
Some may say this domesticates the power of the Kingdom. It puts the Kingdom at our disposal and makes the church the keepers of the Kingdom. Not true. Because a.) God is already working in the world (outside the church), and b.) wherever God’s people come together to submit to his rule in time place or context, it becomes visible. BUt it only happens in a posture of submission. Once we do not submit, there is no more inbreaking Kingdom. The kingdom of God can never be controlled or possessed by God’s people (this is what triumphalism looks like). When we seek to control it God’s power leaves. An example of this loss is when the disciples failed to heal the epileptic in Mar 9 14ff. When the disciples asked “why could we not cast it out?” they correctly articulated that they had sought to take control of the authority as if it was theirs. Instead Jesus says (Mark 9:29) “this kind comes out only by prayer:” by submission to God, His Kingdom and His will.
And so the dynamic of entering the context as sent one does not merely entail that God is already working and all we have to do is join in, although that is true. It is not that we bring something that we control. No we enter a context as God’s people humbly contextually to submit to God’s power as His subjects to become the space and to clear the space in which God’s Kingdom can break in. In the process we become witnesses by which the rest of the neighborhood can see and join in. In this marvelous dynamic, the manifestations of the Kingdom break out ahead of the time when the whole world shall see the culmination of all things in Gods Kingdom.
This then is what I mean when I say “Sentness extends authority.”