Bearing witness to our missional God
A proposal to replace the word 'missional' with 'bearing witness'by Ron Adams
At the Mennonite Church USA gathering in Pittsburgh last July, delegates were instructed to spend time discussing what it means to be missional. The moderator of that session began by telling us what missional means and what it does not mean.
Missional is not about program, he said. Missional is not what your congregation’s outreach committee does. Missional is an adjective that describes God. Being missional means figuring out what God is up to and then joining that work. Missional is our calling.
Even after the explanation, our table group remained fuzzy about the whole thing. Much of our conversation was around trying to define the term. We shared stories of the mission programs in our congregations and learned about the movement of the Spirit in our various communities. But I left the conversation feeling unsettled by our befuddlement about the word missional. No matter how hard we tried, we kept on slipping back into the language of program and outreach.
Then it occurred to me. Maybe the problem was not with me or with the members of our table group. Maybe the problem is that word: missional.
We Mennonites have been using this word for at least the last 10 years. Yet we always need to explain what we mean whenever we use it. We preface every missional conversation with a definition, with what we don’t mean and what we do mean when we say the word.
Something is wrong here. We are reasonably smart people. Well-educated and diligent in our church work. Yet, with the exception of a few experts among us, we can’t seem to find our way toward a comfortable usage of missional. This suggests that the problem is not with us. The word is the problem. And words matter.
I humbly propose that we jettison the word. It does not serve us well. In its place, I propose: bearing witness. I propose the change not just because of the confusion caused by the missional word. In his final words to the disciples, Jesus commanded them to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Christ’s followers have been compelled to bear witness ever since. Bearing witness is rooted in the Scripture.
I also propose the change for what I think are sound theological reasons. The underlying assumption of missional language is that God is actively engaged with and in our world. That assumption is essential. God is missional. We are not the primary actors in salvation history. We are not little messiahs, responsible to complete the work begun by Christ. God’s Spirit is still at large in the world. And the coming redemption is being ushered in by God through Christ. To all of this we are witnesses.
This is especially important for us Mennonites to remember. We tend toward what, back in the day, was called “works righteousness.” I don’t mean that we believe that if we are good and do good we will be saved by virtue of that goodness. We are too well trained theologically to believe such a thing.
What I mean by “works righteousness” is this: We like to keep busy. We like to keep prodding things along, making the world a better place. We work to build the kingdom of God. We say we are Christ’s hands and feet. None of this is necessarily problematic. We have done much good in our pursuit of such goals.
But underneath it all is a pervasive anxiety. This anxiety springs from the fact that we are not entirely sure God is willing and able to make all things new. We do not believe what we pray, that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So we seek to take control. We apply the word missional to ourselves. We presume to lend God a hand, calling ourselves God’s missional partners, by which we really mean we are the ones on whom the work depends.
Consider the denomination’s call to plant more churches. Not a bad thing at all. If the Spirit calls a congregation to plant a church, I say: Godspeed.
But what often drives that call is the fear that we are dying. Rather than marveling at what God is doing among and through us, we try to increase production. Rather than trusting that the Spirit is active in our grayest congregations, we turn away from them in embarrassment as evidence of our approaching end. Rather than merely finding Conrad Kanagy’s Road Signs for the Journey sociologically interesting, we treat it like a prophecy announcing our demise.
In short, we act as though God’s head is no longer in the game, which means it falls on us to keep things moving on toward glory. If God is not going to fix the church, then we better well hop to it. Let the dead bury their dead. We’ll plant something new. And all will be well.
The word missional feeds our anxiety. It tells us we must find out where God is and what God is doing and lend a hand. Though missional language can teach us to recognize that God is the prime mover, when applied to the church it implies that we are equal partners in God’s work. Without us the whole project crumbles. If we don’t do something and quick, the church will fade away, and all will be lost. The pressure is on, just like it always has been. We’ve changed the prescription, but that same sick feeling remains.
Hence my call to exchange the word missional for the words bearing witness. At first hearing, bearing witness sounds passive, which is a conversation stopper for us Mennonites. As I said, we like to keep busy.
But what if our need to be busy is symptomatic of a fundamental lack of trust? What if it is a side effect of the pervasive anxiety that afflicts us as a denomination? Might it be good for us to just keep still and trust that God is God and that, because of this central fact, all will come out right in the end?
In fact, bearing witness is not passive at all. It means keeping awake to the movement of God in the world. It means having eyes to see the redemptive work of Christ all around us. It means keeping watch for the always active Holy Spirit. It means bearing witness to what we have seen.
We do not do this only with words, though they are important. In testifying to what we see we offer a glimpse of the deeper reality that otherwise goes unnoticed. We name what is otherwise unnamed. We invite folks to see the world for what it is: the focus of God’s loving intentions. We shore up the faith of sisters and brothers who have lost sight of God’s work in the world. Bearing witness in our speech is necessary.
But we also bear witness by living as if what we preach is true. For example, we claim that God loves all human beings equally and without regard to race. We bear witness to that claim by living as if it were so. We seek to dismantle racism. Not because God will otherwise walk away and let racism thrive. But because Christ has already torn down the dividing wall. We bear witness by learning how to live like it were so.
We claim that peace is God’s will for humanity. So we seek peace and pursue it. Not because God will otherwise let us keep killing each other but because we want to bear witness to God’s will. We serve the poor and vulnerable not out of some messianic attempt to make the world right but in bearing witness to the world as God is remaking it.
No, bearing witness is not passive.
But it does put the theological shoe back on the correct foot. It makes clear that God is the one who will make all things new. God is indeed still at work. God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The church can rest into its firm foundation, even during times of change. We may safely abide in the loving embrace of Christ Jesus, who holds the whole world in his hands. The promises God made will be kept.
This means we can lay down our anxious efforts to push God’s work along and instead simply keep our eyes open and tell everyone around us what we have seen. We can start living into what has already come. We can trust that God, who promised that it would be so, will make it so. We can let go of the anxiety that weighs us down and lift our heads and rejoice in what God is doing to save the world.
We can bear witness to God’s mission in the world.
Ron Adams is pastor of Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church.
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