We started a new semester at Christ College last week. I’m teaching a unit which I always really enjoy called Church and Ministry which aims to connect serious theological reflection with approach approaches to church life and leadership. We started by thinking about the church and mission and read some of Mike Goheen’s book A Light to the Nations. In the final chapter he thinks about what the church should be like when it is shaped by God’s mission. In a really good book, the part I like most is his thoughts about the church as a ‘contrast community’.[1]M.W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 208-211 He presents ways the gospel should make us critique Western culture and how the church should look different to the surrounding culture. He isn’t thinking about being different just for the sake of it or making ourselves stand out in weird ways. He assumes that God’s people will always stand out from the world (we are meant to be salt and light and “must no longer live as the Gentiles do”). The question is how we should be different. It is easy to conform to the world and its only the Spirit who enables us discern the problem and have the courage and wisdom to stand apart.
Goheen emphasises that we engage the culture by being a counter community. It isn’t a matter of hiding away. Genuine gospel communities present a glimpse of God’s kingdom and what real humanity looks like. We don’t, of course, perfect this, yet even our admission of failure (and our prayers of confession) are part of the contrast to a society which hides its guilt and weakness.

Goheen frames the question this way: “What spiritual currents in our culture must we live against? What do those spiritual currents reveal about the religious hunger of our contemporaries to which our lives can be good news?” His list identifies key issues and gets me thinking about other areas we need to work on.

He says that a contrast community will be one of

  • justice in a world of economic and ecological injustice;
  • generosity and simplicity (of “enough”) in a consumer world;
  • selfless giving in a world of selfishness and entitlement;
  • humble and bold witness to the truth in a world of uncertainty;
  • hope in a world of disillusionment and consumer satiation.

It will also be, perhaps primarily, a community that experiences God’s presence in a secular world which is empty of meaning. Our worship is the key to our contrast.

I can think of some other contrasts as well:

  • valuing the ageing in a youth culture
  • enjoying just being in a world of achievement and ambition
  • living faithfully in a world of disposable relationships.

I’m sure you can see others as well.

Over the last few years I’ve come to think that this approach should be central to thinking about church, mission and ethics. The church is the alternative community created by Christ, through this church God presents his gospel to the world, and the way we live for Christ is living faithfully together. Re-reading A Light to the Nations, I wondered how much I got the idea from Goheen to begin with. Wherever I got the idea from initially, I think it is a great insight.

References   [ + ]

1.M.W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 208-211