Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Missional Quaker Faith: Introduction

Recently on Facebook, I mentioned that I was "trying to piece together a Quaker philosophy of church-planting." Before I knew it, I had dozens of comments, ranging from skepticism at the very Quaker Church Planters in Detroitidea of church-planting to excited messages expressing that this was something that God was laying on their hearts, as well. It felt like there was quite a bit of energy around this topic, and so I set up a Facebook group called "Quaker Church-Planters" as a point of connection for folks who are interested in exploring how we can, "gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord."(1) As of this writing, the group has over fifty members. Not bad for a branch of Christianity that is notoriously bad at sharing its faith!
Starting a Facebook group was easy; just a few clicks, and we were on our way. But it is another matter entirely to empower and equip Friends to live into the call that Jesus issued in Matthew 28. That is going to take some real time and dedication. We need to be praying, studying the Scriptures, looking into what our heritage as Quakers has to teach us, and reaching out to one another to support each one in living into the mission that God has for us. And we are called to act. When we have prayed, and studied, and considered what Christ is demanding of us, it will soon be time to take our first steps into the mission field.

Christians in the West have long talked about "missions" or "missionary" work exclusively in terms of sending missionaries to foreign countries - preferably countries with non-white peoples, Friends in Indianapolisnon-European languages, and cultural and economic systems different from Western European civilization. In this model of missions, Europe and its predominantly European colonies were understood to be the homeland of Christianity. Christendom - a cultural, religious, political and economic system based in Europe and North America - was the bulwark of the Christian faith. These were societies where the work of missions had long ago been accomplished, and the role of these mature Christian societies was to send missionaries to the rest of the world. Only by "bringing light to the darkness" of Africa, Asia and Latin America could the cause of Christ be won.

There were many problems with this model, not the least of which was the culturally and economically imperialist assumptions that were often interlaced with the good intentions and sincere faith of many Western missionaries. The fundamental problem with the colonial model of missions, however, was not cultural or economic imperialism - as sinful as those excesses were and are. The core flaw in the colonialist mindset was the assumption that the West possessed Jesus Christ, and that we had to deliver him to those outside of Western Christendom who had no access to him.

This mindset remains in force in many circles today, as we see with initiatives like the Joshua Project. Many well-intentioned Western Christians believe that their primary mission is to get the word out to non-European ethnic groups, convincing them to become Christians in the Evangelical tradition. Still, the assumption is that we in the West "have Jesus." The United States and Europe are steeped in fifteen-hundred years of Christian tradition. Our cities are filled with Bibles, church buildings, denominational headquarters and missionary societies. From all outward signs, the Gospel has been preached to the West. "Mission accomplished."

But this colonial mindset misses the point. Jesus is not a "thing" that we can possess as a culture. Jesus is not a mythical character consigned to Silas Wanjala and Cliff Loesch in Wichita, Kansasancient texts; nor is he a distant observer, peering down from his heavenly throne. Jesus is risen, and he lives among us by his Spirit. We do not possess Jesus as a society any more than the Pharisees did. We can abuse him, misrepresent him, even crucify him like our spiritual forbears - but we will never own him. Jesus is the sovereign Lord of all nations - England and France, America and Spain, Nepal and Arabia. He lives in the most remote, non-Christian village of Indonesia, just as he does in Rome - and he reigns in any heart that will accept him, regardless of whether they have heard the gospel story or accepted a particular group's interpretation of Christianity.

The Gospel needs to be preached everywhere, in every culture, and this is just as true in Detroit, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia as it is in Mumbai and Riyadh. In contrast to the colonial perspective that views Jesus as a possession of Western culture, the missional worldview sees the dire need that many in the West have to hear the Good News and to be invited into communities where they can grow as disciples of Jesus. As a missional church, we recognize that the West has never truly been "Christian," in the sense of being yoked to Jesus as a culture. We have always been rebellious and mired in sin, as is starkly apparent from the actions of the so-called "Christian" world in the past fifteen hundred years. Crusades, genocide, war, racism and greed - we have perpetrated all of these atrocities with the name of Jesus on our lips. Clearly, the West's outward confession of Christ has not always reflected a changed heart. The missional church is about seeking that changed heart, demanding a life of wholeness and holiness from those who claim to be following Jesus.

With this realization of our own desperate need for God's healing IMG_0461power and Christ's daily guidance in our lives, we see that all nations - including our own Western society - are fallen, lost, and in need of restored relationship with God. We know from our own experience that this restoration is possible, and that through obedience to Jesus we can be made whole and be brought into genuine fellowship with others who are walking in the Way.

As we examine what a missional Quaker faith might look like, we should always have this simple truth in mind: God loves us and wants to have restored relationship with us, despite our repeated decision to live in outright rebellion against God, both individually and as a culture. God loves us, despite the way in which we have repeatedly turned away from God throughout our history. God loves our neighbors, our classmates and our co-workers. God loves the cities and towns we live in. God desires to gather us together in Christ, so that we can know what true love and unity is. And God is calling us to join with Christ in his ministry of gathering the millions of individuals who are searching for meaning in our post-modern, post-Christendom society. In a world where consumerism and partisan politics are often the height of common meaning, we are in great need of the love of Jesus Christ.

The purpose of the essays that follow will be to outline some of the broad features that might characterize our movement if Friends choose Friends at Rockingham Meetingto respond to Christ's call to join him in the harvest field. I will begin with an exploration of what must be at the core of our faith: the Lord Jesus, both as we know him in Scripture and in our experience as individuals and churches. Next, I will detail the importance of cultivating a spirituality of receptivity, yieldedness and deep listening, and how this practice of waiting on God informs our leadership models and our decision-making process.

Having established the ground of our faith - Jesus Christ, and waiting on him to know his will - I will share about the importance of discipleship, encouraging and equipping one another to grow in faith and in Christ-like character. From this basis, I will go on to discuss how our transformed lives can serve as a basis for transformation in our society, and in establishing new Christian communities.

As we are inwardly and outwardly conformed to the image of Christ, we will experience growth both as individuals and as communities. My sixth essay will focus on what this kind growth might look like for us as missional Quakers. Finally, I will conclude by exploring what it could mean for us to be outwardly focused, taking risks in order to share the love and power of Jesus beyond our class and cultural comfort zones.

The overall goal of this series of essays is to provide a basis for the establishment of new Christian communities, though I believe that if this vision were generally implemented, it would also have a profound effect on our already-existing Meetings.


I must give credit to Alan Hirsch, whose book The Forgotten Ways helped me in organizing my approach to this topic, as well as influencing my thought in a number of ways. While Hirsch and I come from very different backgrounds and are not in agreement on all issues, I appreciate his ability to organize concepts in a way that flows and makes sense.

1. From Friends United Meeting's mission statement (


Martin Kelley said...

Having never been to one of dem there fancy theological institutes of higher education, I've never quite resonated with the "missional" phrase.

To me it comes down to not caring about everyone's social status to remember that we are all God's children. We need to care about each other, about one another's well being both physical and spiritual. If we're doing God's work, it will be pulling all of us up. It's not about finding some comfortable niche (YAF group, small meeting, RSOF) and thinking that we now don't need to share the Good News. It's about keeping friendly and tender, remembering to be loving and compassionate but steadfast in the message we've been given.

I can't wait for future installments. Thanks for doing this!

Micah Bales said...

Hey Martin,

I couldn't agree more. One of the things I hope to do with this series is to present a vision for a Quaker faith that looks beyond our comfortable communities and enters into the "abandoned places of Empire," to use a New Monastic phrase.

About the term "missional": It's funny you imply that I picked this up in seminary; I actually never heard this word while I was at Earlham School of Religion. It's been in the last year or so that this term has really been showing up on my radar screen, and I've become convinced that it's a concept that we as Friends need.

Indeed, the early Friends had this missional thing down! Our challenge today is to once again re-contexualize the Gospel, just as George Fox and the Valiant Sixty did three hundred and fifty years ago.


Raye said...

Thanks, Micah. My instructions, if we can call them that, lately have been more about small things than an overall big picture. Reading this introduction, I feel that I am beginning to see how some of it may fit in this call to spread the Gospel and build communities of followers.

Martin, I appreciate the reminder that caring for each others' wellbeing inside and out is vital.

Unknown said...

I look forward to further installments, Micah. I have been involved in several life giving conversations here that have resulted in DOING something different and not just DEBATING something different. So much in our lives changes and beomes alive when we approach others as having something to teach us and humbly acknowledging that the Impetus has also given us something to add.

Hopeful Pilgrim said...

Thanks for the article, Micah. It's great to see talk of Quakers getting out there and spreading the truth they know with others. It's very easy to slip into becoming "quaint" and comfortable with the organization, and lose the bigger picture of the Kingdom of Heaven which is bigger than any and all organizations.

I agree that missionaries of the past made a number of mistakes, often based on wrong assumptions, as you have said. However, it is also easy to forget the good that has come from such misguided individuals.

As you know, I strongly feel that the real Jesus has been misrepresented in the West (and by turn in the developing world). So I definitely agree that there is still a need for "mission" in the West. We do have the advantage that some people at least give lip service to Jesus, which allows us greater freedoms than in some other countries (e.g. China, Saudi Arabia, etc.). But it also means we have to wade through much of the confusion that has come from decades of preaching false Christs.

The harvest is great, but the labourers are few. Pray therefore to the Lord of the harvest that he will send more labourers!!

Marty Calliham said...

Thank thee, Micah, for this. I have often struggled with trying to share my faith in Jesus Christ with both my non-Friend Christian friends and my spiritual-but-not-religious friends. The history of Christendom has thrown a lot of stumbling blocks in the way. Perhaps thy essays will help me find helpful words.

Jason Laird said...

I am so encouraged to hear that you are onto Alan Hirsch. I have read Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch, Leslie Newbigin starting in 2006. I really appreciate their perspective. I view them in the prophetic tradition of George Fox. When I read the Journal of George Fox in 2008, I wanted to check out a Quaker meeting now to see if I could find some like-minded folks. Unfortunately many in the meeting where I have been attending now for two years do not consider themselves Christian. I wish I was a little closer to you in DC. I lived in and around DC since high school and college, but have lived further out recently - too far to make regular trips to Capitol Hill where I think you guys meet. I actually came in to DC for an Ecclesia conference at the 4-H center in NW a couple years ago to hear Alan and Debbie Hirsch in person.

Micah Bales said...

@Raye Thanks for the encouragement! It's a blessing to hear how God is leading you and how our lives in Christ are intertwined. The Spirit leads us all in ways that fit together so beautifully if we are faithful.

@April I'm glad you're reading. I hope that my writing can be helpful as we take practical steps forward in the Life that God has in store for us. In my experience, God guides us in our reflection so that we may be prepared for faithful action.

@Hopeful I was concerned that perhaps this post would be read as being a big slam on missionaries - or on Western Christianity in general. I hope that I did not go too far in that direction. I deeply respect the efforts of many of the millions of missionaries - European and non-European - who have sacrificed so much to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

While Jesus is indeed present in every heart and every culture, he calls us to make his presence more fully known through our lives that embody his love and justice. Thank God for the faithful "sent ones" who have gone before; may we in this generation live up to the high standard that they have set for us.

@Marty I'm glad to have thee reading along - and especially grateful for thy willingness to comment! I hope that the essays that follow will be useful in thy walk with the Lord.

@TheYellowDart It is wonderful to hear that you are inspired by the lives and witness of the early Friends. It saddens me deeply that you have not found this witness in our modern-day community.

Do you still live in the DC area? Even if you are too far out to regularly attend Capitol Hill Friends, I would love to connect with you. Please feel free to send me an email (micahbales at gmail dot com).


Adria Gulizia said...

Micah, I think this is a fantastic idea, though I find the expression "church-planting" to be somewhat problematic (perhaps "church gathering" would be preferable, as I believe that God does the "planting").

I'm wondering about eldering, though. This seems like the sort of leading that should be carried out not individually, but in small groups, with spiritual companions and advisors and possibly some kind of anchoring committee. However, I imagine that it might be difficult in many meetings to find people who are receptive to serving on such a committee because of the strong anti-evangelical current among many Friends. If you have found that, is the initiative you are planning to take completely "extra-structural," with no institutional support? How does that comport with Friends' tradition of expanding by establishing structures under the care of existing structures? Or is this more like unofficial worship group planting, with individual groups having the opportunity to seek affiliation with a meeting or not?

Perhaps this is all explained if I look on the Facebook page, but it seems like a paradoxical situation. I think that Friends do have a mission to fulfill, and I can't waith to hear your collective ideas on how to stay true to Friends' rhizomatic yet defined structure while overcoming the inertia that that structure seems to have produced, i.e. the fact that you can't do anything without meeting approval and you can't get meeting approval if people don't think you have a good idea and if people thought you had a good idea, they'd probably be doing it already.