More than 50 years ago scientists made a remarkable discovery, proclaiming, "We have found the secret of life ... and it's so pretty!" The secret was the discovery that life is helixical, two strands wound around a single axis—what most of us know today as the model for DNA.
Over the course of his ministry, author Leonard Sweet has discovered that this divine design also informs God's blueprint for the church. In this seminal work, he shares the woven strands that form the church: missional, relational, and incarnational. Sweet declares that this secret is not just pretty, but beautiful. In fact, So Beautiful!
Using the poignant life of John Newton as a touchstone, Sweet calls for the re-union of these three essential, complementary strands of the Christian life. Far from a novel idea, Sweet shows how this structure is God's original intent, and shares the simply beautiful design for His church.
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DIVINE DESIGN FOR LIFE AND THE CHURCH
By LEONARD SWEET
David C. CookCopyright © 2009 Leonard Sweet
All rights reserved.
I don't much like God when he gets under a roof.
It stands as one of the all-time classic lines in American cinema history: In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character, Benjamin Braddock, is given advice by one of his father's business buddies.
"Just one word," the man says. "Are you listening?"
"Yes, sir," the graduate answers.
If there were "just one word" the church needs to hear today, it is the one you will hear in a variety of ways throughout this book.
God is a God of motion, of movement, of mission. Or, as it is popular nowadays to say, "two-thirds of the word God is go."
Mission is not an activity of the church but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God, Jesus is a missionary Messiah, and the Spirit is a missionary Spirit. Missions is the family business.
God doesn't so much have a singular "plan" for your life as God has made you for a mission and has a design whereby you can accomplish who you were born to be. God doesn't just have an agenda for you to do; God has a mission for you to live.
Disciples of Jesus live a mission-shaped life. Every life is a missionary life. Every marriage is a missionary marriage. Every vocation is a missionary vocation. We're all here on assignment.
To think that your church exists to provide a pew for you is to forget that one word, to miss mission.
Your church exists to love the world and to commission you for a mission of expanding beauty, truth, and goodness upon the earth.
Life on earth is a temporary assignment.
—Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven LifeCHAPTER 2
Are you familiar with the missionary position? For those of you who are easily offended, this is your great moment. Just remember: The place where offense is most easily taken is in prison.
The church needs to rediscover the Missionary Position, a posture that forces us to look at the world eye-to-eye and face-to-face without turning our backs. The Missionary Position tries to get together with the world in a healing and so-beautiful way. It doesn't view the world as a "market" but as a "mission."
Everyone is here on assignment. Everyone is on a mission. Everyone is a missionary. Every Christian has an apostolate to fulfill. Every disciple of Jesus conveys the good news to the world. If the great discovery of the Protestant Reformation was that everyone is a minister, the great discovery of what God is up to today (yet to be named) is that everyone is a missionary.
Yes, I know, I know. There's a big problem with that word missionary, not to mention the fact that the word mission is not found in the New Testament. I guarantee you that when you say "missionary," the first image that comes to mind is not the missionary to China around whom a whole movie was made called Chariots of Fire. And rather than Eric Liddell in the 1924 Olympics, you are more likely to think of Robert De Niro in the 1986 movie The Mission. A missionary ... always works in Africa, is poor, has awkward social skills, dresses poorly, and is completely out of touch with reality. At best, the status of "missionary" is seen as an elite spiritual position to which only a select few are called. At worst, "missionary" is a backward calling for those who can't make it in the real world; people who will no doubt impoverish the "natives" and put them at risk, making them easy prey for persecution and elimination, by devaluing local customs and promoting Western values.
Forget all that (for now). You have been given an assignment to fulfill. And it will not work to pull off a Walter Cronkite, who named his sailboat Assignment so that whenever CBS announced that Cronkite was not hosting the evening news because he was "on Assignment," they would be telling the truth.
To be alive is to be gifted with a mission ... a magical, engrossing mission that leads to adventure, sacrifice, frustration, fulfillment, and holiness. Being missional is not something you do to get something done, like grow a church or sign the succeed-creed. Missional is who you are, because it is who God is. Disciples have one mission (to make other disciples), but we express it in many missions (the unlimited ways to fulfill our mission). Everything about life should be missional—how we Twitter, take vacations, talk to our kids, even how we tip.
Either you are a minister or you need one. Either you are a missionary or you need one.
—Presbyterian pastor John Huffman's oft-repeated refrain
From the moment we meet God in Genesis, God is "up to something." Like the conductor in Fantasia, God is whirling and swirling creation into being. The missional thrust begins in the very being of God. God goes out in love to create the cosmos: "Let there be light." The missional bent is there from the beginning. Whatever your theology of the Bible may be, God is always defined in terms of creativity. But the Creator has creativity with a purpose, with a mission. Creativity without the thread of purpose unravels in chaos.
The ultimate story of the Bible, the metanarrative that unlocks the whole story, is that God is on a mission, and we are summoned to participate with God in that mission. The impulse to create, to conceive, is what lies at the heart of the missional.
Blessed is the man who finds out which way God is moving and then gets going in the same direction.
Even when God showed Abraham the Promised Land, Abraham didn't sit down. The "wandering Aramean" became a wayfaring Hebrew, a pilgrim on a journey. The God of the Bible is only static in unwavering loyalty to the covenant and unchanging love for the creation. This is one reason why the Gospels are filled with travel metaphors. Len Hjalmarson brilliantly elaborates the difference between a temple spirituality and a tabernacle spirituality; the former being priest-centric, the latter being road-centric.
Stillness is a problem. Stillness is something you're told to do at the dentist's office or in the detention center: "Keep still." In the still of the night, I walk around our silent house, but the stillness and silence are not ends in themselves. They prepare me for movement. They are "sacraments of the world to come," in the words of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, preparing us to use words and metaphors, "the weapons of this world." The energies of Christianity are outward. Unlike many other religions, the movement of faith is not from the outward to the inward, or from the inward to the innermost inward, but from the inward to the outward and back in again. From a theological standpoint, a "still life" (whether in the form of a painting or person) is a contradiction in terms.
Different tribes boast their own distinctive articulations of the missio Dei, but an outward thrust is one of the things that makes the Jewish Christian traditions unique. The universe was not created by a God at rest or a God at peace. The universe was created by a God in motion, a God in mission, a God who "goes" and who tells all gatekeepers to "Let my people go," a God who "goes out," a God who "goes before," a God who "goes with," a God who is constantly creating, and a God who has left a creation still unfinished.
Except on the Sabbath, God never appears in the Bible as a God of the status quo or stillness. T. S. Eliot expressed this insight in a familiar phrase that we almost never quote in its fullness: "At the still point of the turning world, Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is." Even though the word itself is an adjective, missional is all about verbs, not nouns, because only missional "loving" gives meaning to our existence.
A spirit with a vision Is a dream with a mission.
—Neil Peart, lyrics from the Rush song "Mission"CHAPTER 3
Drama comes from the Greek word dran, which means "to do." The incarnation is all about God's drama of "doing God," God's drama of love. God didn't just say "I love you." God loved. God did God. God lived in our midst and loved us and invited us to "do God" along with him.
"Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." My translation of "Go Make Disciples" is "Go Do Me." Is this not the second-best mission statement in the Bible: "Go Do Me"? Doing the gospel is primary speech; talking about the gospel is secondary speech. Unfortunately, we swallow the secondary "talk" with ease but strain at that primary "do." To "Go Do Me," to "doing God" by doing good, I must be simultaneously seeing, following, and being Christ. I have no theology to impart, no biblical interpretation to argue, no agenda to accomplish. I only have my life.
When I offer a congregation my favorite benediction, it goes like this:
"Want to follow Jesus? Leave the church. Get out of the church. Leave. I mean it. Right now. Get out of here. Scram. Now. Out of here. Did you hear me? ... Leave this church. Now! Jesus says, 'Go Do Me.' Go be Jesus."
Or in a more user-friendly version of primary speech: "Tag. You're it."
As soon as you say to Jesus "I'm in," he says back at you, "You're out." Life is a round-trip in which we are never sure which is the outward and which is the inward journey. We don't need more mission trips but more mission people for whom all of life is a mission trip. In my holiness tradition we used to have a name for people who were "out and out for Jesus": Out-and-Outers. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be an Out-and-Outer, an "Outie" rather than an "Innie," to appropriate obstetrics language. The missional strategy of the early church was an "outing": Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Theology in the Church of the future will have to be a missionary theology in a missionary Church.
I know of a church that wanted to be "on mission," so they put on a concert with free food to draw people to the church. The congregants are mostly suburbanites who drive in to the city where the church is located—a neighborhood where most of the homeless people and prostitutes hang out and on the edge of one of the nation's largest homosexual communities (just behind San Francisco and Atlanta).
So what happens when word spreads about free food in the neighborhood? You guessed it. About two hundred starving homeless people showed up to eat all of these nice church people's food with their grubby, disease-ridden hands. Even now, the organizers of this "on mission" project have eyes that glaze over while traumatic looks twist their faces as they recall the "disaster." All future church picnics were held in a beautiful suburban park so that "awful" experience would never happen again. Of course now only people from the church know when the free-food banquets are held. But they do put up the canopy with the church name and Web site on it to let everyone know they are "on mission" to their city.
Jesus "sent them out." God can enter a bar or bordello just as easily as God can enter a Baptist church. God can show up in a meth lab just as quickly as God can show up in a Methodist church. The MRI design is in those three words: "sent them out." Just as the early church was shaped by MRI, so now the very way we are the church must be shaped by MRI. The church will only discover itself in the world. The church doesn't "go" into the world and take the church there. The church "goes" into the world to discover itself there. The church isn't "sent" into the world merely to bless or even to "be a blessing to the nations." The church is "sent" to be Jesus. Jesus is the blessing. As we incarnate Jesus in the world, we will find ourselves doing things he did, even "greater things."
It is time for the mission of the church to shape the theology of the church.
It is time for life formation and discipleship training to take place in the context of mission.
It is time for the dichotomy between church and world to be as shattered as that temple veil was shattered by Jesus on the cross. God can no longer be kept in God's "holy temple."
I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a hypaethral book, such as Thoreau talked about—a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.
—Wendell BerryCHAPTER 4
First, the Word is sent. A biblical theology is a theology of "sentness." John's gospel, one of the great missionary documents of the New Testament, quotes Jesus saying, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." Jesus is the "sent One," and we are "sent ones."
Just as God took a crusty clump of clay and "breathed" into it until it became a human, the living cosmos came to consciousness, so Jesus took that congregated clay and breathed into it until it became a church, the living body of Christ animated for mission. Breath is comprised of two elements: wind and water. To be born of water and of the Spirit is to live a God-breathed life. The word God breathed into the church at Pentecost is mission. Pentecost is the coming of the Holy Spirit for the going of God's people. The Spirit comes that we might go as Jesus went and sent us after him. God loves the world so much that he sends the church in mission.
Christopher J. Wright, in his magisterial book The Mission of God, puts it this way: "Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God's people, at God's invitation and command, in God's own mission within the history of God's world for the redemption of God's creation."
We have been saved to be sent—saved for the world and to continue Christ's mission in the world to "redeem God's creation." The Holy Spirit is given to the church, not to make it strong for strength's sake but so that the church can give itself away in mission and ministry in the world. The Holy Spirit is not an instrument or tool of the church. The church is an instrument of the Holy Spirit, the impresario of Christ's mission in the world, in which the church is the instrument. Without the Holy Spirit—who hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation, who raised Jesus from the dead, who is the soul of the church and lives in each of us—there is no mission. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses."
That is why mission always trumps church order and structures.
In its very nature, the church is a sign of the triune life and thus is missional just by being. The Holy Spirit is given to the church for its mission, turning people from curving in on themselves to curving outward in love for the world. Pastor Ed Robb of Woodlands, Texas, identifies the most exciting moments in his ministry when he sees the Holy Spirit transform "successful, suburbanite socialites into mission junkies."
Just because God sent you doesn't mean God told anyone else you were coming!
—Virginia Hoch's word of warning to God's gangbustersCHAPTER 5
Second, Jesus "sent them ..." We are not sent individually or in isolation but together—a relational dynamic that combines me with the church with Christ. I am the embodiment of the Christ/church/me relationship. When I go, I do so with his Spirit and with a great cloud of witnesses with whom I am connected and by which I have been shaped in more ways than I can even begin to know. God did not create us to recluse but to relate.
Our holy texts reveal the divine as being-in-relation. The two key components of Trinitarian thinking are relationality and difference: the two key challenges of the twenty-first century. A missional mind-set is less about acquiring more information than entering into a deeper relationship with God and man.
Missional is not anti-me, and it is not me in the mirror; it's me in the midst. Naturalist John Muir liked to convey the organic unity of leaving and coming like this: "going out ... was really going in." Missional is not all outward. There is an inward and an outward together, but the inward is me-in-the-midst, not me-in-the-mirror.
Jesus understood that it's not only the truth that changes us, but also the journey of seeking it.
—Chris SeayCHAPTER 6
Third, Jesus "sent them out." Out where? To the down and out and to the up and in. In fact, the incarnation brought all dualities together, whether it be the clean and the profane, the sacred and the secular, or the "out there" and the "in here."
The church can never be "on a mission" because that presupposes an "off" switch, and you can't be "off mission" and still be a church. The church is mission.
No human organism begins each day with "Now what do I need to do to stay alive today?" We begin with "Now what do I need to do to live this day as I've committed to live it?" You keep death at bay by living life to the fullest, by living your mission. There are all sorts of conferences and conversations about the slow death of British Methodism. But all you need to know about the causes of its decline is this assessment on the present state of British Methodism: "Mission has not been high on the agenda."
Martin E. Niemöller was born on 14 January 1892 in Lippstadt, Westphalia. During World War I, he served as a German submarine commander, but when the war was over, he went to seminary and became a Lutheran minister. Niemöller was one of the "five" (Bonhoeffer, etc.) who spoke out against National Socialism for its anti-Semitic views. He organized the Confession Church, a group of German Protestant Christians that opposed Hitler. Niemöller was imprisoned in concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, after which he helped to rebuild the German Protestant church, serving as the president of the World Council of Churches from 1961 to 1968.
Excerpted from SO BEAUTIFUL by LEONARD SWEET. Copyright © 2009 Leonard Sweet. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The Missional Life: God's "GO",
Part 2 The Relational Life: God's "YES",
Part 3 The Incarnational Life: God's "NO",
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