I am becoming more and more convinced that the missional/incarnational church will not gain any traction unless we learn to read the Bible and the Christian story in a new way. In short, narrative theology has to replace systematic theology as the primary mode of thinking about Christian faith. As Ricky Ricardo used to say, "Lemme ‘splain."
Christianity is first and foremost a story. It is a history. It is not a set of "timeless truths" or abstract doctrines that we tap into from week to week. It isn’t a static system of truth, it’s a dynamic story, an unfinished narrative that we live within, and a narrative that we have a part in working out, we help to move the story toward its conclusion.
When Christianity is conceived as merely "timeless truths", the goal becomes "getting to heaven when I die", and then we’re left with not much to do until death. If we’ve already been "bar-coded" so we’ll make the cut at the pearly gates, it doesn’t make much sense for us to bother about seeing the kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven. Instead of living the words of the Lord’s Prayer ("Thy kingdom come"), we live as if Jesus said, "Let us go to Thy kingdom".
But Christianity isn’t primarily about going to Heaven, it’s about seeing Heaven come to Earth. Unless Christianity is understood as an unfinished drama, there will be no inherent impetus for mission. But when Christianity is seen as a story, mission makes perfect sense; working out our salvation, learning to love more completely, stewarding the environment, and ridding ourselves of sin are natural out-workings of narrative theology. If we understand Christianity as a story, and read the Bible like the story it is, we realize that the story is going somewhere. And we are part of that story, we have a part to play in moving the story towards its conclusion. We have something to do, and it isn’t just to "play nice until Jesus comes," it’s to build for the kingdom (not to build the kingdom, but to build for the kingdom).
Jesus promised that when we "seek first the kingdom", we won’t have to worry too much about anything else. Essentially he was saying that when we build for the kingdom, everything we do counts forever. It lasts. It will continue into the age to come. That’s why what we do in this life is so important. Paul says it’s either going to be brought to nothing, or it will last. That means what you build for the kingdom now has eternal consequences. That’s why mission matters. That’s the impetus for being involved in God’s mission on Earth. It isn’t to earn a free trip to heaven, it’s to be involved in the greatest enterprise in the cosmos.
So understanding that Christianity is a story is essential if we’re going to understand how to live as missional Christians. Narrative theology begets missional churches. And missional churches cannot be sustained apart from narrative theology. Missional Christianity will be just another trend unless this new understanding of Christian theology can be grasped by this generation.
I think this is one of the most important issues in theology and mission for the church today, so I’ll probably be doing a lot more thinking and writing about it in the near future. What do you guys think? Does what I wrote make sense? Any additional thoughts?