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?
“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.”
talk about a hard concept to get the modern Christian to understand.
Crack that nut and we would be well on our way to a missional church.
Ron Allen says
Bull’s eye. I think this issue is the watershed for thinking and deciding where we go next.
very cool ben. i have never thought of this and i think you’re right.
Bob Harvey says
I would love to have you unpack this from the pulpit as well. Exposing everyone to this way of thinking and seeing would be energizing I think.
Benjamin Sternke says
Maybe I’ll use it as a springboard for some teaching stuff this fall. It’s tricky because it opens up a lot of different issues, like what the authority of Scripture means in the context of a narrative, i.e. how can a story be “authoritative”?
Rob Bell will be starting a teaching series on ‘Narrative Theology’ next week at Mars Hill. Download won’t be available till Wednesday or so. I’ve ‘watched’ this church with interest (as well as Saddleback, Imago Dei and Cedar Ridge) as they’ve attempted to live a missional understanding within this culture.
I’ve also finished Colossians Remixed, and together with Simply Christian, I’m encouraged by the POV that is emerging. So obviously, I think you’re on the right track. So much of what you say here fits nicely with what these pioneers are trying to ‘put out there’. I’ve recently heard it said that the new Reformation will be one of ‘deeds’ in contrast to the former one of ‘creeds’. Reminds me of the ’embodied witness’, as you say.
Also, IME, changing the dominant paradigm regarding how the bible is read is a monumental yet fundamental task that will lay the groundwork for further acceptance and understanding of ‘missional’ christianity. Semantics are playing a huge role in this new drama in the Church(letting my postmodern slip show a bit here) Many who are publically sharing this view of ‘narrative theology’ as opposed to the ‘timeless truths’ view are meeting with some pretty serious criticism. An afternoon flitted away reading Amazon’s book review posts for McLaren, Bell, and even Wright can fairly quickly remind us of the entrenched POV in the modern church.
And you got me thinking so much, I will continue the discussion on my blog :o)
blind beggar says
“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.”
I don’t know Ben, that statement sure is a stretch. The “timeless truths” of the Beatitudes, John 15, John 17 or 1 John sure don’t cause me to think of a transactional theology, i.e., getting to heaven when I die. They inform my very soul about the story I’m a part of, they tutor me in the journey of working out my salvation, they are part of the essences of the narrative.
“Unless Christianity is understood as an unfinished drama, there will be no inherent impetus for mission.”
Your best line in the whole post, but this doesn’t lead inexorable to the supposition that “missional churches cannot be sustained apart from narrative theology.” Jesus is Lord is a propositional claim, a timeless truth and the impetus for missional living.
In our reaction against a static systematic theology run amok, don’t error in replacing it with another man made theological system.
Benjamin Sternke says
Those are good thoughts, beggar. But I wouldn’t call the truths of the Beautitudes, John 15 and 17, etc. “timeless.” They are firmly rooted in history, in events that have taken place, things that God has done. I agree that if we read those passages properly we find encouragement for the journey and impetus for mission. I also agree that “Jesus is Lord” is the core of the gospel, the impetus for mission, and a propositional statement. But it isn’t a “timeless truth” – it’s rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
What I am concerned about when I talk about “timeless truths” is that Christianity is interpreted as some kind of self-help religion filled with little verities that most philosophers and religions have affirmed for centuries. Maybe saying “timeless truths” isn’t the best way to express that. What I feel we need to re-capture is the “storied” nature of theology, not replacing systematic theology with some man-made system of theology, but simply learning to read the Bible more like the narrative it is, instead of trying to turn it into a reference manual.
blind beggar says
Great thoughts in your second paragraph Benjamin and spot on!
Existential Punk says
Weel said, Ben! I posted this on my blog as well. THANK YOU! i am so glad i found your blog through Dream Awakener! i am adding you to my blogroll! Adele
tom sine says
Just found your site. Found it very helpful. Am trying to finish a new book for IVP. Would you be interested in looking at a rough email manuscript? Would value your feedback and suggestions…while there is still time to make some changes.
If not…no worries. Keep the good stuff coming. tom
Benjamin Sternke says
I emailed you, tom – and I’m enjoying your book!
Nick Carter says
“It is not a set of ‘timeless truths'” — Really? I wholeheartedly disagree. Yes, we should be missional. Yes, the Church must be relevant to the culture around it. But the Bible is absolutely timeless truth.
Benjamin Sternke says
I was being intentionally provocative in saying that. What I don’t mean to imply is that the Bible’s truth is no longer relevant for us today. It certainly is. BUT, the truth of the Bible is not “timeless” in that it isn’t simply a list of moral platitudes. Truth is a story – the story of Jesus Christ. This story is actually quite “timeful” in that it took place at a specific time with specific characters in a specific culture. The implications of this story are certainly “timeless” in that all people are now called to put their whole trust in Jesus Christ, but when I think of “timeless truths” I am thinking of the Proverbs and Confucious, etc… just moral platitudes that are true. The Bible is MUCH more than this.