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Thursday, May 22, 2008

frost defines missional at pgf, pt. 3

At Wednesday night Bible studies this month, we have been watching the video of Michael Frost speaking at the Presbyterian Global Fellowship (PGF) conference in 2007 in Houston. He is from Australia and was tasked with defining what it means to be “missional.” This is a word that is very in vogue these days, and Frost directly challenges using it as any kind of “add-on” program. Rather, he insists, it is a revolutionary, vibrant, and fundamental shift in how Christians see things. In this particular presentation, Frost describes three shifts: 1) seeing God differently; 2) seeing the Church differently; and 3) seeing the world differently. Last Wednesday night, we watched the second segment, on seeing God differently.

What follows are some of the key statements (in my opinion) and some of the questions we discussed around those statements.

God has left a trace: Imago Dei

The essential argument in Frost’s discussion of the imago Dei is really an application of what it means that God created human beings in His image. And that is that “every person bears the image of God.” At the same time, Frost reminds us, “we share a common, broken humanity with all people.” We had a good discussion on Wednesday night about what it means to be created in the image of God, particularly focusing the implications of that image after the Fall. While Frost would use words like “submerged,” I have more often heard language of the image being “marred” or “tarnished” by sin. Nonetheless, Frost’s insistence is an important one, particularly if we note that the “trace” is not salvific, but is universal.

Myth: that Christians or those in the church are better than those who are not

This statement generated quite a bit of discussion in our study because of texts like the fruit/gifts of the Spirit and “becoming a new creation in Christ.” We reconciled these with what I think Frost was trying to say by noting that the radical changes (even improvements) that scripture seems to describe are not the result of human effort, but of God at work in a person’s life. God is better than no God, but knowing God should not result in any sense of moral (or other) superiority. We noted that scripture also says “the rain falls on the just and the unjust” – such that a Christian life should not be equated with a “charmed life.” There are no free passes. Rather, Christians are to continually submit ourselves to God’s sanctifying presence in our life.

We should “tease out” the image of God in others.

Frost told several stories to illustrate this point. The first, set in a bar in Pittsburgh, illustrated to us some qualities of the image of God, present in all people, whether believers or not. All human beings desire love, intimacy, fellowship, sharing, and blessing. These are godly characteristics (able to be warped by sin, to be sure, but also generously present in the non-believing world). Frost found all these present at a going away part for “Rhonda” in the bar in Pittsburgh.

He also told the story of visiting the streets of Montreal with a social worker friend and meeting a young punk panhandler. This story illustrates some of these same basic human-in-the-image-of-God desires and also segues into demonstrating some other examples of our common imago Dei. The young man, freezing to death, refuses to burn evangelists’ “brochures” because there was something inherently “un-burnable” about God’s Word. While I’ve met people who wouldn’t hesitate to disrespect God’s Word, Frost uses this story to highlight the inborn character of God that remains present, if horribly distorted by sin.

God is warmth, peace, safety, hope, and Jesus

We also talked about this statement for some time. It was Frost’s answer to the punk’s sudden question, “Who do you think God is?” I shared with the group that on first pass, I thought these were very wishy-washy (though I was thankful for “God is Jesus” at least). But, on further reflection, I realized that many of these descriptors were Biblical names for God (think of refuge, strong tower, Prince of Peace, etc…). And the young man was in such a world of need and hurt. Frost was saying, in effect, “God is the answer.” We also discussed the fact that Frost’s answer opened the door to further (more clarifying conversation)… it was what was needed to get through to the man.

The Truth is present, but hidden, in culture

Frost told the story of the Pima Indians, who had been wiped out by the Apache, but who had, through one family, preserved Christian religious artifacts through several generations. They didn’t know what they were for or what they symbolized, but they recognized the value placed on them and the “set apart” (holy) nature of them. The young missionary who found this hidden treasure was captured by the vision of carrying God’s explicit Word to them. He wrote his superior to say he was “covetous of that mission” and pursuing it would be the “greatest happiness of his life.”

This story illustrated to Frost that the imago Dei is “stuff of faith” that is “buried in the deep, dark, black rock canyon of the human soul… just waiting for a word, prayer, or act of service.” As he has done more than once, Frost made me nervous with this statement. But, in our study we turned to the biblical teaching on general revelation and special revelation, particularly the Romans teaching that God has provided enough of a witness to His existence through creation and conscience that all human beings are held accountable to answer to God. Yet it is the specific word of Christ that has the power to save. In the end, I think Frost was teaching this and making important application of it without using the jargon I’ve heard so often. [Indeed, this is one of Frost’s great strengths!]

My confession to the class was that I read of general revelation and think about an imaginary tribe in a remote jungle and wonder how it is fair that they might not hear about Jesus. What Frost reminds us of is that this teaching needs to hit us a lot closer to home. My neighbor may have witnessed God’s creation and be ripe for coming to faith, but lacks the specific word of Christ that I could easily share. Frost presses us to ask what the young priest declared: Am I covetous of that mission to my neighbor?

Re-negotiating everything

Frost asserts at the end of the clip that a fresh understanding of God as the missioning God, of the church as the community gathered to participate in the ongoing ministry of Christ, and the world as the temporary home of all God’s children should cause us to re-negotiate everything we’ve known about Christian religion.

I agree, which is what I have been praying for at Good Shepherd for almost two years now. The lighthouse/searchlight vision that this blog is based on is the re-negotiation that I believe needs to take place in our church. I press my congregation and leadership to ask the searchlight and lighthouse questions of every thing we do at church. Are we going to have a Christmas cantata this year? How can we make it a lighthouse event that draws people to Jesus Christ? How can we turn it into a searchlight event that gets us out of our building and into the field where our neighbors live?

That’s just one example. The pressing question is: how can we re-frame everything we do in terms of this gathered-to-be-sent vision?

Frost has been headed in the same direction, but has said things in ways that challenge and shake us up a bit. For his clarity and single-mindedness of purpose and for what god will do with this in the life of our congregation, I am thankful.

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