The Importance and Challenge of Particularity in Mission

One of the great challenges we face in Western Christianity is how we bear faithful witness to the person of Jesus Christ. This is sometimes posed in the language of mission. It is a conversation that involves discussion and debate as to the nature of what constitutes mission. For some

The mission of the church is a matter of evangelism – the proclamation of the message of redemption seeking individual conversion.

For others the gospel and indeed mission has a social dimension. Proclamation and acts of care and compassion are variously if not equally associated with what constitutes mission.

For some and here I should probably say some of us – the gospel cannot be separated from the kingdom and as such word and socio-political activity which seeks to bear witness not only to a message of personal transformation and compassion but to structural change in the direction of peace and justice.

Yet in each of these stances including my own there is a difficulty. The difficulty is what we mean in practice, in the concrete and the particular. For it is at that point we are likely to most agree or disagree. So for example we may agree with the proclamation of the gospel but may resist with something of a holy determination participating in an open-air service. Or we agree that we should have food banks but quickly have to develop rules around who should get how much of what. Or we may agree that we should be involved in socio-political activities but in which ones and on which side.

Christians may agree that we should have a socio-political involvement but as soon as we move beyond the general – politics is important – to the particular – who should we vote for and why – we immediately discover such differences that our contribution becomes no more that we are involved just as other citizens are. Perhaps this division is what those who emphasize evangelism only suspect – if you move beyond the issue of proclaiming the gospel greater division is likely to be caused and we will be dividing over ‘secondary’ matters.

I do not think they are secondary but I am left with the question of what a distinctive Christian witness in the political realm looks like or on what basis we should make our choices. I am also aware that when we reflect on at least some of the heroes of the faith, the radicals, that they became such because of their involvement in the particular.

For me there are two theological themes that are operative in my own guided or misguided thinking – themes that often appear in church and can gain general support precisely because they lack an understanding of what they mean in the concrete and the particular – these terms are peace and justice. These are themes that much has of course been written and reflected on but more in the theoretical and general than the concrete and particular.

I think that we need to do some more work around these themes not for the sake of our thinking and theory but for the sake of our mission in the concrete and particular contexts in which we find ourselves.



Immersionist and Conversionist

During my recent trip to Canada and participation with the Mennonite Church around the post-christendom topic the following terms ‘immersionist’ and ‘conversionist’ came up in conversation. As generalisations they indicate two approaches to perpetuating the faith in church.

The term immersionist here refers to an approach (Mennonite Church?) which emphasises passing on the faith to those who are immersed in their tradition (their children included) as a religious and cultural community. The term conversionist applies to an approach (Baptist?) which emphasises ‘reaching out’ to win others (their children included) who are not deemed part of the faith.These terms were used by members of these fore mentioned churches as self-designations.

Each approach on its own creates challenges. For the ‘immersionist’ the challenge is to enable personal ownership of the faith in which people are brought up so that inherited themes such as ‘peace making’ are experienced as ‘news’ which invites repentance and acceptance so that they are enjoyed as ‘good news’ and not simply – this is what we do. In turn in such traditions there is the challenge of how they seek to communicate that faith with others outside of their tradition without ‘doing violence’ to them.

For the conversionist tradition the challenge is how to immerse people in an faith tradition rather than simply trying to convert them all of the time as if they were outsiders because they have not submitted to a particular conversionist ritual. In turn for such traditions there is the challenge of how they invite people into not simply an individual faith but an actual and experienced community of practice committed to such ethical approaches as peacemaking.

Both of the traditions above practice believers baptism and the role of this in each tradition perhaps needs greater exploration as a sign of simultaneously indicating personal appropriation and communal immersion. Perhaps viewing issues in this way challenges somewhat the dichotomy sometimes suggested between believing before belonging and belonging before believing in that each require something of the dynamic of the other. In turn this suggests that paying attention to the ‘church’ is a matter of considerable importance to those concerned about the future of perpetuating the Christian faith. Again this is a concern that challenges dichotomies between church and mission in some sort of a way that privileges one over and against the other.

How to Sing the lord’s Song in a Strange Land…(1)

(Some text from introductory talk)

The topic which we are going to be addressing over the next few days are these words from Psalm 137 How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land – and I feel eminently qualified to address it because I am a foreigner in this land. Although I believe that some 15% of Canadians claim to be of Scottish descent…so I may be okay although I do not know how that holds in this part of the country and Scots are not well known Mennonites…it might scare you to realise that some people think I was the nearest thing to a Mennonite that Scottish Baptists have…

So I am a foreigner

Foreign Land

Foreign Land

… but of course that is not what this theme is about…

The issue is rather how the church can bear faithful witness in a cultural context where the role of the Christian faith appears and feels increasingly marginalised.

This topic interests me as a Christian living in the so called West. For many years now, first in pastoral ministry and then in theological education, the theme of what it means to be church “post-Christendom” is one that has dominated many conversations. This term post-Christendom was probably popularised in the UK after 2004 by a series of books written or edited by Stuart Murray Williams in the “After Christendom” series. This said not only was the term used before this but its actual meaning is somewhat complex and contested.[i] For me the situation described by this term is not simply about the nature of changing church and state relations. Nor is it simply about numerical church decline, although both these issues are important in analysis. Rather the matter runs deeper. It is about the implicit and explicit decline of the cultural significance of Christian values and practices in a nation’s psyche. It is about the loss not simply of the story but the memory of the story of God’s redemption centred in Jesus Christ as something of personal and public significance. It is about the moving of the church from the centre of public discussion to the margins. For Christian people this loss can often be experienced at best as confusing and at worst as persecution. In part this is often because we have not been aware of our previously privileged position over and against other religions and ideologies. In part it is because things really have changed as the challenges of secularism, pluralism, and globalisation have pressed home.[ii] While my reflections have taken place in Europe this language and experience are also recognised in North America.[iii] It is precisely in attempting to name and reflect upon this experience that theologians, preachers, and missiologists have variously appealed by the way of “dynamic analogy” to the biblical notion of “exile”.[iv] From this perspective without ever physically moving country post-Christendom Christian people at least in the West now find themselves practicing their faith and singing their songs in a foreign land.

To be sure not all Christians see the church’s current need to learn to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land as necessarily a bad thing. For some from an Anabaptist position the “bad” is rather to be located in the earlier Christendom context with the explicit and implicit, formal and informal, personal and public compromise between Christian faith and witness on the one hand and national identity, power and violence on the other.[v]

Following on from this it can be argued the changed situation creates new “missional” opportunities and therefore is not so much something to be suffered but to be embraced. Michael Frost in his book Exiles writes:

I, for one, am happy to see the end of Christendom. I’m glad that we can no longer rely on temporal, cultural supports to reinforce our message or the validity of our presence…If we are exiles on foreign soil – post-Christendom, postmodern, postliterate and so on – then maybe at last it is time to start living like exiles, as a pesky, fringe dwelling alternative to the dominant forces of our time.[vi]

I resonate in many respects with these Anabaptist and missional responses. Yet I hesitate to unreservedly welcome exile if it means the decline of Christian values from public life when and where these have contributed to establishing and maintaining practices of democracy, freedom, justice, and human rights. The situation, therefore, and how we respond to it is complex. It is complex because it involves responding to a changed and changing situation in such a way which bears witness to the gospel in the public realm yet without the previous power alignments being given, sought, or taken.


[i] This whole theme is discussed in a very helpful article by a colleague of mine: Ian Randall, “Mission in post-Christendom: Anabaptist and Free Church Perspectives”, Evangelical Quarterly 79.3 (2007), 227-240.

[ii] David Smith, Mission after Christendom (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003).

[iii] Daniel L. Guder (ed.), Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998).

[iv] Walter Brueggemann, “Conversations Among Exiles”, Religion Online, 1997,, accessed 30 January 2015.

[v] Russ Eanes, “Post-Christendom: lament or opportunity?”, The Mennonite,, accessed, 1 February, 2015.

[vi] Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Michigan: Baker Books, 2006), 9-10.