Monday, December 17, 2007

Mission Possible

“Here is your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

A dangerous assignment was always attached to this message in the popular Mission Impossible television programs and movie trilogy. People were glued to the screen because the message, with its attached mission would always be urgent, difficult, exciting and … impossible.

The community of Jesus followers has a message with an attached mission. The mission is urgent, difficult, exciting and … seemingly impossible. That has never been more true than it is now.

It fascinates me how new epochs of church life and history parallel epochal changes in global communication. Does anything define a culture more than its language and forms of communication? At the heart of the Church’s com-mission is to translate the Gospel through its words, actions and life. Any act of translation always begins with an understanding of the culture and language one desires to communicate with. Done well, that process also leads to trust.

Much has been written about how we live in a time of epochal shifts in Western culture and communication. These shifts are multi-faceted and simultaneous. For many, they are disorienting and disconcerting. For example, people used to look to a few established “trusted news sources” for credible interpretations of what was going on in the world. Today, the institutional news establishments are declining; people are turning instead to the ever-growing interpretive options of blogs and alternative sources. Current technology allows access to a seemingly infinite assortment of platforms at our fingertips. This monumental shift is moving our Western culture from a hierarchal structure of power and communication (where a few control the printing presses and network broadcasts) to a flattened structure where virtually anyone can have a voice – including mine on this blog. Thanks for choosing to read! We live in a world of an increasing democratization of ideas. Sally Morganthaler described it well in her chapter of the book An Emergent Manifesto of Hope:

Now eighty-year-old Uncle Harold can post his very own book review on Aunt Sarah can finally sell her Hummel collection, not at the neighborhood garage sale, but on eBay. Now we have Google in our hip pockets, and our cell phones double as personal computers, televisions, cameras, video recorders, and stereo systems. … Suddenly it actually matters that we exist, that we live in a certain place and time.

(An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Chapter 15: Leadership in a Flattened World, Sally Morgenthaler, page 177)

The shifts in culture and communication taking place around us are changing how people perceive themselves and their own voices in the world. This is liberating for many. However it threatens the existing structures and positions of power. It is also unsettling for those who find their security in the existing structures and positions.

What does this mean for the community of Jesus followers? Some suggest it means we have to batten down the hatches to resist these shifts. We need to redouble our efforts to reclaim lost ground and control, they say. There is fear that the multiplicity of voices will lead to chaos. The church exists to preserve the past, including its forms and structures of communication, right? This passionate point of view has a long history that dates back to the time of Jesus. Religious leaders worked hard to preserve the prominence of their power, structure and voice. Contrary voices would be nailed silent.

Jesus is a revolutionary. He kept giving voice to the marginalized. He kept asking questions like “what about you? What do you say?” He gave the outcast a broadcast. With Jesus, their voices had the interested ear of God. Jesus was more concerned with people not speaking than with what they might say. In an uncanny way, Jesus never compromised the truth He embodied by silencing those without a voice. He engaged people in dialogue, and extended unlimited value in the process.

A few years ago the leadership of a church I was serving decided to employ a marketing research company to better understand what self-described unchurched young adults were looking for spiritually. We set up ten focus groups throughout the day, each lasting two and a half hours. One participant described her experience of churches to be places where they wanted your time and money, but didn’t care what you thought. In fact, worship services were primarily set up so someone up front could tell you what to think. She was frustrated that her common church experience was never a time of dialogue. After two and a half hours of focus group discussion, another participant said “if church was like this, I would give my life to it.” I sat there stunned.

This time of epochal shifts in culture and communication is an incredible opportunity for the Church to reflect the nature and message of Jesus. We can resist these massive changes or we can engage people in the conversation. We live in a new and changing culture that requires translating the Gospel in languages emerging generations understand. That happens through dialogue where every voice has an opportunity to be heard and encountered. To be honest, it is easier to try to control and preserve the structures of our past than it is to open ourselves up to engaging people where they are. The first option tells the world you can come in if you want to be like us. The second goes out to discover where and who people are. In these places and moments, people can discover Jesus. In these conversations we carry out the mission by translating the message. This mission attached to a message is much more urgent, difficult, exciting and possible -- should we choose to accept it.

What do you think?

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