My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): From Privatized Church to Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Monday, September 14th, 2020

Read Part I of my convocation address here.

I hear in this hymn fragment a call to an awakening involving three paradigm shifts for the people of God, all related to the three disruptions we are facing.

Paradigm Shift #1: Moving from an Insulated, Privatized Church to the Church as a Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who now serves as professor of theology at Yale University and formerly, where I first met him, of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia. Volf’s award-winning book Exclusion and Embrace captures the violence of three cities. (1) Sarajevo in the grip of the Bosnian war and the birth of modern-day ethnic cleaning; (2) the Los Angeles race riots in the wake of the beating of Rodney King; and (3) the rise of modern-day neo-Nazis on the streets of Berlin. Those particular conflicts are not in the headlines today, but you could easily substitute them for the conflicts of our day. He argues that today’s cultural conflicts cannot be understood unless we first understand the impact of post-modernity on modern thought. He points out that post-modernity embraces an autonomous self, which turns away from the values and identities that connect us and, instead, focuses on social arrangements rather than people as social agents. Identity politics becomes a new form of tribalism, spawning endless conflicts and power struggles. Volf argues that we tend to shift moral responsibility away from ourselves as moral agents and, instead, shift blame onto socially constructed and managed agencies that allows us to escape from our own moral responsibilities. This is where Volf introduces his famous double exclusion.

Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans, even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the Crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous into the sphere of shared humanity and herself/himself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

This is why the cross of Jesus Christ must be reclaimed as the central defining reality of Christian identity, because only there do exclusion and embrace meet. Christ does not exclude Himself from the company of sinners. He stands with the company of sinners at His baptism all the way to the cross. In that very refusal to exclude Himself from sinners, He freely embraces a world which has reviled and rejected Him. The arms of the cross create that sacred space, which alone makes forgiveness and true reconciliation possible. Volf goes on to say,

The difference between justice and forgiveness is this: to be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That’s what the forgiving God does.

But, this is not a cheap, “I forgive you.” This is not just justice, but actual reconciliation borne out of the full embrace of the pain of the other. The contemporary church in the West has insulated itself from the pain and suffering that is at the heart of the gospel and a crucified Savior. We need a wake-up call. We have embraced what Gregg Okesson in his book A Public Missiology calls a thin reading of Scripture and, therefore, we have been left with a thin Christian narrative, which has become, and I quote, “easy prey to the dominant narratives of this world, such as nationalism, tribalism, global capitalism, and progress.” I had the privilege of being in former Yugoslavia on many occasions in the 1990’s. I was in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia. The wars brought the entire economy to a halt, with little left but street bartering. Millions either had their home destroyed or became refugees. The church found the strength and grace to minister in the midst of a culture in great pain and the loss of hope written on their faces. I met dozens of men and women who were training for ministry in that context. My first trip there the Mostar Bible College met in a bombed-out building. I was inspired by their deep commitment to the hope of the gospel in the face of what seemed hopeless. The global economic downturn has unleashed despair and loss of hope, and every church in every community should relearn how to be a public outpost of grace, healing, and hope to their community. This is not the time to escape the world’s mess, but to wade into it and embrace it with the transforming power of the gospel! Your generation can awaken to this great call to be missional agents of healing.

Read Part III of my convocation address here.


  • Jim Conner says:

    I think you nailed it that the church needs to become more missional, more depth to its theology and more hopeful in spite of circumstance. Today, we seem to be glorifying our diversity instead of celebrating our unity.

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