Tuesday, July 17, 2012

emerging mission: a geographic analysis

Here is something of what I’ve been writing over the last two days, the emerging church 10 years on project:

I wish to analyse this theme of mission as integrative by paying particular attention to the way space is deployed. In other words, to consider mission through a geographic lens. Does mission invite those who participate in mission to go? Or to stay? Are the recipients of mission expected to remain? Or to come?

Let me illustrate with reference to the construction of space in Luke 15:4-7. In this parable, the shepherd leaves. When the lost sheep is found, the shepherd returns. The implications for mission are subtle, but powerful, especially in churches that consider they have a “shepherd.” The result, spatially, is to suggest they will engage in mission by sending their shepherd, who will leave them (the church) to look for the lost. When found, the objects of the mission will be brought back by the shepherd, to that which is “home” (v. 6). Mission is being constructed as a sending, of a single person, by a stationery body, who await in anticipation of fruit.

Marianne Sawicki, in her book Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus suggests that with regard to mission, Scripture offers a number of diverse spatial configurations. One is Exodus. “Liberation means spatial separation and escape …. To escape, you cross over from one place to another. Physical distance separates and insulates you from the evil that is left behind.”

Another is ekklesia. This Greek word was originally used to designate a secular self-governing gathering. Participation was restricted, socially, to free male property-owners, physically, by the size of the building. Spatially, this suggests a “selection, displacement, and establishment of a new physical propinquity.”

A third is colonization. People from one land (in the case of New Testament times, Romans), invade another land, with severe social and economic consequences.

In contrast to these, Sawicki draws attention to the place of salt and leaven in the very early Christian communities. She suggests that salt and leaven provide very different spatial understandings of mission. Rather than leaving (as in the Exodus), they suggest a staying. Rather than changing by separating (as in ekklesia), they suggest a changing from within, by digging in and staying put, through infiltration. Rather than imposing (as in colonization), they suggest a subtle and complex resistance.

Posted by steve at 07:42 PM


  1. I dislike commenting on books I haven’t read, but as a comment on your commentary, I want to suggest that leaven and salt don’t really work by resistance. The nature of their infiltration does more than just “staying put”. Rather leaven and salt work with their ‘environment’ to create something new and something exciting. Without the leaven and salt, the food is bland and dull, but these two ingredients work to offer new possibilities. I think of the way the spices of the new colonies completely changed the way people in Europe looked at cooking from then on. I think the same is true of Christianity. It says living constantly in fear (of your neighbour, of financial insecurity, of failure, etc) is not the best way to live; but when fearless love and grace and hospitality are introduced, then new, tastier possibilities can arise. The food was always there, but now it has flavour. So in the end, it is not by resisting the environment, but by introducing something new and flavoursome, that excites the other ingredients so that they are transformed. Sorry, that got a bit sermonlike along the way, and I apologise for that. Here endeth the lesson?

    Comment by Ivan — July 18, 2012 @ 12:13 am

  2. Thoughtful as ever Ivan. I might respond more fully at a later stage,


    Comment by steve — July 18, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  3. All good thoughts, but can I gently push back….

    First, this section is simply about space ie does mission invite us to leave, or to “stay put.” If our images are of leaving, then how does that shape the imagination of our congregations when they hear mission, as they think about their neighbours. What salt does is in the next section. 🙂

    Second, salt can be very corrosive. Those who live by the sea know this. But we see it also in “salting” the earth to destroy it. And when it’s used as a preservative, it means surplus salt, often in large amounts, to be thrown away. It’s that sort of “negative” byproduct role of salt that I think needs to be acknowledged.

    Third, I wonder if there is a certain 21st century, masterchef romanticisation of spice in your comment? Yes, now, for us, salt and spices add so much. But how does salt and spices play out in the peasant cultures of Jesus day?

    I’m glad you commented and kept me thinking. Thanks so much and I look forward to your response to my response 🙂


    Comment by steve — July 18, 2012 @ 10:11 am

  4. And in response …

    First, you can always push back, and I welcome it. I still think back to my exit interview at the end of my formation where I thanked one of my lecturers for our many arguments because it forced me to work out why it was that I was right and she was wrong. So please, push.

    Second, I acknowledge that my earlier comments were entirely in response to your last paragraph: in fact, your last two sentences. As for the rest, I think it is invaluable to consider mission as “within and among” rather than “here and there”. In my experience, many churches see mission as raising money for somebody to go over there and do something. Even in my current placement, in my conversations with the JNC at the time, the question was asked, “How will you bring young people into this church?” I agree that a geographical rethink is definitely in order, and in this regard, the concept of infiltration is helpful.

    However, when we use the image of salt (I notice that you dropped the leaven, although I recognise that this could be considered to be relgiously corrosive), we should look at the context. You have offered some alternate ways to think about salt, but I don’t think Matt 5:13-16 had these in mind when it put the salt imagery alongside the light imagery. Yes, light might be seen as being resistant to the darkness, but the image here is one of giving light.

    I want to draw a distinction between salt and salt water. You have said that salt is corrosive, but in fact it is salt in the water and in the air that is corrosive. It is rare to hear of someone using solid salt to corrode something. This is important because Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness. In this regard, I find it hard to imagine that he is talking about the salt in the air or salt water (salt water losing its saltiness is quite a good thing). Of course, the exception to this is in salting the earth, but this image is such a strong contrast to the hospitality of giving light that I doubt that it was meant in this way. Yes, there is also the preserving aspect of salt which I need to acknowledge, but I don’t see this as negative. Once again, the salt transforms the food to something new; it provides new possibilities. Without it, the food eventually sours or turns … and I believe the same sermon as before could be inserted here …

    Finally, you have accused me of masterchef romanticism, and that cannot go unchallenged. You have asked me to think of salt from the perspective of a 1st century Jewish peasant, and I always find this supposed exegetical impartiality somewhat presumptuous. However I will attempt this as best I can. First, I will admit that I am not a historian, and I know very little about first century Jewish cooking (except for some of the rules of kosher) but I find it difficult to imagine that salt was not used as a spice in their cooking in some way. Surely one need not be a masterchef fan to be aware that salt acts as a flavour enhancer?

    In the end, I have to ask: when Matthew has Jesus talking about salt losing its saltiness, is he talking about it losing its corrosive ability, its preserving ability, or its taste? Of the three, the first seems the least likely. But that might just be my masterchef romanticism talking …


    Comment by Ivan — July 18, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  5. Not only a master chef, but highly articulate :). More anon 🙂


    Comment by steve — July 19, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

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