“Straw – everything I have written before is but straw!”

I think it might have been Thomas Aquinas who made this statement – after a life time of work and suddenly having his eyes open to the glory of God.

I read Alan Roxburgh’s latest this Saturday morning, and the feeling he reflects is similar. All these years in the missional conversation, and only now beginning to see! The book is worth a read. There is nothing especially new here, if you are familiar with Alan and his work. But there is a new urgency as he pulls together threads from other books, from recent conversations, and even – yes – Charles Taylor (59).

In fact this is the second book in the missional conversation that I have seen that references “social imaginary.” I may have missed other references, but the only other one I know – is my own (“An Emerging Dictionary for the Gospel and Culture.” If you know of others, chime in. “Desiring the Kingdom” doesn’t count).

Alan’s thesis is that we continually ask church questions of the gospel, when we should be having a dialogue. More, he argues that in the trialogue between church, gospel and culture, we are really still in a monologue. There is no real listening to the gospel or to the culture, but rather we import our questions and ways of seeing and so are not able to truly listen. Finally, he makes the point that more STUDY and new STRATEGIES are not the answer.

How to really enter a free and open space? How to listen anew to the Scripture?

Alan walks through Luke-Acts briefly, arguing that we see the same struggle in the early church. The Gospel was ethno-centric and very Jewish. Up until the tenth chapter of Acts, the “language house” (or social imaginary) remained virtually static. As with other commentators (Stuart Murray) Alan sees the real struggle of our time to be the move from Jerusalem to Antioch – that is my shorthand not his. The Gospel needed to break out of the narrow cultural frame it was in, and the Spirit was straining to make the break.

Alan is straining to communicate here, and there is a fresh urgency in his voice. He admits that even in “Missional Church” the emphasis remained on “church,” and that he had not realized until recently that even in his own conversations the questions were still dominated by an ecclesial imagination. How do we move beyond this framework? We are still working on “church growth” but now with a missional label.

Chapter 6 asks for a “new text.” Matthew 28:18-20 is inscribed in the memory of most Christians of the past generation. This text dominated our imagination – and became the horizon at which we aimed. But it was a text that came to prominence in a certain social context. That environment is almost gone, and exists only in isolated stands of areas largely clear-cut by modernity.

The texts that are critical for Alan in attempting to develop a new set of ears and eyes are Luke 10, and perhaps secondarily John 20. These texts have become critical to many of us in the past five years. How do we enter these texts and let them form a new imagination? Not by further study – but by EXPERIENCE. We actually go out two by two with Jesus. If we enter the texts and let them read us, at the same time as we engage in listening in our neighbourhoods, there may be hope for the Gospel in our generation. Make no mistake: we DARE NOT do one without the other (see below).

The closing five chapters may be the best part of this book. Many of us don’t need convincing that the church is a mess and has turned so inward that it has become anything but the living Body of Christ. It has too often become a business, or a caricature – a simulacra – of the real thing. In chapters 9 to 13 Alan gets practical. Here are the final chapters listed:

9. Sending the 70 – A Guide for our Times
10. A New Set of Practices – Themes of Luke 10
11. Peace, Healing and the Kingdom of God
12. Rules for Radicals
13. Beginning the Journey

In chapter 9, speaking out of Luke 9 and 10, Alan notes that we carry a lot of baggage on this journey. But it is simply not possible to travel forward unless we are willing to “unlearn.” Alan spends a lot of time on this, because it really is tough for church people to get outside the box. We go out with our answers, not really prepared to listen. We need to truly make space for “the other.” We can only do this if we experience the strangeness of this new location ourselves.

At the opening of chapter ten Alan makes the challenge of new practices clear: “We will not know what God is up to in the world by huddling together in study groups, writing learned papers, or listening to self-appointed gurus. The normative means of figuring out answers in the once dominant Eurocentric churches has been to do study and analysis – then come up with strategies and programs (including “church health”). All of these activities.. are focused on the church and how to make the church work. Luke’s [text makes] this point: If you want to discover what God is up to in the world, stop trying to answer this question from within the walls of your churches. Like strangers in need of hospitality who have left their baggage behind, enter the neighbourhoods and communities where you live. Sit at the table of the other, and there you may begin to hear what God is doing” (134).

Two thoughts, not really in critique, but in reflection.

I thought it would have helped his argument to clarify further – how does “social imaginary” relate to “language house?” Why does he describe the first term, then prefer the second?

Furthermore, how do both of these relate to two much more familiar (which is not to say, “understood”) words – “culture,” and “worldview?” A portion of a chapter working these out might help, especially because others are working in this area with similar concerns (ie. James K.A. Smith in “Desiring the Kingdom”) and have added some clarity to the dialogue between worldview and “social imaginary.”

See also “God is Redeeming the Church”