“Toward Radical Neighborliness”
A review of
Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood.
By Alan Roxburgh.
Review by Chris Smith.
Alan Roxburgh, in his new book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, sure knew how to stir up the fire of my inner critic. Longtime readers of The Englewood Review will know that ecclesiology is pretty important to me, and that I regularly challenge a lack thereof in books I review here. So, when Roxburgh launches into the first part of this new book, which he titles, “Why we have to stop thinking about the church,” you can bet that I was ready for a vehement reaction. Even as I started reading this part of the book, I was still pretty skeptical of the way in which he wanted to de-emphasize the church and “church questions” in our following after God. However, I continued to hear him build his case and began to see that he shared a deep love for the church, and actually in de-emphasizing the church, was naming a particular problem that is a pointed challenge for us at Englewood Christian Church, as I imagine it is at many other churches – viz., the pursuit of church as an end in itself and way of life together centered around attractional techniques. This problem is epitomized in a conversation that Roxburgh recounts in the book:
“ ‘From what I’ve seen,’ she said finally, ‘the church is closed to the community. We push the annual denominational missions offering. To some extent we push Samaritan’s Purse. But when it comes to a local child in the community, we’re less likely to help.’ She added, ‘I visit a lot of churches in this area through my volunteer work, I think ours, like most, is self absorbed’” (91 emphasis retained from original).
Roxburgh emphasizes that God’s Mission in the world is not just about us as churches. Indeed, it is clear that he is working from a reading of Scripture that has a deep sense of God’s reconciliation of all people and all creation. From this reading of Scripture, Roxburgh calls us to seek the particular sorts of reconciliation that God is already orchestrating in the places in which we dwell, and from this pursuit to become engaged in deep and significant ways with our neighbors. What he offers us here is not the sort of random “external focus” that others have proposed for churches to adopt, but rather an intentional way of being with and caring for our neighbors in ways that bear witness to the particularities of God’s reconciling mission in our specific locations.
After challenging us to let go of our church ideologies, Roxburgh sets the stage for the book by offering an overview of Lesslie Newbigin’s work and an accompanying explanation of why Newbigin’s work has been so helpful in understanding the “Missional Conversation,” between church, gospel and culture. He contends that too often our undue focus on church drowns out the voices of gospel and culture in this conversation. He follows this introductory material with an “intermezzo” that overviews philosopher Charles Taylor’s concept of “social imaginaries,” which serves as a foundation for introducing the concept of a “language house,” the linguistic set of stories, practices and expectations that help a community live within in particular social imaginaries and acts as a sort of interpretative lens.
The key point at the heart of the book is that even as churches begin to use some new terminology such as “missional” or “emergent,” we are still bound by the language house of the (institutional) church, and we have an urgent need to make the shift to a new language house that is “far more radical and transformative.” (The use of the modifier “institutional” here is mine, for I fear that abdicating or minimizing the terminology of church altogether will only play into the prevailing individualism of the age.) Roxburgh proposes the narrative of Luke-Acts as a way forward toward shifting our language house. Following the reading of noted missiologist David Bosch, Roxburgh observes that Luke-Acts was written for a Christian audience in a time of upheaval that is not unlike our own. At the heart of Roxburgh’s reading of Luke-Acts is the story of the sending of the seventy in Luke 10; he highlights the facets in this story of radical discipleship, of leaving baggage behind, of the journey to which we are called and finally of the ordinariness of those who were sent out.
The irony of Roxburgh’s reading of the Luke 10 story is that despite his suppression of church language throughout the book, his reading seemingly offers a fuller and a richer ecclesiology that that of those against whom Roxburgh is reacting. The propagation of the church as an institution is often centered on and driven by its leadership, and in contrast, what Roxburgh is offering is vision of the church community in which every, ordinary member plays a role. The vision he offers here is of a church in action, not just a church existing within its own intellectual confines. He says:
[I]n these times of huge transition where our language houses are being overturned, 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 (133).
Instead he recommends that we get out and share meals with our neighbors, listening to their stories and hearing within these stories what God is up to in our particular place. Roxburgh’s emphasis on sitting around the table, as a place for “deep communion” was one of the book’s highlights for me. Noting that we culturally have lost the sense of the table as a place of sharing both sustenance and stories, he calls us to recover this practice, saying:
The table is a symbol of where God is taking all creation. More than a symbol, it is a sacrament that can engage us directly in the life of God. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons the world of modernity has created the belief that fast food, quick meals, and busy lives are the symbols of success – they release us from the sacraments and rhythms that restore and root us in our humanity and personhood. But for humans to flourish, we need to be embedded in such a life (144).
In the final part of the book, Roxburgh sketches some “contours” of how this missional reading of the Luke-Acts narrative might begin to be embodied among local gatherings of Christ’s disciples. Some of the steps he describes here resonate with our own experience here at Englewood Christian Church, including:
- Develop New Eyes for Your Neighborhood
- Teach Radical Neighborliness
- Map the Neighborhood
- Listen to Neighborhood Stories
- Discern what God is up to in the Neighborhood
- Get involved
For us at Englewood, the philosophical framework (or “language house”) of asset-based community development has been particularly helpful in making the sorts of theological shifts that Roxburgh describes here. ABCD has given us a tool set (and a philosophical undergirding) for adopting practices of neighborhood engagement like those from Roxburgh, listed above. And as Roxburgh argues here, we have found such practices to resonate with a reading of the scriuptural narrative that seeks to understand what God is doing in the world, even in times of broader cultural uncertainty and upheaval.
Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood is a brilliant and challenging book whose roots run deep, and yet it – very intentionally – is not an academic work, but rather a theological work that demands our attention, our reflection and our transformation as communities gathered for life together in the way of Jesus. If Roxburgh’s message here is taken to heart by Western Christianity, as it should be, it will undoubtedly have a transformative effect, guiding our church communities from the stale recesses of institutional survival to the vibrant conversational life (as if around a table) of a gathered people who bear witness to our neighbors of God’s work reconciling all creation!