The Deep in the Burbs Research Project is, first and foremost, God’s story. That sounds presumptuous, I know. What gives me the right to assume that (a) God has a story, and (b) that I, a finite creature, could know God’s story? I argued earlier that life is story, as opposed to the idea that life is a story. The same can be said about God. God does not have a story to tell. God is story and the life we live is animated within that story.
Any story is communicated through the symbols we call language, or the word. God’s story is the Word of God. Therefore, the first frame we must discuss for this research project is The Word of God frame. This frame is not explicitly found in the question itself, but is an important frame in which the question and the research methodology was pursued.
This begs the question, “What is the Word of God?” Not all Christians agree on the answer to this question. To some, the Word of God is synonymous with sixty-six books that form the canon of Christian scripture, thus leading them to a verbal dictation view of Biblical inspiration and a fixation with word studies. To others, the Word of God is a vague notion of human reason being guided by the ethics presented through the mythical Jesus.
I believe the Word of God is the direct interaction between God and humanity. It comes in many forms–as many forms as there are people and cultures. God is present in creation and calls all people into an infinitely deepening relationship with God, each other, and all of creation. The Scripture of the Hebrew people and the 1st century Christians is an accurate, reliable, formational collection of documents that records the authentic interaction of a specific group of people, operating within a specific social/political/theological framework (a variety of these throughout the 1400 years of its internal history) with the infinite God. Christians study the scripture in order to (1) encounter the Word of God as God is present in the reading/listening process, (2) examine and learn from the model of how the various people in the text interpreted and assimilated their encounter with God within their own context, (3) have the only access to the incarnate Jesus Christ in his historical context, (3) share a common narrative that unifies and shapes each generation in continuity as the body of Christ, and (4) participate in the hope of the promised future in which, from which, and to which God calls us.
Two Biblical Models for Encountering the Word
What is the mission of the church and how does the Word of God relate to that mission? This is an important set of questions for the missional church. A dominant theme in the modern, American church has been one of strategic action. The scripture, according to this framework, is the guide/law book that provides a constitution-like set of principles for how to live life, and demonstrates the plan of salvation (the Gospel) through Jesus. The church is called to take the Gospel to the world by adopting marketing strategies and adopting culturally relevant modes of worship. The leadership style required for this mission is one of courageous vision and strategic action.
I would like to propose that scripture itself offers a different model for the nature and calling of the church. This can be seen in, but not limited to, two examples that can serve as biblical models for our mission today.
The Children of Israel and the pillar of cloud and fire
Moses did not have the written word of God. Moses encountered the Word of God from within the burning bush. God sent Moses to be a prophetic presence before Pharaoh and simply declare, “Let my people go!” This was a declaration of freedom, not a strategic plan of action. Moses waited, listened for God’s voice, then acted as directed, not knowing where it would end up. Eventually the Red Sea parted and the people walked into freedom. Then God led the people with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God did not reveal the plan to Moses, rather God invited Moses and the people to follow.
The key element that propelled the people was the promise that God had made to Abraham centuries before. God had committed to being faithful to this promise and invited the people to follow and trust. Moses’ leadership was one of expectant listening, discerning, facilitating the needs of the people, and being ready to move whenever the cloud lifted.
The Apostle Paul and the leading of the Holy Spirit
The apostle Paul did have the Scriptures—The Law and the Prophets. Yet, he encountered the Word of God in the person of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. This encounter began a two-fold process of Paul’s interaction with the Word. On one hand, He was challenged to reframe the written word as the Holy Spirit was recontextualizing the Law of Moses and expanding the boundaries of God’s people to include the uncircumcised Jew. On the other hand, Paul encountered the word of God in the direct leading of the Holy Spirit to do and say things that contradicted his received understanding of the written word of God and most-likely contradicted his own plan. This is best exemplified in Acts 16:6-10 when Paul planned to travel to Ephesus but was kept from going there by the Holy Spirit. He traveled, instead, to Troas where he received a vision in a dream to expand his boundaries and go to Macedonia.
Paul was constantly wrestling with the Holy Spirit. He prayed that the thorn would be removed from his side. He was relentlessly pursued by his enemies and often beaten and left for dead. He struggled with his own pride, as demonstrated in his schism with Barnabas. Yet, I believe, this brokenness was necessary for Paul to be able to listen to the Word of God as Paul was invited to listen, discern, facilitate the needs of the people around him, and be ready to move when the Spirit prompted.