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The Public Presence of the Missional Church: Transient, Transparent, and Transformational

By October 16, 2008 No Comments

Denise Kingdom Grier

The Samaritan woman showed up at the well that day and probably every other day before. There was no one there to welcome her. She likely felt she was in this situation because of her own doing, her own life choices. She was walking around in her space, in her own culture, yet she did not feel welcome. There was no one there to welcome her. No one inviting her to come and see.

That was, until this day, the day John records that she shows up at the well and Jesus is there. He’s there in Samaria, where Jews don’t ordinarily go. He’s there at the well with no instrument to draw water. He is away from Galilee, away from his disciples. He shows up in public.

To be in public requires self-awareness. Some psychologists suggest that there are three basic elements that determine if a person is what they call “selfaware.” Those three parts are called: body awareness, private self-consciousness, and public self-consciousness. All of these have to do with one’s public presence. Just as Jesus displays self-awareness, so too the missional church must be self-aware, not only with a sense of its own body and private self, but especially it must also have a public presence.

If your dog is like mine you literally have to pull her away from the mirror or she’d stay there and bark all day. She stands there and barks because when she looks in the mirror she does not see herself, but another dog looking at her. Psychologists say this is because my dog lacks “body awareness,” the sense of where she ends and another dog begins.

The church has worked hard to maintain its body awareness. It has hammered out confessions and creeds and doctrines. In the midst of councils and crusades, the church has tried to draw clear lines where its body begins and where it ceases to be the church.

A second element of being self-aware is the private self-consciousness. I understand that to be the part of the self that is focused internally. “I think.” “I feel.” All of these sorts of tendencies come from this place. The church has built structures of care and catechism for growth and discipleship in order to maintain its private self. If honesty were to prevail, it would reveal that even some of the church’s evangelism and outreach efforts ultimately have served to form the private self-consciousness of the church more than being genuinely outward acts.

Finally there is the public self-consciousness. Have you ever walked out of your house or office and instantly remembered that you forgot something and had to go back to get it? What did you do? You may have hit yourself on the head, or snapped you fingers, or said “Oh shoot, I forgot!” All of that has to do with our public self-consciousness–a sense that someone may be watching, a sense of ourselves in the presence of others.

A church that is a missional church is a church that has a public self-consciousness. A missional church is aware that someone may be watching and that there are things it does which invite others to “come and see.” The missional church is a sign, a voice, and witness to the world, to the present and coming reign of God. The missional church is a self-aware body that aims to affect and infect the culture, to the end that it may participate in God’s mission to the world.

So body awareness, private self-consciousness, and public self-consciousness together form self-awareness.

Jesus was truly self-aware. In John’s gospel, Jesus didn’t need Nicodemeus’ compliments and affirmations. “I know you are a teacher who comes from God,” Nicodemus began. But Jesus cut right to the chase to tell Nicodemus “You must be born again.”   A missional church is aware that someone may be watching and that there are things it does which invite others to “come and see.”   Jesus knew who he was. He was self-aware. He didn’t need to prove himself at the wedding in Cana by taking some quick action in response to the crisis with the wine. His time had not yet come. He was self-aware. When John tells the story of Jesus clearing the temple, where the money changers had set up their tables, Jesus’ motivations were clear. This was no show, no demonstration for the crowd, but instead righteous indignation that reflects the very heart of God.

Then Jesus goes to Samaria. It took some sort of self-awareness to travel through Samaria. Not that it wasn’t one of the quickest ways back to Galilee, but it was the road less traveled by Jews. There was too much bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, so much alike, but then so different. Despite these differences, Jesus had a very public presence even in Samaria. He knew that he would stand out there. The way he looked, the way he spoke–they’d spot him in a moment. But he had to go beyond his own place, beyond his own people, beyond his own self. He had to go to the public and that’s why the missional church has to have a public presence. The missional church has to go through Samaria.

Jesus’ public presence in Samaria is transient, transparent, and transformational. This should tell us something about the public presence of the missional church.

“Transient” is such a descriptive word. It has the capacity to evoke negative images–homeless people, troubled people, our rootless, throwaway culture. But the missional church is “transient”? Don’t think of transient as simply moving quickly from place to place, though this is true of the missional church. Think of the word transient as implying something which affects change or produces change beyond itself.

Jesus is a transient figure. Yes, moving around from place to place. “Birds have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head”–transient. Taking naps on a boat, inviting himself to others’ homes for dinner, and perusing a little boy’s lunch box–transient.

But Jesus was also transient because he affected change beyond just a given moment, or person, or circumstance. He affected not only the life of the woman at the well, but also those to whom she would tell her story for a lifetime. When a drink of water quenches a thirsty soul the whole world is refreshed. In the same way, the missional church must be able to affect change beyond itself.

Jesus shows up at the well and is thirsty. “Give me a drink.” Two things happen here that show transparency on the part of Jesus. First, Jesus is aware enough in his own body to publicly acknowledge his need. He put himself in a position to be rejected and denied. He leads with his weakness and not his strength. Second, he asks this woman to join in meeting his need, because he knew that it would ultimately be good for her too.

The missional church must also be transparent. The missional church must be aware enough of its body to acknowledge its needs, its own bumps and bruises. The missional church dares to lead with its weakness, not its strength. Just as Jesus needed the woman’s bucket, there are some things the missional church must be willing to ask of the world, the culture, and whomever God sets in its path. They too may participate and their gifts too may share in God’s reconciling work. The missional church is transparent enough to ask the world for a drink.

I did a funeral recently for a well loved mother of the community. I knew that there would be a lot of folk there we don’t ordinarily see in church. It was obvious that I had a need. I needed to be transparent and borrow from the culture, something that would help me invite this gathered people to come and see. I went to I-tunes and Yahoo Music, asking them to give me a drink. I took a healthy swallow of their number-one hits and was able to weave some of the lyrics into my message in such a way that got the attention of the gathered people. The missional church must be transparent.

Notice also that Jesus was transparent enough, comfortable enough that he needed neither to entertain nor i
gnore the cultural argument about where one should worship–Sychar or Jerusalem? Hymns or praise songs or Taizé music? Standing or sitting down while Scripture is read? The missional church is transparent enough to acknowledge that these differences exist, while sincerely pointing to a reality that has more to do with God then any preferences we humans may have.

Finally, the missional church is transformational. Notice how the conversation changes. It goes from talk about water to talk about worship–that’s transformation! It goes from one’s physical needs to God’s desire. It goes from Jesus extending an invitation to the Samaritan woman to this woman inviting her own neighbors, her own culture, to come and see–that’s transformation!

The missional church is a self-aware body. We transiently show up on the stage of our culture, not to come in and take over, not to totally revamp the way things are done any more than Jesus did, but to affect and infect the culture. We are a transparent witness to the power of God that breaks down divisions between Samaritans and Jews, between believers and unbelievers. The missional church risks asking the culture for a drink, in order to provide thirsty souls with a never ending spring of water that gushes up into eternal life.

The missional church has a public presence that transforms a simple community, a cynical culture and a chaotic cosmos, even as Jesus transformed one woman, one community, one world from suspicion and shame to a full-fledged participant and witness who invites her world to come and see, to join Christ in mission.

Denise Kingdom Grier is pastor of Congregational Care and Ministry Development at Calvary Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.