Moltmann on the mission and the future of the church

This will be my last post off the back of reading The Open Church by Jurgen Moltmann. I wanted to just take a brief look at some of the similarities between Moltmann’s proposals from way back in 1978 and I guess what can be called the missional church movement of today.

It’s in his final chapter that Moltmann begins to outline his thoughts that would transform stolid, national, declining and dying denominational life into something more vibrant, living and messianic; and by messianic he means caught up in the life and mission of the Messiah.

Let’s quickly give Moltmann’s definitions of the church and it’s mission before looking at some of his suggestions. Moltmann follows the reformation in saying that,

“the church is the community of  justified and sanctified sinners. A church without this community of human beings with one another is no church of Christ.”

He agrees too, that what defines the gathering of the church is “the proclamation of the gospel according to the scriptures and the administration of the sacraments according to the gospel’ but goes on to add that ‘the community which is defined by the Word and the Lord’s Supper must also be a community of love in mutual compassion and sacrifice.”

The mission of the church he says is,

“the mission of God, and the mission of God is aimed at the total liberation of the whole enslaved creation to the kingdom of God and of freedom.”

Moltmann saw, back in the late 70s, that the decline of the mainstream churches was well under way but new grass-level shoots of promise were sprouting up and challenged the leaders ‘not to hinder this development but press for it.’ He also challenged the laity saying,

“We have delegated too many tasks to specialists. Thus our own powers are becoming stunted. When we begin by looking to the clergy for relief from our commission we end in alienation. Every Christian is called to tell others of the gospel and for this every Christian, not just the learned theologian, has a capability.”

He then called for an increased role of deacons and greater independence of the local congregation and then went on to make three key criticisms of church life:

  1. Worship services are still to clerically and pastorally organised. They are events for the congregation and not yet events of the congregation. Think about that one if you lead a ‘new’ church.
  2. On the question of church membership we should no longer consider just ‘belonging’ and ‘standing’ but should increasingly pay attention to the freedom of decision and the voluntary nature of faith. Here he essentially challenges the practice of infant baptism and calls for a shift to baptism of the called or at least those who know they are called.
  3. Everything depends on the emergence of small, freely constituted, comprehendible communities in the large, uncomprehendible districts of the church. Community exists only when persons really know each other. God as love is experienced not in large organizations and institutions but in communities in which people can embrace each other.

It is, I guess, points 1 and 3 that are of the most interest when it comes to the missional church movement of today. Under the frst point, Moltmann made a number of suggestions for the gathering of the church, so let’s take a look at those. Our worship becomes something of the people he argued when:

  • the Lord’s Supper again becomes the centre of the worship service
  • when time is made available for spontaneous expressions
  • when all the people in the congregation mutually greet each other
  • when everyone can be together in genuine fellowship happenings
  • when not only the minster but also the congregation prays and speaks
  • when the process of transposition from hearing to speaking the gospel can take place already in the gathering of the congregation itself
  • when we more frequently arrange festive gatherings of the whole congregation
Many of these ideas have been taken up with great enthusiasm by missional church proponents who have challenged the model of the mega church. I could have taken almost all those points from say Michael Frost’s The Road to Missional
Equally, Moltmann’s third point remains the call of the missional church with their missional communities and gospel communities. It would also seem, that in many ways Moltmann was right. Nearly forty years later the national churches all across Europe have continued their steep and even precipitous descent to obscurity and irrelevance. Not enough changed and the arrival of the mega-churches hasn’t arrested that decline. Moltmann it seems was one of the early prophets of the missional movement.
Of course is missional churches aren’t actually missional; ie they don’t tell anyone about Jesus, then they won’t make any difference either but it’s too early to say what the judgement on the missional church will be.


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