Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Missional Theology of Relationships

The other day I was thumbing once again through George Hunter's book How to Reach Secular People (Abingdon Press, 1992). Among other things, he has a discussion of relational theology that provoked some thinking in me related to missional ways of being in the postmodern West.

Hunter quotes from Bruce Larson who writes about four aspects of relational theology, including "our relationship to God, our relationship to ourselves, our relationship to the 'significant others' in our lives, and our relationship to the world" (Hunter, 137). It is with the fourth relational element that I did some further thinking on in the context of missional ways of being for Christians in the twenty-first century.

Larson defines our relationship to the world as characterized by "identification, involvement, and service." These characterizations fit in perfectly with an incarnational missions approach among emerging cultures. Christian disciples must identify lovingly with the people, and incarnate in their midst. They must become involved meaningfully and intentionally in their culture, and not merely in utilitarian fashion. And they must engage in selfless acts of service to the peoples they love.

This relational theology and praxis is in stark contrast from what Larson and Hunter refer to as "sterile forms of orthodoxy," and which we might identify with traditional forms of "outreach" to adherents of postmodern, emergent, and alternative spiritualities. Noting the significance of this contrast, Hunter quotes Larson to say that

"the Bible deals primarily with relationships and only indirectly with
doctrine.... Reading the Bible convinces me that the real test of 'orthodoxy' has to do with the quality of relationships far more than with doctrinal stands. Life's real problems are obviously relational; they are only indirectly doctrinal....Certainly [doctrine] may explain to a degree what sin is, and what grace is, but doctrine per se is not the very stuff of life. It merely describes life without enabling it....We are not trying to make people believe 'the right things' so much as enabling them to experience a relationship with God and with one another." (Hunter, 140)
There is precedence for such an emphasis and thinking in the history of Christian missions. The Celtic Christian movement emphasized Christian community, and a sense of belonging and relationships over doctrinal propositions and believing. This extension of Kingdom relationships then became the living, relational context in which faith (and its doctrinal content) could be born nurtured.

A few individuals ministering with a new paradigm among new religions which emphasizes the importance of relationships, flowing out of a theology of relationships as part of a broader missional theology, have been the objects of criticism by evangelicals for deep relational involvement with "heretics." Yet is such a relational theology really out of bounds? Is there biblical room for such theological development? Does it not have some precedent in the history of Christian missions? And what might it "look like" if we placed less emphasis on a theology of information and propositional proclamation, and instead reframed it within the context of missional relationships?

What might be the results for both Christian disciples and the peoples among whom we live and minister if we developed a theology of relationships for the twenty-first century?

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