Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society by Stefan Paas (SCM Press, 2019)
Church planting wasn’t supposed to be this difficult!
Don’t tell Mission Alive I said that. They warned me about its difficulty, but I wasn’t really listening, because I knew it was just a matter of gathering some folks who had already been softened to the gospel during the summer mission trips my supporting church had engaged in for a decade. Imagine my surprise when my Christendom tactics (which I was well-versed in) did not work!
Stefan Paas, in his excellent book, Pilgrims and Priests, gave me understanding, in part, for why I found church planting so challenging. In Canada, as in Europe, where Paas teaches missiology and has planted churches himself, we find a post-Christian, secular culture that has largely left Christianity behind as a narrative of consequence. Paas is conversant with Charles Taylor’s work about secularism but is more concerned with the concept of post-Christian: secular culture no longer has a need, or even a place, for the Christian meta-narrative.
What, then, are missionaries to do? This is the project Paas turns to in this very engaging book as he tackles Christian mission within secular culture. While Paas writes mainly from a European context, there is much to be absorbed in the Canadian context (and for forward thinkers in the American context).
Paas writes about the “always elusive majority” (chapter two). In this, he outlines the roots of Christendom and a “conquest” motif that has always underlied the Christendom church. The church has always been seeking to have a majority but has never fully actualized it. “Church” has, even during periods where culture was largely considered to be “Christian,” been the minority acting on behalf of the majority. Paas references “vicarious religion,” the minority functioning for the majority, with tacit approval from the majority. Christianity was safe space, even if the majority didn’t actively practice it.
He uses the images of “hospital” and “restaurant” to describe this phenomenon. A hospital is a place you support so that, in time of need, you have access to its services. A restaurant is a place you choose to go to when you want access to its services, though you do not support it otherwise. The Christendom church has functioned in both of these ways in Christian-majority culture, in some cases even as a state-sponsored church (hospital) and certainly as a restaurant serving the buffets of Easter and Christmas.
But times have changed, and the church has not kept up. The longest chapter in the book (chapter three) is given over to critiques of much of current missiological thinking, which Paas locates as being dependent upon Christendom in some way. This is because we find at the heart of Christendom a "conquest" motif: Christianity seeks to transform (to overcome) the world. This mindset is no longer helpful, or appropriate, in secular culture.
Perhaps the most striking critique he offers in this chapter is the critique of what would commonly be known in North America as the missio dei, or, missional church theology. Paas critiques this because he finds that a Christendom approach underlies it. Although he critiques it from a European perspective, he is aware of the work of contemporary missional practitioners who are popular in North America such as Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost.
Paas names this approach “Inside Out,” which is drawn from the work of Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijk. In short, Hoekendijk argues the church, in engaging with secular culture, must seek to turn itself inside out. The “church” is located wherever the presence and activity of God is located. Therefore, transformation (of the world) occurs when the church turns itself inside out and goes into the world. The world is God’s world, after all, and the church helps the world recognize that it is being guided towards God’s eschatological future. The church can only do this by being embedded within cultural structures.
Paas critiques this approach as relying too heavily on Christendom and conquest. It absorbs the world into the church, rather maintaining a distinction between the two. The church and the world are separate, and the church represents God to the world while not blending the two. To blend, or to absorb, is to harm. It is to “expand” the reach of Christendom in a takeover model that Paas does not see as deriving from scripture.
Constructively, Paas draws from 1 Peter (chapter 5) to elucidate the themes of pilgrimage and priesthood. Christians are pilgrims. We are travelers, foreigners in the land, who have no interest in conquest and transformation because that time has passed. Likewise, Christians are priests, and our mission is not to transform, or take over, the world, but to bless the world on behalf of God.
His work on 1 Peter is strengthened by his work on Israel’s exilic situation and spirituality (chapter four). He develops the theme of “loss,” that exile was not merely a deportation and a grappling with a new culture. Rather, it represented the actual loss--even the failure--of the promises of God: the loss of land, the loss of a king, the loss of the temple. Amidst this loss, Israel had to find new resources to draw upon, and they did. In the exilic literature of the Old Testament, we find the rise of Sabbath as both an identity marker and a participation in God’s created order, identity practices such as circumcision and purity laws, and devotion to God through cultivated practices of prayer at regular hours and almsgiving. Israel in exile had to carve out a way of being God’s people in a culture that didn’t care.
For Paas, the most unique thing about Israel’s exilic situation was that Israelites did not actively proselytize. They accepted proselytes who came to them, but they did not “evangelize” in the sense that the church in the New Testament was called to do. This was a new move that the church made as it pushed into Gentile territory with an inclusive message. However, the New Testament church’s context was pluralistic, and because Paas sees secular culture as post-Christian (i.e, post-pluralism), he advocates for the exilic model of forming identity and living within the culture (the world) as a distinct community of priests.
The remainder of the book (chapters five and six) is given over to Paas’ construction of a model that posits the church as a small thing (I hesitate to write “small group” because of the connotation that phrase has in North American Christendom culture) that cultivates practices that enable it to function with a specific identity (as pilgrims). These small churches then function as priests in the world, blessing the world on behalf of God, where the Spirit may be/is present, with no expectation of “results” or transformation, inviting interested (or blessed) people to join them but making no claims and staking no ground in the public square.
This book has shaped my missional imagination in many ways. First, the deconstruction of church models opened my eyes to the prevalence of the Christendom model (and its conquest motif). This enabled me to see that one challenge I faced was that I was trying to import a model of church among people who knew what that model was and had already rejected it. This is not to say that they have rejected God, only that they have rejected a model of organizing belief.
Second, the discussion of Israel’s exilic situation and their spirituality within that context, combined with the priestly reflection on 1 Peter, helped me to understand the distinction between the people of God and the world. Here, formation is key and is privileged above public proclamation and evangelizing. The church must focus on its identity; and formational practices are important to that end. Rather than evangelizing for new members, churches can focus on the ways in which they are being formed into the people of God and can discern the ways in which God is calling them to bless their neighbourhoods.
Third, the practical implications of small churches, distinct from the world, functioning as priests who bless that world on behalf of God is generative. Small churches are nimble and can operate as mission outposts without the apparatus that larger, Christendom-style churches have in terms of buildings, staff, and other commitments. These small churches can gather in living rooms, backyards, community centres, and public parks to pray together, dwell in the word, and discern where and whom God desires them to bless. They can bless freely without the need for results hanging over their work.
I do have a few concerns about Paas’ work in this book. In no way do these concerns negate the constructive value of what I have written above, but they do create openings for critiquing his model. First, in his exploration of Israelite exilic spirituality, Paas does not allow for enough contestation during this period. I was impressed with the breadth of his awareness of academic issues related to exilic literature, and he acknowledged that most of the biblical writers lived contested lives, but he stopped short of describing how contested spirituality was in exile. Instead, he amalgamated the disparate spiritualities into one whole that he described under the umbrella of identity. There is a marked difference between, on one hand, the temple cosmology of creation that leads to Sabbath as a caretaking practice within God’s created order and, on the other hand, the purity laws of Leviticus. There is a difference between the identity practices of Daniel and the way of universal wisdom seen in the wisdom literature. All of these things form identity but the identity is not homogeneous and may speak to a forking stream of identities rather than a static one.
Second, in positing the exile as a dominant image for understanding our post-Christian landscape, it is important to distinguish that we have not experienced loss in the same way that those in exile did. To suggest that we have is to conflate loss in the same way that contemporary, western evangelicals conflate their persecution over such things as loss of political power or public prayer in schools with the persecution Christians face in different parts of the world where it is illegal to be a Christian. We may have lost privilege due to the loss of Christendom, but that was never promised to us. We have not lost the promises of God as happened to Israel in the exile. “Loss” as a trigger for being creative in forming new practices for discernment is important, but it is also important to distinguish the difference between their loss and our loss.
Finally, I’m concerned that Paas’ Reformed background coloured his ecclesiology coming into this project. There is an a priori commitment to the church as an entity. Ecclesiology comes first for Paas, then missiology. In a post-Christan context, it may be that mission creates the people, and identity formation comes second as the people on mission figure out who they really are.
Paas’ project to define a post-Christian mission is ambitious but helpful and practical. He has helped me see the disconnect between my earlier Christendom approach to church planting and the reality of the post-Christian, secular culture. I have much to think about as I contemplate a new, smaller, more nimble, and priestly approach in our post-Christian, post-covid era.