Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society
If you pick this book up expecting a ‘how to’ guide to evangelism in secular Western Europe you will be disappointed – or, quite possibly, relieved. Because this book aims to take the pressure off.
Stefan Paas is Professor of Missiology and Intercultural Theology at Vrije University, Amsterdam. Perhaps surprisingly for a professor of missiology he argues that the world will never be Christian and so the church should give up the idea that it ever will be. The church’s mission is not to seek a return to the days of Christendom.
Writing in impressively idiomatic English, Paas begins with a swift look at 5 models of church, historical and contemporary, which he sees as characterising Western Christianity. This is the least engaging section of the book and it is not always easy to follow how each model is differentiated. However, despite the mainly Dutch context, there are features of these models which will be recognisable. Paas suggests that though each model has its strengths, none is fit for purpose in the current context. His is a different model.
To explain his ideas, Paas turns to Old Testament accounts of exile and diaspora, and to the New Testament writings of 1 Peter. He argues that the church’s current positioning in Western European culture is an exile into which she has been led by God. Much of what he says about this will not be news to the reader who will be painfully aware that to most the church is irrelevant; Christians are no better moral exemplars than many non-believers and the church’s offer is just one among many in a consumerist society. Where Paas does depart from the expected is in his response to this. For Paas, the answer is not redoubled efforts, growth action plans or clunky attempts at relevance. The answer is for the exiled, pilgrim church to embrace more fully its call to priesthood, not the priesthood of each individual believer but the corporate priesthood of the body of the church. The church’s priestly calling is to offer the whole of creation to God as worship and sacrifice and to present God to the church’s surrounding community. Occasionally there may be a convert, but it is in the restoration of relationships that salvation is to be found and belonging to a eucharistic community – however tenuously – is where salvation will be experienced.
These are ideas with which many will profoundly disagree. But non-judgmental reflection on that disagreement may deepen and inform ongoing missiological practice. Paas certainly believes in mission; he writes that to abolish mission is to mutilate faith. He believes his model is enough to inspire, even though most in Western Europe will continue to see the church as irrelevant and converts will be few. This picture of small but somehow luminous churches looking inward to worship richly and outward to build deep relationships is beguiling. It certainly does take the pressure off. But does it set expectations too low?
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