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. I was warned that church planting would be difficult but I wasn’t really listening. 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, helped me understand why I found church planting such a challenge. In Canada, as in Europe, where Paas teaches missiology and has planted churches himself, we find a post-Christian, secular culture that has no place for Christianity as a (the) dominant narrative. Thus, Paas addresses the question of what missionaries are to do in such a context.

He writes about the “always elusive majority” (chapter two). A “conquest” motif has softly underlay Christendom. The church has always been seeking to have a majority but has never fully actualized it. Even when the culture was largely considered to be “Christian” it was always the minority acting on behalf of the majority. 

This is seen in the images of “hospital” and “restaurant.” 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, the “hospital” has been a state-sponsored church. In other cases, the church has certainly been the restaurant serving the buffets of Easter and Christmas. 

In light of this, most dominant models of church are dependent upon Christendom underpinnings. This is because we find at the heart of Christendom the “conquest” motif: Christianity seeks to transform (to overcome) the world. This mindset is no longer helpful, or appropriate, in secular culture. It is important, Paas believes, to maintain a clear separation between the church and the world. Both are God’s, but both are distinct.

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 as 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 about God. 

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. 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 neighborhoods. Conversion happens implicitly, not explicitly, as the church blesses the world.

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 centers, 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. 

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. 

____________________

Jeremy Hoover and his family live in Sarnia, Ontario, where Jeremy is a church planting missionary with Love First. He also co-hosts Mission Alive’s Discipleship Conversations Podcast and provides Pastoral Care for Pastors who are struggling with burnout, time management, and relationship and leadership challenges. 

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