Beyond Maintenance to Mission: A Theology of the Congregation (Second Edition), Craig L. Nessan, Fortress Press, 2010 (ISBN 978-0-8006-6326-1), 178 pp., pb $20.00
The focus on the church’s mission in a post-Christendom context continues to bring to the surface new questions about the church’s identity and the need to reflect on that identity within a theological framework. Craig Nessan’s second edition of Beyond Maintenance to Mission supplies a helpful resource to this growing conversation on the missional components of congregational leadership, practical theology, and pastoral ministry. As Professor of Contextual Theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Nessan builds upon his first edition by articulating a ‘theology of the congregation’ that revolves around two central foci: identity and mission (p.xii). His primary thesis is that ‘Christian congregations in North America are uniquely situated to serve as ‘centers of mission,’ both ministering to the needs of their members and carrying forth the gospel beyond themselves to their communities and world’(p. xii). Allowing theology and praxis to inform one another mutually is at the heart of how Nessan believes congregations may build upon the foundation of worship and how they may actively engage in vital missionary outreach to the world (p. xii).
Nessan structures his argument by outlining a model of congregational life that is centered in the worship of the triune God. As he states in the opening chapter: “all of a congregation’s identity and mission is grounded in what we profess and enact at worship’; ‘worship is given central place in this theology of the congregation’ (p. 7). Therefore, all the rest of congregational life needs to be understood as serving this core: with respect to identity by faithful practice of prayer, teaching, life in community, and stewardship; and with regards to mission by evangelizing, making global connections, building ecumenical partnerships, and engaging in social ministry (p. 7). Taken together, these nine components offer a comprehensive and dynamic approach to congregational ministry. As Nessan puts it, they offer the nine key criteria to measure and develop wholeness in ministry, with worship the thread tying them all together (p. 11).
After describing his basic ‘model’ of a theology of the congregation, Nessan moves on to offer the ‘method’ by which leaders may engage in the kind of contextual theology he envisions: listening (p. 15ff). Utilizing insights from Douglas John Hall, Tex Sample, and Robert Bellah, Nessan puts forth insights into how leaders may ask the right questions about congregational life in a North American context and how they might go about listening to the multiple stories involving congregational life, cultural situation, and biblical word (p. 17). All three of these stories intersect as leaders discern the Spirit’s movement amidst the warp and woof of congregational-cultural-biblical life settings (p. 23). And yet, according to Nessan, it is the mission of the Holy Trinity that undergirds the theology of the congregation (p. 29). Speaking out of his own Lutheran tradition, Nessan instructs readers on how they need to pay attention to God’s own activity in the sending of the Son and to the Holy Spirit’s movement in the shaping and guiding of the church (p. 30). Thus the real presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament forms the basis of congregational identity and mission (p. 30); the real presence of God’s instruction and exhortation through the Spirit is crucial if the congregation is to thrive (p. 36).
Nessan’s emphasis on the centrality of worship to congregational identity and mission provides several points for reflection. First, Nessan’s provocative chapter on worship as ‘imagining the kingdom’ supplies a refreshing basis for recapturing the power of the imagination in pastoral leadership. While others, like Walter Brueggemann and Craig Dykstra, have lifted up the importance of the imagination in terms of leadership, Nessan rightly connects the power of the imagination to the life of worship: to imagine is to enter into an alternative world that can profoundly shape and alter the ordinary world (p. 41). Imagination rests at the heart of ritual(p. 43). We are at the same time those who can imagine and those who actually receive the kingdom (p. 45). The interplay of these two factors engages both leaders and congregations in a powerful and life-changing ways. Nessan’s work invites more study in this area.
Second, related to this point is Nessan’s appropriation of the language of epiclesis. By the very invocation of God’s presence, we enter into ‘kingdom reality’ (p. 45); that is, the very mood of worship is one of epiclesis, invoking and imploring the Spirit of God to come and enliven us by its presence (p. 47). This is why worship is the single most important factor in forming Christian identity: worship mediates God’s energy that transforms congregations into centers of mission (p. 49). Thus the church’s ‘one long epiclesis’cannot be separated from the church’s practice of paraenesis, or instruction (p. 49). Worship and making disciples go hand-in-hand.
And third, with these above points in mind, Nessan’s book raises important questions about the immediate challenges facing the church in a post-Christendom context. Using Loren Mead’s ‘apostolic paradigm’ as a tool to understand our current ecclesial-cultural situation, and seeing the relevance of Bonhoeffer’s use of a disciplina arcane(literally ‘secret discipline’) for the making of disciples, Nessan’s work helpfully illustrates the significance of how the church in a pluralistic, often non-Christian world, needs to reconstitute its identity and initiate persons into the way of discipleship (p. 73). In short, there is an urgent need to recover the mystery or otherness of the Christian faith as evoked through the practice of an arcane discipline (p. 73). Such awareness can assist the church in a time of cultural transition. It can also assist in raising the right questions (p.81).
Nessan’s book is timely. The theological framework within which he operates is refreshing. Though this reviewer would have liked to have seen more emphasis placed on the ‘evangelizing church’ as an ‘initiating church,’ there is still a great deal Nessan’s boo does to connect worship with disciple making and reaching out and learning to speak the faith. He nicely outlines how all the various components of identity and mission ‘fit’ together. He is very good at drawing the ministerial connections to the Trinity and Incarnation. This alone is worthwhile.
Nessan’s book provides much food for thought among those who are currently seeking to discern the signs of the times and find solid theological substance for ministerial reflection. In addition, it supplies a much needed correction to the missional and emergent church movements that often get wrapped up in technique or trends. His work definitely can be used in seminary classes in the areas of missiology, congregational studies, practical theology, or pastoral ministry. As a second edition, it creatively reveals the kind of pastoral and theological wisdom we all wish more churches will come to embody.