Mission and ‘Messy Theology’


To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong”            

                                                                                         Joseph L Pearce


I have always had a great interest in science, particularly new discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics, the science of stars, black holes, how the universe works etc. and now in the current debates about quantum physics, the nature of matter etc. (Though I need to make it very plain that I make no claim to expertise in this area)

This interest includes what are often called the ‘Laws of nature’, i.e. the ‘rules’, physical laws, formulae that show us not only how the world works but very importantly how we can predict that it will work. This was a world I learned about as I grew up, a world in which things could be relied upon to operate in accordance with the tight and tidy laws of physics, such as those formulated by Isaac Newton for example, what might in fact be called a ‘Newtonian’ universe.

Now however it seems that science is increasingly telling us as it continues to seek to reveal the ‘handiwork of God’ (although of course many scientists wouldn’t see it that way) that God’s creation is not that simple and things are not as tidy as they once seemed! For example, while it once was a ‘given’ that the position of an electron in its ‘Newtonian-ruled’ orbit around the nucleus of its atom could be predicted with certainty, quantum physics now tells us that “it isn’t necessarily so”! Rather while the ‘probability’ of a sub-atomic particle’s position can be predicted it is not however a certainty, it seems that God isn’t quite so tidy after all and but sometimes uses apparent randomness to achieve his purposes!

Then there is the little matter of time that now also turns out to be not so tidy as once thought, for Science is now suggesting that perhaps there are circumstances, even other universes, in which time runs backwards. Also that sub-atomic particles may in fact be like mini-time machines, (indeed it could be that our bodies are made up of a multitude of little time machines) which can be affected by both past and future events, for in fact past present and future are all the same to them. Maybe science is catching up with the biblical statement that for God “a day is like a thousand years”! (2 Peter 3:8). Anyway it is all enough to give Isaac Newton and those educated in his understanding of the nature of things a nervous breakdown.

It appears then that a degree of ‘Messiness’ has gate-crashed the nicely ordered cause and effect rules of the previous ‘Newtonian’ way of understanding things. So if science is discovering new reflections of the nature of God in creation that are, from a human perspective, ‘Messy’ and even apparently random, could it be that we are now discovering an apparently ‘Messy’ characteristic of God highly relevant to mission in our time. Or to put it another way, while Einstein said “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”, it is Stephen Hawking who is right when he says that God actually does! So it seems therefore, and here is the shock, that there is an aspect of God’s creation that is –well just plain ‘Messy’! This is described by science as theHeisenberg Uncertainty Principle’

Once we have digested this idea that God ‘does messy’, I would suggest that there then follows an important consequence for Mission as we seek to address our chronic missional malaise. This is that we are given significant theological encouragement for our, what I believe are essential, efforts to ‘Unbind’ the church from its Sunday-centric, In-drag, Christendom-form (‘SIC’), one might even say tidy and nicely ordered ‘Newtonian-type’ understanding of how God thinks his church should operate. Could it be that what we actually need is a new ‘Messy’ theology for a fuller understanding of how the God who ‘does Messy’ is likely to work, and in the light of that to reshape our approach to mission?

The fact is that this “Truth is (already) Out There”, and not from the science world only, because investigation of current missionally fruitful ‘alternative forms’ of church around the globe reveals a fairly common theme, the theme of ‘Messiness’! New forms of church are arising which are ‘Messy’ in their process of development, their style and their appearance, often resulting more from a ‘messy’ process of evolution rather than the result of the resolution and planning characteristic of ‘Classic’ church planting strategies.

A characteristic of many ‘new forms’ is that they emerge in what is known as a ‘Knightian Uncertainty’ environment[1]. This is an environment in which there is just not enough data available to be able to predict what is going to happen, so the process of the development of new missional communities is one of emergence out of uncertainty. This is far distant from current planned church planting type strategies, rather it is one of what might be described as ‘Organic emergence’. It is also a process that most church leaders are just not trained for, and find very difficult to grasp and adopt because it is very much about letting go (of control) and letting God!

The evidence is that such new forms are reaching far more of the lost than the ‘SIC’ church model. They appear in coffee bars, laundromats, smash repairers’ yards, they develop out of Muslim women’s beginners English groups, hanging out skate boarders, office workers lunch groups, clusters of school drop off moms etc. The list is endless, however a common thread is ‘messiness’, indeed it would appear that in contrast to our well-ordered, liturgised (ok so I invented a word!) and planned ‘SIC’ church model mission events, programs and activities God ‘does messy’ and is blessing ‘messiness’!

It turns out that science, which allows us to discover and understand the ‘Handiwork of God’, is teaching us that there is an aspect of God that allows some ‘messiness’. This ‘Messy Theology’ is I believe especially relevant for the development of truly missional churches in our western post Christendom culture, or as I prefer to call them ‘Missional Communities’ (MCs). I believe it is our insistence of keeping God in a box of rules and regulations, traditional forms and structures for mission etc. (you might even call it a ‘Newtonian-type’ understanding of church) that is a major factor in the general missional unfruitfulness of the mainline churches. For a God who ‘does messy’ will not be put in a box of tidy rules and forms demanded by us, yet that is exactly what we seek to do when we insist on refusing to let go of our ‘SIC’ church forms (interestingly of the same vintage as Newton!) as the platform from which to do mission.

Thinking about this whole idea of a ‘Messy Theology’ is-well yes messy! However, it could well be that (paradoxically) it is often atheistic science that teaches us to take more seriously the biblical doctrines of the God who won’t be put in a box, indeed who is the God of ‘new things’, who says “From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you” (Isa 48:6); the God who designed the apparent randomness of an electron’s position, whose Son Jesus walked on water, through walls and out of tombs; the God for whom time is all of a piece.

As we struggle then with our general missional unfruitfulness, could it be that for the sake of our mission, now is the time to give more thought to a ‘messy Theology’ that will allow for and encourage a ‘messy’ approach to mission in our post-modern ‘messy’ culture? This will mean letting God out of the box we have confined him in and observing the documented ‘messy’ emergence of many and fruitful new forms of church. It will mean seeding ‘possibilities of church’, individuals as gospel seeds in the ‘Knightian uncertainty’ environments of the messy, swirling confusion that is the mosaic of tribes comprising western culture. It will mean praying that the Holy Spirit will cause these ‘possibilities’, shaped by the NT Dna for Christian community, to emerge organically into missional communities. Crucially these will be indigenous to their ‘messy’ cultures unlike the alien insertions of most current imported missional endeavours.

Yes such an approach will produce ‘messy’ missional communities but they will have the capacity to penetrate the pluralistic, post-modern mosaic of tribal cultures that comprise our society, and which the ‘SIC’ church model is chronically failing to reach?

Why should we do this? Because it turns out that God at times works in ‘messy’ ways, and for the sake of the gospel and increased missional fruitfulness so must we!

[1] Named after University of Chicago economist Frank Knight

One thought on “Mission and ‘Messy Theology’

  1. I agree with you. I often think a lot of theology is people who think they know more than they really do trying to make God understandable and “safe”, when he is, as you say, often”messy”, alien. And if our theology is safe and controlled, so probably will be our church and our mission.


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