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(In)stability and Mission

One of the most significant and contentions elements of many contemporary ecclesial movements is the practice of stability. Among ecclesial communities that are proliferating in the West today there is a strong emphasis on rejecting the sort of transience and career-driven mobility that has become ubiquitous in our culture.

However, to many ears this sort of theological practice raises questions, particularly missional questions. If the church is to start practicing stability, rootedness, and understand itself in a way that gives particular and sustained priority to locality, how does this relate to the church’s missional vocation? Is the church not always a community en via, a communion on its way? If we are a company of pilgrims is the commitment to stay in one place really fitting to the nature of our missional identity as the elect people of God?

I want to suggest that yes, in fact it is, or at least that the practice of geographical stability/longevity is a central part of the church’s missional identity. The first thing to be noted here is that the upward mobility of the Western middle class has nothing whatsoever to do with the missional mandate of the Christian church. The idea that simply being free to pick up and leave whenever we want is somehow closer to the ideal of missionality that commitment to a particular location is simply silly.

More to the point however is the fact that stability, when understood theological is actually a missional practice, indeed, it is rightly understood as a practice of dispossession, of instability. The commitment to remain with a people in a specific place is not static, lethargic, or lazy, but rather indicates a form of agapeic surrender in which we attempt to give up control of our lives for the sake of the other to the end of the faithful worship of God.

In other words, the commitment of stability is at once koinonial and doxological in nature. All of this, however, is overtly missional. Indeed the idea that geographic longevity is somehow a sort of maintenance of our own domestic status quo is an idea that only occurs to Westerners who desire maximum control over the shape of their lives. Nearly every missionary that I have ever met or read about insist that the only true and viable form of missional encounter occurs through long-term proximity and communal solidarity.

In short, the practice of stability is not an attempt to refuse the call of mission, but rather the very embodiment of that call’s acceptance. The practice of stability, far from being a mode of maintenance or control is the very act of allowing ourselves to be destabilized by the lingering presence of the other, of the neighbor. Stability names the very way in which we practice the instability and openness to the interruption that is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.

5 Comments

  1. Kyle wrote:

    Two monastic models to draw from in this conversation are the Franciscan and Benedictine. Franciscans take vows of charity, obedience and poverty, Benedictines take vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of life.
    From a lay perspective, it seems like the way these get worked out is that Franciscans tend to be more mobile, but are rooted in a community of support and accountability of fellow Franciscans. Benedictines, on the other hand, are more deeply rooted in a geographic place. Interestingly, the Benedictine order was formed as the Roman Empire was crumbling, so the Benedictine context may be more analogous to our own.
    In any case, as you rightly point out, the call of discipleship is toward relationships of proximity and solidarity, whether in a missionary context or not (is there such a thing as a non-missionary context?).
    Blessed Ash Wednesday.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    Well said. What could it mean to be “destabilized” within the pure flux of modern social and cultural practices? I’m abstaining from blogs for Lent, but you’ll see me around again at Easter (and possibly on Sundays between now and then).

    Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  3. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Halden:

    For what it is worth, I would prefer to speak not so much of practices of “stability,” but rather practices of “dwelling.” The idea of “dwelling” feels more concrete to me, more about things like “land” and “work,” and at the same time more poetic, as well as being able to speak more ambiguously the idea of “residing” without having a proper “home.”

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I have pretty much imbibed this langauge from Benedictine sources, as these have tended to get picked up on in the whole “new monasticism” world.

    I believe another useful way of speaking about this would be in terms of “abiding”, which of course, has a certain Johannine derivation and perhaps encapsulates the idea well.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Thanks for these great reflections on a topic much on my mind lately. I made a post on my blog called Rebellion as Staying Put which tried to grapple with the mobility-stability divide from the standpoint of someone who’s tired of seeing everyone around him up and leave all the time, and realizing the missional implications of this.

    And Nate, the language of “dwelling” definitely has some superior resonances to that of “stability.” Thanks for that thought, I’ll have to think about it some more.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

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