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A book study I am a part of is reading James Bryan Smith’s "The Good and Beautiful Community." In a chapter entitled 'the serving community' Smith all too quickly mentions a metaphor for the Christian community that was new to me. His metaphor was to view the church as an outpost. Though he didn’t expand I thought I would take the opportunity to articulate a few thoughts that came through my reading and pondering.
1) An outpost conjures up all kinds of images. Militarily an outpost was the front line, a kind of first defense and warning system. Similarly outposts were once used to spot forest fires, acting as the eyes of the fire safety community. Border outposts are also common as they safeguard their country. In civilian terms an outpost is a frontier settlement or a type of colony.
In most cases the term “outpost” represents something that is temporary. A Christian community as an outpost is first and foremost temporary. It is sent out to accomplish a certain task and then recalled. This goes against everything that society tells us. Permanence and success are what is most valued. Churches fall prey to this in obvious ways like focusing overtly on attendance and new converts, but I believe there also must be some subtler ways in which we succumb to the draw of permanence and success. I think this happens when we begin to make decisions with the underlying thought “how can this most help us?” Instead every decision should be made by asking “how can we show the most of God’s love?” If we were able to view our own communities as temporary outposts I believe we would have a much easier time overcoming our drive for permanence and instead more readily focus on showing God’s love while we still can.
2) An outpost goes where it is needed. This usually means that an outpost is placed in new territory where it can act as a scout and as the first defence. What does this mean for the church? If the Church were to have territorial boundaries I am confident that my suburban congregation would make a woeful outpost. On the other hand maybe that is exactly where we are called to be.
Are we as congregations willing to go where we are needed? For the most part churches are relatively fixed in terms of geographical location and not easily do they physically move. How can we metaphorically go where we are needed, or what will we do if we are called to physically get up and move?
3) An outpost indicates that there is a home base. Mennonite Church Canada’s offices lack of turrets and barbed wire do not exactly make it a very impressive home base, but in the sense of being a base of operations and the sending of congregations as outposts it might just fit the bill. On the other hand perhaps a more adequate ‘home base’ would be the universal catholic Church. The countless communities of Christ act as a home base to each other by sending and supporting each other as outposts in the world. When we are called to be elsewhere we need to be able to pick up our gear and move on.
Is this metaphor of use to the Church? Do you find it in anyway unhelpful or misleading?
To end I will give another quote from Smith.
“The value of a church is not in its longevity but in its love.”
The Good and Beautiful Community