If someone should ask me which theologian had the greatest influence on my personal life, I would answer without hesitation: David Bosch. I had the privilege and honour of knowing him personally. As far as I know I was also the last doctoral student for whom he acted as external examiner before his untimely death in 1992 in a car accident. Among many other things, I learnt from him the concept of the church as alternative community.
Where I grew up in South Africa, there was very little distinction between state and church. In a very real sense the church was used to sanction the decisions made by the government at that time – specifically regarding the country’s racial laws. The opposite was also true: When the church was against something, pressure was put on the government to forbid this through law. I have the feeling that South Africa was not alone in this regard. I have also seen in other countries of the world that the line between the church and the state can sometimes become very thin – perhaps not as thin as described above, but thin enough to be considered as an unhealthy relationship.
In an article Bosch wrote with the title: How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community which was published in the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa in 1982, Bosch argued that there could never be a direct connection between the church and the secular society. For many years the West had considered itself as being Christian, for no other reason than simply because it was the West. We had the same situation in South Africa. The Whites were regarded as the Christians who had to convert all the other heathen races. Whites were considered to be Christians not on the grounds of their confession but mainly on the grounds of the colour of their skins!
So what does Bosch mean when he refers to the church as alternative society? For one, in the church there are other rules than would be found in the secular society. In the church the rule of love would stand out first and foremost. In the church the other cheek can be turned. In the church people can be forgiven. In the church people are bound to each other, not because they belong to one nation, but because they belong to one God. In the church the blood of Jesus Christ flows thicker than the blood of one’s ancestors. But at the same time the church will (should) serve as an eschatological sign of what could happen if the world should follow this example. It goes without saying that we need to be very humble in saying this, because the reality is that we are still very far away from God’s goal for the church. Nevertheless, within the church of Christ we should be able to say that we are on our way, trying to reach the goal of a new or alternative community where people are bound to each other with bonds stronger than flesh and blood and where we live under a new commandment.
Which brings me to another term Bosch used in this regard, namely that he considers the church to be an experimental garden which should keep on giving hope to the world that, in spite of how badly things are going, there is a possibility that things could eventually change and become better in the world.
What does this have to do with missions? Everything! A church that truly becomes an alternative society, a beacon of hope, will draw people to them. In many places people don’t want to hear what the church has to say. They want to see what the church can do differently. Should we fail, many people will not only reject the church but also reject Christ. Should we succeed, many people will want to know about the God who enabled us to live in an alternative way!
Somewhere along the line, albeit perhaps unintentionally, this vision of the church as alternative society had played a huge role when I committed myself and our church to bringing hope and change in our community in Swaziland.