Missions and Mission
I am old enough to remember when churches did not have a “mission statement” although we did talk about “missions”. Learning about “missions” usually required a Kodak Carousel Projector because missions were something that happened somewhere else. “Foreign Missions” happened in another country; “Home Missions” happened either somewhere else in Canada or with people who spoke a different language or for some other reason would not come to our church.
Reaching out to our neighbours was not “missions” but “evangelism”. Some churches were more descriptive and called it “soul winning”, an accurate definition in that evangelism was generally exclusively about the state of a person’s soul and the encounter was about winning them over to belief in Christ.
Accelerating over the last quarter of a century a number of factors have changed not only how we talk about mission but how we think about and participate in it.
Mission agencies were far ahead of local churches in North America in recognizing people suffering from poverty, malnutrition, poor health care and inefficient agriculture needed more from us than “soul-winning.”
As Christendom (the organization of culture around Judeo-Christian values and beliefs) faded in the western world, places in the 2/3rds World where Christian missions had thrived became more welcoming to Christendom than the countries from which missionaries had first come. For Christians paying attention to culture home felt more and more like the mission field.
Language is a funny thing. In describing our reality language begins to shape how we see our reality. As churches began to draft “Mission Statements” to describe our core purpose we began to see “mission” as something much larger than sending a few of our people somewhere else to address spiritual and social needs in the name of Jesus.
Short term mission trips allow people who are not career missionaries to become directly involved. Interaction with mission much closer to home allows us to experience mission as something we do rather than something we support.
Maturing leadership in the 2/3rds world; reluctance of developing nations to open their borders to those whose sole purpose was to change their religious landscape; our own fear of cultural imperialism; and, the simple fact of missionary success in many places created a shift to shorter term partnership with national churches and a greater reliance on national leaders. This, in turn, has changed the nature of a local church’s relationship with a foreign mission as missionaries change jobs and locations with greater frequency. (As with many shifts in how we do mission most effectively, Canadian Baptists were early adaptors of more significant dependence upon national leadership in churches traditionally served by missionaries.)
Great benefits and great pitfalls accompany these shifts in our thinking about the mission of the church.
Among the benefits is growing awareness that “mission” is not one program among many but is the core purpose of everything. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This mission does not belong to a few of us who will go off to far away places; this mission belongs to all of us in our interactions at home, at school, at work, and in our neighbourhoods. This mission informs not only our personal relationships; it informs how we interact with issues that face our city, our province and our nation as collections of people needing to see and experience the Kingdom of God.
While the financial support of missionaries who are employed to carry out this mission as their job should form a percentage of our budget, 100% of budget should be about mission. The employment of our pastors, the use of our facilities, the planning of our programs and ministries are all about the mission of making disciples: followers of Jesus who love God, love each other, share God’s story with people in their lives and show God’s care through support and engagement in activities that meet the broad spectrum of human needs.
We are all missionaries: people who have been sent by God into the world as messengers of His Gospel and agents of His Kingdom. This is a huge challenge and exciting adventure. It may also be a great temptation to miss some of the point.
One temptation in this larger understanding of mission is to lose sight of the international nature of the responsibility Jesus gave the church to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. If anyone should have global vision, global concern and global investment it should be those who belong to Christ. In writing, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all,” (Col. 3:11) Paul is indicating that followers of Christ transcend the human categories of nationality, culture, spiritual background or economic status. “Local church” or “neighbourhood church” might be a valid descriptor to distinguish one congregation from another, but it is also a misnomer. Every church of Christ is global in vision and responsibility.
This being the case, there are situations in which we can only meet our responsibility by “paying and praying.” In God’s design of the Body of Christ we are each called to mission, some of us have the happy possibility of being missionary in an accounting firm, a hospital, a school or even a Canadian church and in that position have the added advantage of a paycheque that allows us to support other missionaries who do their work in Manila or Youth Unlimited. To say that I will only support mission that I can directly experience and engage in is a selfish corruption of mission’s big picture that places my personal experience above God’s global call on my life and resources.
Another temptation that faces us as we rethink mission is to react against the “soul-winning” mentality to the degree that we neglect the needs of souls in our mission. Our call is not simply to give a cup of cold water to the thirsty. Our call is to give that cup of water in the name of Jesus.
People need food. People need housing. People need medical care and education. People also need Jesus. People need God’s forgiveness and the freedom from shame that comes with it. People need the Holy Spirit empowering them to become fully human and fully alive. People need what Jesus taught. People need the cross. People need the empty tomb. The Gospel accounts of Jesus transform lives, tribes, nations and cultures.
As people experience the transforming story of Jesus they need to be collected into groups of people who share that experience and can help and encourage one another to apply the story to their lives and community. We call these collections of people “churches.” As new followers come into the church they learn to express and grow in their love for God. They learn to care for one another. And as they grow together in grace they learn to share this story and show God’s care. And so the mission continues.
As we rediscover the opportunity of mission on our doorstep and the joy of meeting the full spectrum of human need it is important that in this renewed enthusiasm for mission we neither forget nor neglect the global scope of our mission nor its deeply spiritual components wrapped up in Jesus.
As I write this issue of “Musings” I am aware the committee that gives oversight to “missions” in our church is in need of renewed energy and involvement. If you have been excited by these thoughts and would like to be part of fleshing this out in the life of our church please speak with me about how you may help.