“Mission” is the watchword of the day in church circles. Bishop Katharine says, “The heartbeat of the church is mission, mission, mission.” Ok, but what is it? Who made it up? And why does it matter?
The word “mission” has a lot of associations for church folks. It conjures up little Spanish buildings like the Alamo. It reminds us of mission churches on Native reservations. We think of mission trips to Africa. Mission has meant providing life saving health care and economic development. Mission has spread the good news of God’s love. “Publish glad tidings.” It has also been (usually unwittingly) a stalking horse for exploitation and oppression. The saintly Albert Schweitzer was followed by the colonial profiteer Cecil Rhodes. When some speak of the “missional church” these days, they are likely to mean loose associations of spiritual but not religious people meeting in secular locations to engage in spiritual discourses and rituals that are intentionally and emphatically “not Church, not religious, not institutional” etc. So when someone says “mission,” I listen closely to sniff out what – if anything – they mean.
That said, I believe the word is vitally important. So what does it really mean? It may help to put all our churchy associations with “mission” and on the shelf for a few minutes and start instead with a military association (sorry pacifists). In the military, the mission is what the team (unit, platoon, squadron, battalion, regiment, etc.) exists to do. The mission holds them together. They aren’t together as social friends. They share a common mission. Each member is willing to sacrifice himself to accomplish it. The mission is a group goal that is more important than anyone’s individual agenda. It is what must be done, no matter what. Mission has urgency about it. We lay down our preferences for it. We work with people we don’t necessarily even like for the sake of the mission.
When the Church speaks of Christ’s mission, it means God is up to something in the world and has entrusted the job to us. We are God’s agents. Right away, this challenges some common assumptions about Christianity. A lot of folks think it’s about individuals holding the right doctrinal opinions or experiencing the right religious feelings, and as a reward they go to heaven instead of hell. That is a very common view of Christianity. But it is surprising how little evidence you can find for that brand of religion in the Gospels, the Creeds, or the teachings of the Early Church. Instead we find a wealth of evidence that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to usher in something he called the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is a radical reversal of the ways of the world, so that love instead of money makes the world go round, the first becomes last and the last first, the lion lays down with the lamb, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. The Kingdom is so different from our ordinary experience that Jesus can only point toward it with provocative surprise ending zinger stories (parables, “The Kingdom of God is like . . . ..” Even Jesus could not say what the Kingdom is, only that it is like this or like that. But it is like something surprising and joyful and utterly new. Being the vanguard for a new way of living is a tall task. “If anyone is in Christ, look! A new creation!” It’s a big, big deal.
When congregations fall into a moldy habit of meeting regularly, just trying to keep the doors open, offering each other spiritual support, but not engaging the world outside their walls, they are apt to do little harm in the world – but they are not engaged in the mission. They may be Christians in their beliefs but they are deserters in their common life. As a result, not much happens in their souls. The mission changes people’s lives by giving them a whole new purpose “to live not for self alone but for him who lived and died for us.”
So just what is the mission? My way of finding it is to take the Gospels and stack them up against the on-the-ground situation in which we live. What does the Gospel tell us about human trafficking, domestic violence, pandemics, poverty, environmental degradation, the threat of genocide in the Central African Republic? We are the Body of Christ. What does the Body of Christ do in the face of such things? Karl Barth began each day reading the Bible and the newspaper – together. Not a bad way to find the Kingdom mission.
For those who want to have the answer spelled out a bit clearer in advance, we have some guides from the Church. We might start with the Catechism. The mission of the Church is “to reconcile all people to God and each other in Christ.” The world is spiritually bleeding to death from the wounds of broken relationships. We have been given the job of healing those wounds. Who is at odds in the world today? The Church’s job is to bring them together and make peace. If we don’t know how to do that, it’s our job to learn.
Another helpful guide is the Five Marks of Mission adopted by the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion:
1. Proclaim the gospel (evangelism)
2. Baptize and nurture new beliers (sacraments & education)
3. Merciful service to those in need (charity)
4. Transform unjust structures (advocacy)
5. Care for the earth (environmental care)
It makes for a good checklist. A congregational meeting or a vestry might have a good World Café style discussion asking two questions:
1. What are we doing on each of the marks of mission?
2. What could we do on each of the marks of mission that we are not doing now?
I suspect most churches would find that they are already doing more on each of the marks than they know. I am positive any church that dares ask these questions would find interesting, even fun, new ways to go about making the path straight for Christ and his Kingdom.
This may be a heresy to the dogmas of modern management. But I don’t put that much stock in “mission statements.” I don’t put that much stock in any strategic plan if it was made over four months ago. But I believe everything depends on our asking earnestly and often what we are doing and what we intend to do in the immediate future to overturn the ways of the world with the ways of God. What are we doing to connect people with Jesus? What are we doing now, this month, to teach people authentic Christianity as distinguished from the imposter religion that has stolen our identity and wrecked our reputation? Who is hurting that needs our tangible material kindness? What injustice is hiding in the shadows needing to be exposed and reversed? What part can we play in restoring balance to our God-given eco-system? We may not come up with the right answers. We may not be able to act on the answers we come up with. But we can at least ask the right questions – ask them often and ask them seriously.