Sunday, 12 June 2011

Mission? What mission?

Today is Pentecost in the Christian calendar. In many ways, it could be considered the foundational myth for the formation of the Christian church. After all, in Luke’s story, it was only after the spirit swept through the disciples’ upper room that they found they had the courage and the voice to take the message of the gospel out to other people.

At our church today, we had a baptism, which seemed a fitting thing to happen at Pentecost. The baby was the grandson of one of our regular people, and the church was packed. Children were everywhere, there were red balloons and lots of ‘music’ from percussion instruments. Instead of a sermon, we heard from Webster D. Duck. (Don’t know Webster? You can him find at

One of the questions I asked the children is whether they expected wind and flames to come and inspire them to do something extraordinary. Most didn’t think this would happen. Only one little girl was optimistic. The adult congregation certainly was not. So Webster’s message that one should use one’s God-given gifts and spread their wings and fly was appropriate to the occasion. If we don’t expect the spirit to come in a rush, then our only other option is to do it ourselves. In fact, Lost Sheep bills Webster as a story that says “Watch out, this story may inspire you to use your gifts to reach new heights!”

Church History101 tells me that “Church history begins on the Day of Pentecost. These Jewish Christians adopt a messianic theology and continue to follow the Law of Moses. Hellenistic Jews from all over the Roman empire were among the initial converts“. There are many other websites that say something similar, all agreeing that this was the day that the disciples found something that propelled them out into their communities to do mission.

There is a lot of talk floating around about mission in the Uniting Church of Australia at the moment. I am not sure everybody agrees to what exactly it is, or how you are meant to go about it. But everyone agrees that it is important, and we all should be doing it.

If one consults the oracle of Google on the WWW, there are lots of definitions about mission to be found.

According to Wikipedia ( accessed 12/6/11)), “the Lausanne Congress of 1974, birthed a movement that supports evangelical mission among non-Christians and nominal Christians. It regards "mission" as that which is designed "to form a viable indigenous church-planting and world changing movement." This definition is motivated by a theologically imperative theme of the Bible to make God known, as outlined in the Great Commission. The definition is claimed “to summarize the acts of Jesus' ministry, which is taken as a model motivation for all ministries.”

Another definition you might like to think about is one from Charles Van Engen's Essay: “‘Mission' Defined and Described." Van Engen says:

God's mission works primarily through Jesus Christ's sending the people of God to intentionally cross barriers from church to nonchurch, faith to nonfaith, to proclaim by word and deed the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ through the Church's participation in God's mission of reconciling people to God, to themselves, to one another, and to the world and gathering them into the church, through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, with a view to the transformation of the world, as a sign of the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ. (accessed from 12/6/11))

I had to read this three times before I understood exactly what he was saying, so I am not sure it is the best or clearest mission statement I have read. There were many others, but one thing that they all make clear is that they are church building based, as a planted church presumably needs somewhere to meet. In other words, one finds heathens, converts them, and gathers them into a church.

Call me odd, but I actually can’t see how either of these particular definitions actually encourage people to emulate Jesus and his ministry, despite the claim to the contrary in at least the first one. And I can’t see how converting people per se actually either brings about the kingdom of God (however you understand this) or makes the world a better place. The definition of mission which Van Engen provides also seems to presume that non-faith means non-Christian, which of course has implications for how one views and interacts with other world religions.

If Jesus is to be our ideal of ministry and mission, then some of the way we have gone about doing mission has surely lost the plot. Models of mission that aim to draw people into a church are about as far away from what Jesus taught – and how he taught it – as one can get. Individualistic and evangelistic types of Christianity that emphasise a personal relationship with God, over and above a communal relationship, seem to have gone astray as well. And perhaps it is time to reclaim ‘repentance’ for mission, not as a pietistic and individual confession of sin, but instead as a life-transforming decision to change or ‘turn around’ one’s life, which is the true meaning of the original Greek word.

Closer to the mark is what has become known as the ‘Five marks of mission’, which was developed by the Anglican Consultative Council between 1984 and 1990. These five marks, which have been widely adopted by a number of church denominations, are:

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

To teach, baptise and nurture new believers

To respond to human need by loving service

To seek to transform unjust structures of society

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

I can’t comment on other churches, but it seems to me that the Uniting Church does some of these well, but not others. It does some better at congregational level, and others better at Synod or Assembly level. Most congregations probably think they do the first one well, and they do to a degree, but it is largely within the gathered community.

Ditto for the second. Many congregations, and UnitingCare, as well as a few other umbrella organisations in the UCA, do number three very well. Some agencies such as Uniting World and UnitingCare do the fourth mark quite well. To a much lesser extent, we find the fifth mark evident in our churches, especially at congregational level.

At Wauchope, we have been talking about what constitutes mission, and how one should do it. I have suggested that we take marks four and five by the horns, and implement them in our local community, as they already do marks one to three quite well. It was pointed out that this would mean becoming political. I agreed.

If we are to emulate what Jesus said and did, then as a church we need to get very political. I think that Synod and Assembly bodies really try hard to do this. However, most congregations don’t see this as their role. Perhaps it is time we should.

There are many, many things about our societies, our states, our countries and our world that are grossly unfair. There are many things that as Christian people we should be doing.

What is your local church doing to “transform unjust structures of society”? And I do not mean helping the poor, as important as this is, as this is really responding to human need, rather than questioning the society that created such a need. Are we prepared to stand up and critique our own first world society, including ourselves, where our demand for cheap goods, easy travel and fast food has led to suffering and poverty and degradation of peoples who are much poorer than we are?

What is your local church doing to “safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”? A number of churches are trying to cut down on their carbon emissions, install rain tanks and solar panels. While this is commendable, and a great step forward, does it actually address the commercial and economic interests that caused the problem of carbon emissions and pollution in the first place? Are we prepared to take these interests on in the interest of a greener and more sustainable lifestyle?

The comment about the type of mission I was proposing, and its political nature, sent me back to the gospels. Jesus certainly had a ‘hands on’ approach to those in need of healing, or in some cases, food. But mostly he preached about a society that would be turned upside down, where the rich would become poorer, and the poor become richer. He preached about justice and equity and fair distribution of resources. He criticised the wealthy, the religious institutions and the corrupt workers in the pay of the Romans. He probably made his greatest political statement when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, just before the feast of Passover, then proceeded to cause an upset in the Temple, directly challenging Roman rule and Temple governance.

Emulating this Jesus takes a lot of courage. The question is, is do we have it? And if we don’t, can we ever be said to really be ‘on mission’ in the same way Jesus was?

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