EMC #2: Mission our identity

Author: Stuart Lindsell

Mission our Identity

God is a missionary. As the song goes ‘he came from heaven to earth to show us the way’. He looks for partners to share with him in his mission. It is his mission – not ours. Jesus’ took his famous mission statement from the first couple of verses of Isaiah 61. The father had anointed and appointed him for a rescue mission. Having set the mission in motion Jesus said to his followers ‘As the father sent me so I am sending you’.1 Under the same anointing we are called to be spearheads for his kingdom, to be a gift to the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives and the prisoners. Our primary identity as followers of Jesus is as a sent people – we are fundamentally an apostolic community. Mission is not our function it is who we are; not something we do but a fundamental part of our identity. As David Bosch puts it ‘Mission is not the work of the church but a description of the church at work’.2

The good news of course is that God is redeeming creation for himself. He has not abandoned his creation plan even if Christians often have. Vast areas of life have been abdicated by the church but God is calling us again to follow him into his world and to take back what the enemy has stolen. The resurrected Jesus has already gone ahead of us into Galilee and calling us to work with him. This is why we need to find where God is already at work in our communities, where he is active in people’s lives, where he is active in the workplace, in our hospitals and schools because he is certainly there. Our problem has been that our temple centred lives have absorbed so much of our time and energy that we have had little time or inclination to explore and participate as salt and light in God’s wonderful creation.

Mission – our shape

There have been many attempts to define mission. David Bosch in his classic ‘Transforming Mission’ acknowledges that mission is ultimately indefinable. He writes ‘Mission is quite simply the participation of Christians in the liberating message of Jesus’. ‘It is the good news of God’s love incarnated in the witness of the community, for the sake of the world’. Steve Chalke & Tim Jeffrey in “Connect” also have a simple definition. They describe it as “an inclusive term covering the vast range of activities undertaken by Christians around the world as they seek to express and demonstrate the love of God”. Mission needs to be distinguished from evangelism. Mission is the church sent into the world to love, to serve, to preach, to teach, to heal, to liberate. Evangelism, a vital part of mission, is witnessing to what God has done, is doing, and will do. It always invites a response.

The context in which we are outworking our mission is crucial for us to understand. Alvin Toffler3 believed that “As much is happening in our lifetime as in all previous lifetimes put together”. In his book David Bosch outlines the crisis faced by the church in the West. He underlines the fact that paradigm shifts, like we are undergoing at present, are times of deep uncertainty. He talks about the factors in the crisis as the advance of science and technology apparently making faith redundant, the pluralistic society with its rejection of dogma and absolutes, the de-Christianisation of the West, the guilt complex suffered by the church as the result of its past exploitations, the gap between the rich and poor world where the poor consider the church to be the rich and the tendency of the church to react to such trends either by becoming separatist or secularist. He sees the crisis manifesting itself in the very nature of mission. The thrust of his book is that while mission is a transforming activity, mission itself needs to be transformed – hence the deliberately ambiguous title of his book. He points out that in the Japanese language the alphabet picture character for crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity. Mission, he says, is the point where danger and opportunity are currently meeting us.

One of our instincts of the church in the west has been to put our ‘ecclesiology’ before our missiology’. We have looked for comfort before danger and have poured our energy, resources and time into church but have largely ignored our mission mandate. We have assumed that if we get church as it ought to be then mission will follow. Certainly some of the new churches that began in the 1960’s believed that if we could express a better quality of church then the world would see and believe and come to our gatherings. It was what Martin Robinson has called the ‘attract and amuse’ approach to mission. An approach that he points out does not work and cannot be called mission.

The problem is that we often sit down and try and sort out what the church should be like but we neglect the more important question of mission – what has God called us to be and do? We become pre-occupied with church questions and we neglect the message of the Kingdom. We put the cart before the horse. Which comes first, mission or church? The reality is that no mission no church. There is church because there is mission not vice versa. Jesus said he would build his church but the priority he gave his disciples was to seek his Kingdom, express his Kingdom and proclaim his Kingdom until he comes. As Neil Cole4 says ‘there is no command in the New Testament to go and plant churches – the command is to make disciples’. Through the church planting movement we have made a dogma of church planting as the exclusive means of producing disciples. Alan Hirsch points out that ‘the fact remains that more than four decades of church growth principle and practice has not halted the decline of the church in Western contexts’.5

One of the helpful contributions to the current debate was made by Bishop Graham Cray in his report for the Church of England called ‘Mission Shaped Church’. The report argued that the shape of church community has to be shaped by the people we are trying to reach. The shapes of Christian community in the future are therefore going to be diverse because we live in a diverse culture. Mission also has to be multi-dimensional in order to be faithful to its character and origins.

It is interesting that some church websites now introduce themselves as ‘a mission shaped church’, an indication that they have completely misunderstood the message of the report. David Bosch quotes Schultz who says “In our missionary outreach we resemble a lunatic who carries the harvest into his burning house” (1930s).

Creation Context

We are grateful to Jim Thwaites6 who has helped us to understand that one of our problems as believers is that we have a divided mind. Our educational system has taken on board a Greek worldview, which divides, sacred from secular, material from spiritual, heaven from earth and church from the marketplace. This kind of dualism has seriously infected the way we view church. We have been disconnected from the very world we were designed to reach. Our endeavours in mission have been seriously handicapped by our divided minds. We live our lives in boxes and God only lives in one or two of them. The Biblical or Hebrew view of life has no such division and is a unified vision, one that is seamless.

Jim points out that in the book of the church, Ephesians, God put all things under the feet of Jesus and gave him as head over all things in creation for the sake of his church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.7

Through this helpful picture Jim reminds us that heaven was placed over earth by God to express his rule over creation. God doesn’t need heaven for its own sake – he created it for us. Heaven is not a metaphor. In Colossians 1:23 Paul says he proclaimed the gospel in “all creation under heaven”. In 2 Corinthians 12:2 he was “caught up into the third heaven”. Heavens speaks of realms or orders of creation. The first is inhabited by humanity, the second by the angelic and demonic and the third by God. The three interrelate and are part of a unified universe. God placed the feet of Jesus very firmly onto the realm of the first heaven, the earth. Through his resurrection and ascension through the heavens from the grave (Sheol or Hades), Jesus is now in the third heaven at the right hand of the father. He is positioned there as head over all things for the sake of his church. His body is therefore obviously located between the head and feet of Jesus. Christ’s body the church stands in Christ throughout the created order.

If we are called to be the fullness of him who fills everything in every way it means we have to discover together what it means to fill up and fill out the whole creation with God’s glory through his son. In Ephesians Paul seems to identify marriage, life and work as the main spheres in which the church outworks its creation calling.

Missional communities amongst other things have to re-discover that God loves work and that work is spiritual. Our work is the sphere where God has called us and placed us. It’s the field in which God has planted us as sons and daughters of his kingdom.8 We were made for the field not the fold and therefore the place where we work can be holy ground.

Missional communities also have to rediscover that God loves the city. He has not abandoned it. Richard Fleming says that God wants to see the redemption of every element of a functioning city ‘a place that has been largely abdicated by the church and counterfeited by the world’.9

We are in a time where we are witnessing what the Hebrew writer called the ‘old passing away’ and a time of transition between an old way of thinking and being and a new way emerging from the chrysalis of the old. The transition is fundamentally about discovering again the call of creation, which is crying out for redemption and calling out for you and me the sons and daughters of God.10 It is about building a new culture in the spheres of business, health, family, marriage, education, government, the arts, and indeed all the spheres of God’s good creation.

Jesus – our model for mission

God has spoken to us in a language we understand. God’s supreme revelation was in human form. The old translations used to say that he took upon himself human flesh. The Word became human. The invisible became visible. ‘Jesus moved into the neighbourhood’ as Eugene Peterson famously translates it. John says ‘we have heard it, seen it, looked upon it and we have touched it – he’s the Word of life’. The good news came in a person. He made himself accessible. Thank God he did not shout down texts from heaven for us to believe or invite us to cross over into his territory. He came from heaven to earth. Or in Paul’s words ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’.

The challenge of what is called the ‘incarnation’ is that if God has revealed himself to us in Jesus then how should we reveal him to the world around us?

Mission has to be about putting flesh on God. The gospel must have substance and be much more than words. The good news must be experienced as good news.

Missional communities are rediscovering the power of humanity as it was expressed in Jesus. We are learning the effectiveness of simply being present. The remarkable thing about Jesus was that he has lived his life before our eyes, right out in the open, not behind closed doors or a closed heaven – his life was the light of men. Likewise the life, not the gatherings of the church, has to be the light of men.

Missional communities also have to watch their language. William Barclay many years ago pointed out that the great characteristic of the language and thought of the New Testament was that it was completely contemporary.11 He bemoaned the then current state of preaching where the language was Elizabethan and there was resistance to re-minting and restating the basic message in the language and thought of the day. Bible translators in seeking to make the scriptures accessible to new people groups look for what they call a ‘dynamic equivalence’ in the language. They do not translate literally but seek to interpret the sense and meaning of scripture in words and concepts that are understood in the new culture. We can learn a lot from their principles when it comes to communicating the gospel into our own cultures.

In his book ‘The secret Message of Jesus’ Brian McLaren gives us six metaphors for talking about Jesus’ kingdom in a more contemporary language. ‘Kingdom’, he suggests, has too many negative connotations but Jesus offers us some wonderful pictures to describe the life he offers. I have taken and adapted some of McLaren’s meraphors below.

The Dream of God

When Jesus taught us to pray ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done’ he was in effect saying to his father ‘may your dream for creation come true’. God has a dream for his creation that has not changed. His dream is not to bring us to heaven but to bring heaven to earth. As we explore the kind of dream God has for his world we get to know more about who he is. There is no violence in his dream, or injustice, no pain or suffering or broken relationships. The question for us is whether our dreams line up with his dream. If not then we need to repent, we need to change our dreams.

Martin Luther King had a famous dream which he declared in Washington DC on August 28 1963. He said ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character’.12 Who would deny that his dream tuned in with God’s dream? He was talking about the kingdom of God in a language that people understood. People understood even when he used the language of scripture when he said ‘I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be brought low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together’.

The Revolution of God

Brian says that God’s movement in the world is for regime change. He is looking for a revolution in the power structures and value systems. Regimes of pride and power and lust and greed, racism, ageism, nationalism, consumerism – all have to go. God is looking to overturn these regimes. God’s plan is a divine conspiracy. Jesus spoke about a mustard seed which looks small and unimportant but ultimately had the potential to grow and slowly but surely turn the world inside out and upside down.

The Mission of God

Theologians write about ‘The Missio Dei’ – the mission of God. The language of mission reminds us that God sends us into his world to be agents of change. We have a task to do for God but it’s his mission not ours. We have to collaborate with him. When we think about the sort of mission Brian suggests that we are called to a healing mission. We are healed people helping others to find their healing. Healing of course is at the root meaning of the Greek word used in the New Testament for salvation. Mission is the church sent into the world to heal, to love, to serve, to preach, to teach, to liberate.

The Party of God

Jesus often compared the Kingdom to feasts, parties and banquets. His first miracle according to John was at a wedding feast where Jesus made a huge contribution to the event. The celebration of who God is and who we are is not always celebrated well. The church is rarely seen as a place of celebration. It is not surprising when you think about the symbolic language that surrounds church buildings. They are mostly surrounded by cemeteries. Even non-conformist chapels have walls lined with commemorations of people who have died. The language does not speak of life but death. Celebration suggests there is good news to be told and embraced. The prodigals are best received with a party.

The Network of God

Jesus talked about nets and fishing and God’s network of people can be helpful language to express who we are in community. Nets are flexible and designed to fish. Mike Love points out that networking is understood today largely through the internet but especially seen in the business realm.13 Social movements also have the ability to mobilise large numbers of people and effect change in society through networking. An example is the Clapham sect in the 19th century which arose through networks. In ‘Mission Shaped Church’ Graham Cray recognises the ‘Network Church’ as a fresh expression within the Anglican community that encourages a ‘go and inhabit’ approach as opposed to ‘come and join us’. He gives other examples of networked communities including work, leisure, disability, the deaf community, and music etc.14

The Dance of God

Jesus told the story of the children who played their flute but no one wanted to join them in their dance. By implication the son of God came but no one was listening to his tune, no one had the time to join his celebration. Early theologians used to speak of God’s Trinitarian nature as a dance. They saw God not as a hierarchal triangle but a circle of threefold life, as a coming and going among the persons in relation to creation. Like in a dance the three persons made room for one another. God was so relational that he longed to include humanity in the dance the he himself enjoyed. The Holy Spirit within this community was seen as the ecstasy of life and the great choreographer of the dance of God.

This picture is a reminder that God invites us into fellowship with himself – a righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit. God is not a static entity or a stand-offish person but longs for relationship and intimacy with his creation.

Notes:

1. John 20:21.
2. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission, Orbis, 1997.
3. Global forecaster and author of Future Shock.
4. Neil Cole, author of Organic Church.
5. Alan Hirsch The Forgotten Ways, Brazos Press, 2006.
6. James Thwaites, Church beyond the congregation and Renegotiating the church contract.
7. Ephesians 1:22,23.
8. Matthew 13:38.
9. Richard Fleming, The Glory returns to the workplace.
10. Romans 8:19.
11. William Barclay, Many Witnesses, One Lord, SCM Press, 1963.
12. The Words of Martin Luther King, Selected by Coretta Scott King. Collins 1983.
13. In Martin Scott, ‘Impacting the City’ Sovereign World 2004.
14. ‘Mission Shaped Church Report’ by Working Group led by Graham Cray For the Church of England, 2002.