Presidential Address Governing Body – September 2005
We hear a great deal these days about the need for the church to be a missionary church or a church in mission. As well as making many of us feel as if this is something beyond our reach, it all sounds very grand and theological. What precisely is meant by saying that the church exists for mission?
The first difficulty is that mission is not a biblical word. You will not find the actual word mission in the Bible since it is a C19 word and was first used as a word by Jesuits in North Germany referring to the re-conversion of Protestants to Catholicism. Later of course it was a word used by Christians in non-Christian countries referring to the conversion of pagans to Christianity. So the word is inevitably associated with missionaries – people sent out to take God to the heathen. In the minds of so many Christians then, when the word mission is mentioned the association is with converting peoples overseas who’ve never heard of the Gospel, to the Gospel. It is about proclaiming the Gospel where no church as yet exists and pagans are the objects of concern. The image involved is about persuading; converting or bringing people round to our viewpoint.
It was the great theologian Karl Barth who said that the word of God is not in the Bible but to be discovered through the bible. The word mission may not therefore be literally in the Bible but “mitto” means to send and the God of the Bible is a sending God. At creation God sends His Spirit to the world. Abraham is sent by him, Moses is sent by him to the people of Israel, Jonah is sent to Nineveh, the prophets are sent to Israel and of course Jesus is also sent by God (“I have been sent by the Father” to quote the Jesus of St John’s Gospel). So too Jesus sends out the twelve and then the seventy and after the resurrection he sends out all his followers into the world to proclaim the good news. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. God is a missionary God, a sending God, and God’s people are a missionary people, a sending people if they are his followers. It is therefore impossible to talk about God without talking about mission and it is impossible to talk about the church without talking about mission. Mission is central to the Church’s life because it is central to God. The church exists in being sent. To quote one theologian “the church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning.” Mission is God moving into the world in creation, incarnation and in sending the Spirit. The mission of the church is being drawn into that mission of God. It is sent by Him to serve his world. In the words of Archbishop Rowan, “it is about finding out what God is up to in his world and joining Him in it”.
Mission then suggests a purposeful movement – a venturing out movement but just as Jesus’ mission was not to conscript people or to bludgeon people into belief but to bring about new life for them, a transformed existence, so too our task is to alert people to the possibilities of new life. It is to alert people to the purposes of God. “It is not then”, in the words of another theologian “recruitment to our brand of religion. It is alerting people to the universal reign of God”. Mission then takes place or ought to take place wherever the church is (so it is not primarily about work abroad). Nor is it about taking God to situations, almost as if he was not there unless we took him. It is about helping to reveal God – helping people to recognise the presence of God and what He is already doing in their midst. It is a question of joining God in his mission to the world – as Archbishop Rowan says “finding out what God is up to and joining him in it”.
What kind of God then is this? The clue lies in Jesus’ words to the Baptist’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”.
In other words then it is showing the world what God is already doing in it – in overturning all that distorts and diminishes human life and in promoting everything that enhances it. God is against everything that distorts, diminishes, squanders and disfigures human life. That was what the mission of Jesus was about and that’s what the mission of the church is about and our task is to speak against and act against everything in our world and in our own communities that exploits people and to do all that we can to build up, restore and heal. God’s mission and ministry has to do with reconciliation and peace and justice. God moves towards his world with love and so too ought the church. We exist in order to try and make God’s kingdom more visible in his world and we are enabled to do that as a church because the church is the place where God’s love is received and recognised for what it is – a God revealed in Jesus as a God of compassion, who mixes with people whom the world rejects and who heals and restores and brings new life. In short a God who transforms.
How then can we be involved in mission in our parishes? What might this mean for us? I want to suggest three things.
Firstly, we need to recover our nerve about God, since the church is the place where God’s love is received and recognised for what it is. The world often does not recognise that love. It is a fact that no non-religious society has ever been found anywhere in the world and there is no culture that is not profoundly influenced by religious premises. The believer therefore is not an aberration but the non-believer is. We need therefore to be bolder in the face of irreligiosity. We need to proclaim the living God and his love for that world. We sometimes forget that the church has a branch in nearly every community. We still have more members in every locality than any other society. We need to recover our confidence. We need to communicate this good news that we have of God’s love. Lovely worship can in itself be converting. It has to be the best that we can offer to God and our churches have to be places of welcome – to draw people into the life of God. Welcome is crucial. I was in a church in the Llandaff diocese the other day where there was someone at the door whose specific job it was – not to hand out books – but unhurriedly to welcome every single person who came. It made a big impression on me. That’s how we welcome people into our homes, why should God’s house be any different?
Secondly, we are involved in mission by the kind of people we are. Our Western Culture places great emphasis on self-gratification, self-fulfilment, enjoyment and personal happiness. Sacrifice, asceticism, self-discipline are not popular words. The gospel is actually about those things. We ought not to be ashamed of saying so as believers, but more importantly we can best proclaim these values by the kind of lives we lead. We need immersion in those values. The life of Jesus Christ, the life of self-giving, vulnerability, generosity and hospitality needs to have touched us personally, needs to have been made real in us, in our churches and in our personal lives. We need to be changed to the likeness of Christ, be transformed as persons so that people can see in us some transformation so that they too will want to be drawn into that kind of life. “The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe the Gospel and live by it,” writes Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. Before the world can be transformed, the church must be transformed, and before the church can be transformed, our individual lives as Christians must be transformed and transfigured. God the Father sends Jesus into our world so that the world might be transformed and as believers in him we need to be transformed by his life and spirit.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War, wrote about the way Christians at times show little awareness of the need for personal commitment, obedience to the Gospel and discipline. It’s what he called ‘cheap grace’ – grace without discipleship, grace without the cross. “We need,” he writes, “to count the cost of discipleship”. We sometimes forget that there are some quite challenging sayings by Jesus in the Gospels. Here are some of them:
[Mat 16:24] Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
[Mat 16:25] For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
[Mat 16:26] For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
[Luke 9:57] As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go”.
[Luke 9:58] And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.
[Luke 9:59] To another he said, “Follow me”. But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father”.
[Luke 9:60] But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”.
[Luke 9:61] Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home”.
[Luke 9:62] Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”.
That is why we as a Bench are launching a Rule of Life for members of the Church in Wales at this Governing Body. Many of you will be following such a rule already, but our aim is to remind ourselves as well as all followers of Jesus of the implications of being a disciple of His. Here are some of the things that ought to be important for all who claim to follow Him – we have printed them on a card so that we can remind ourselves daily of the things that are expected of us:
- Praying to God daily as well as worshipping with the church on Sundays. This is the only way we can deepen our relationship with God. Prayer is about relating and connecting. It needs time and energy to be given to it.
- Reading a passage from the Bible daily preferably with a bible study guide in order to grow in our understanding of God’s will.
- Living our lives in such a way that we might be open to what God may be saying to us in each and every situation we face, for it is a fact as the poet R. S. Thomas reminds us “that it is the plain facts and natural happenings that reveal God and conceal Him to us little by little under the mind’s tooling”. If God is God he speaks to us in the events that happen to us and the people we meet. We need to discern that presence.
- Making sure that as stewards of God’s creation we share with others the gifts God has bestowed on us – our time, our talents, our money. If we all took these things seriously, we would have no financial problems as a church.
In addition to the cards, material has been prepared under each of these headings, praying, reading, living and sharing, in order to help individuals and parishes to work out the implications of what following such a rule might mean for them as well as a book-mark with a prayer on it.
A church that is seeking to transform its mission and ministry has to begin with making or remaking its members into disciples – real followers of Jesus – being ready to stand up for what we believe in, being ready to share that faith with others and inviting them to join us and being ready for personal commitment and sacrifice. And all of that ought to be a response in love to the love of God in Christ Jesus. We fail to be true disciples because we have not fully grasped the great depth of God’s love for us. That is why the cards begin not with what we can do for God but with what God has done and is doing for us. That is why Christianity has been called a religion of response.
Then thirdly, a mission oriented church tries to serve the community in which it is set. It is sent to that community. It tries to minister to the lonely, the bereaved, the sad, the lost, the sick, the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable. And it needs to do that not just in a haphazard way towards individuals as and when it happens to come across them, but in a more structured, organised way. The church as a body needs to get involved in the issues that may affect its particular locality – be that unemployment, homelessness, vagrancy, racism or asylum seekers. We have the plant and in partnership with others we have the resources, human and financial. Too often the church, which has been sent to serve the community, expects the community to support it and very often the church gets so swallowed up with its own concerns and well being that it forgets the world that it is meant to serve. That is to turn the gospel on its head. A church that is sent to serve others spends all its time and energy worrying about itself.
Jesus was not just interested in religion but in everyday practical matters. He realised that bodies had to be healed, as well as souls to be saved, that fears had to be removed as well as sins forgiven. Integration was the hallmark of his ministry. So we have to be concerned with people’s physical as well as their spiritual well-being and we must minister not just to individuals but work towards changing a social environment which prevents wholeness.
This mission therefore belongs to all of us by virtue of our baptism. And this mission is the mission of the whole church. We are all members of it. “Christians are sitting on a gold mine called the church but we often fail to notice that it is gold” (Newbigin again). If then we recover our sense of mission, who knows what things might happen, whom that might draw into the life of faith and what effect for transformation it might have in the world about us.