Friday, 17 October 2008
mission mission mission yada yada yada
missionary congregations, missional leadership. The language is everywhere you turn. Mission is now unquestionably in.
You’d think I’d be pleased. After all it’s my job to teach mission. More than that, I’ve long been an advocate of the need for a major shift in the church’s outlook from maintenance to mission. You might even have heard me banging on from pulpits and at conferences about the fact that our country is our mission field and our culture our missionary assignment.
At one level of course I am pleased. It’s far better to be talking about mission than not. But I’m still worried.
I’m worried that talking about it might become a cover for not doing anything about it. You know how it goes. We confuse defending the Bible with actually taking it seriously in practice. Or we bandy about the word radical as if merely repeating it often enough makes us serious, edgy and committed to the heart of our faith. In the same way if the talk of mission becomes loud enough that alone will probably suffice to convince some that real change has actually happened.
Having mission back on the agenda is a good thing, having it on the action list is even better but doing something about is what really counts. It has been said that the 1990’s was not so much the decade of evangelism as the decade of talking about evangelism.
I’m worried that because it has now become received orthodoxy that we should prioritise mission in the life of the local church, this could so easily become an excuse for devaluing other aspects of church life. Regularly I hear ministers and other church leaders venting their frustration at the failure of their churches to take mission seriously.
I know exactly what they mean. There have been periods in my own ministry when I have felt the same. But from time to time this frustration spills over into talk that verges on writing off the church and devaluing the pastoral calling to care for those who are part of the church family, even when they seem to stand in the way of mission.
I’m worried that we might become so focussed on such aspects of mission as church growth, so caught up with programmes such as Alpha and approaches such purpose-driven church that pragmatic strategies that work become more important than bearing faithful witness whether or not it works.
I’m worried that if we become too wrapped up in getting more people to join the church we just might lose any sense of what it is we are getting them to join in the first place. Being church precedes growing church. The first challenge of church in a largely secular and ever more pluralistic society is to remember who we are; to maintain our distinctive identity.
It won’ matter two hoots that we reverse the decline in numbers if the price we pay is the neglect of the biblical story shapes us and the devaluing of those practices that give meaning to who we are.
As the Old testament scholar Walter Brueggemann never tires of reminding his readers, Israel has to remember who she is, remember her God, remember how she came into being because if she forgets she will cease to be a living alternative to the ways of Egypt, Canaan and all the other nations.
Of course none of my anxiety will be allayed if we stop talking about mission. I will only be comforted if we manage to avoid turning our interest in mission into nothing more than the latest mindless trend; in today but out tomorrow; all the rage but not or long; the thing to do just because it’s the thing to do. Mission, writ large as it is on the heart of God, is far too important for that.
My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here for the next four weeks. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here