Monday, 25 October 2010
The Minister As Missionary 4
In the hands of unreflective activists mission is so easily hijacked by alien values and subordinated to unexamined cultural presuppositions. Stories of how this happened in the massive Victorian colonial, missionary expansion abound. But you don’t have to set foot beyond your own culture to fall prey to such a disease. Our missionary methods at home have, for instance, become chronically instrumentalised. Too often we get too close to ends justifying means. We forget that the form of mission matters just as much as the fruit of mission. Having a mission-shaped church is fine as long as we also have a gospel-shaped mission.
When it comes to our fearful lusting after church growth we have not always been as vigilant as we might. Measurable growth, numerical success, numbers coming through the door have, in line with our culture’s obsession with the countable, become almost unqualified measures of ministerial success. And while I would be the first to criticise a neglectful indifference toward to results, I am also convinced that our feverish concern with the response to our missionary endeavours often leads us astray from the way of Christ.
Billy Sunday, the old time evangelist, once calculated the price of a soul by dividing the total cost of his missions by the number of converts. I myself recall one preacher at the end of a disappointing week of mission making an appeal with an interesting twist: “I’d like everyone here to raise a hand in the air. Ok, now if you don’t want to become a Christian, put your hand down.” This kind of thing is not effective evangelism, it’s false witness.
Of course few take it quite so far. But I do think we need to ask if we have been guilty of purveying “gospel light” because in our desire to see results we have emptied our “gospel message” of all substantial ethical content. Too much evangelism sounds too little like a call to join a radical community committed to sacrificial living for the sake of peace and justice, and too much like just another manifestation of our culture’s obsession with the therapeutic quick fix.
The truest measure of Christian of witness is not effectiveness but faithfulness to the person and the way of Christ. This is of course much harder to measure, but it is also much more important. This means making sure that our churches embody our tradition, that we know our language, are familiar with our stories, and keep alive our distinctive, defining practices.
That is why a missionary-minister has to be a theologian, a local theologian, a theologian in residence. The missionary re-orientation for which I’m calling , the turning out to the world rather than in on our selves, must not become a mere pragmatism, an unthinking rush to adopt whatever method promises to “work”. It is the missionary-minister’s job, to help ensure that mission is rooted in our identity as a gospel people.
Now of course it’s not all down to the minister. Baptist congregations of all congregations should be congregations of all the talents. But there is a particular expertise that we as ministers must bring – an expertise in the scriptures and their significance for shaping congregational life. We have a deposit that we are charged to keep, guard, renew and make available to our people, in the hope that they will never, ever trade in the blessing of authentic Christian identity for a mess of institutional success.
This is especially important in our pluralistic society with its tournament of narratives, its bewildering white noise of competing ideologies and identities. Perhaps the greatest danger for an enthusiastically missionary church in our glorious, fascinating, diverse culture is that we forget who we are. We must not allow that to happen. It is the missionary-minster’s job to make sure that the church doesn’t go native. We do this by learning to see ourselves as theologians - an unapologetic, insistent theological presence and resource rooted in our communities, not ivory tower fancifiers, but theologians in residence.
Back in May I gave the Baptist Ministers' Fellowship annual lecture at the Baptist Assembly in Plymouth. This month a version of the talk was published in the Baptist Minsters' Journal. With the kind permission of the editorial board I will be reproducing a slightly modified version of the BMJ article here. To keep things down to regular post length I'm going to stick it up in a series of bite size chunks.