Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Minister As Missionary 2

Introduction - Missionary by Orientation 
Talk of mission is fast becoming the twenty-first century ecclesiastical equivalent of bind weed.  It gets everywhere.  Nor is it just  talk about mission that is expanding, our understanding of what qualifies as mission has grown and grown and grown.  So much so that we run the risk of sticking the label “missionary” on everything that moves and, this being church, quite few things that have long since lost the power of movement. 

On the one hand, this is clearly a good thing. I wouldn’t want to go back to the idea that unless it involves giving out tracts or making an appeal it doesn’t count as mission.  On the other hand though, there is a problem.  What exactly does count as mission and what ought not to count?  Where do we draw the line?  Which activities qualify?

I do an exercise with our students called Is it mission?  They conduct a questionnaire with their congregation.  The questionnaire lists a range of activities – everything from church planting through political campaigning to discussing religion with a Hindu neighbour.  The interviewees have to decide which activities qualify as mission.  We soon discover that if you try hard enough you can make a case for virtually anything to count as mission. 

The problem of course lies in our attempt to define mission in terms of what we do.  Becoming missional is not about doing a different thing, a new thing, an additional thing, it’s about doing all that we do with a different view in mind.  Mission is not one thing in particular it is everything seen from a particular perspective.  In the end I don’t think it’s helpful to think about which activities count and which don’t.  Our focus should be on our orientation.  Not “What are we doing?” but, “What is our motivation?”  Not, “What is occupying us?” but, “What are we intending?”  Is our concern, the furthering of God’s purposes for the world?  Then in my book it’s mission.

To get theological for a moment, it’s a matter of learning to see our place in the grand flow of the divine purpose, the Genesis to Revelation movement of God.  Creation itself is an act of mission, an act of divine outreach, bringing into being that which is both other than God and beloved by God.  Similarly, God’s determined commitment to the world despite its sin and brokenness is the missionary ground of the reality in which we live.  And of course the vision of the consummation of all things when the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah is our missiological lodestar.

The people of God have their being and find their identity as part of this reality.  We exist for God and for God’s ultimate purpose, the restoration of all things.  To the extent that Christians live contrary to this reality, pursuing self-interest and neglecting the divine project, we live against the grain of reality and in denial of our identity.  We also live in contradiction of the very heart of the gospel.  Whether you look to the incarnation, ministry or crucifixion of Christ what you see is the most profound orientation to the other, a living and a dying for the sake of the world, a radical refusal of self-absorption.

If you want an illustration of my point consider the second of this year’s televised prime-ministerial debates.  Supposedly this focused on foreign policy.  The questions however were all about national self-interest. Nothing on international justice, nothing on the global poor, nothing on international development.  Little-Englandism at its worst.  And the kind of attitude that is sadly too often found, transposed into a religious key, within our churches.

If all the talking, writing, conferencing, posturing and assembling on the theme of mission is to amount to anything, then we need a radical reorientation of the life of our  churches.  And if our churches are to experience this reorientation then our concept of ministry also needs a shake up.  If we are to nurture genuinely missionary disciples, and genuinely missionary congregations we have to have genuinely missionary ministers, ministers who are oriented towards the beyond church, who see their calling as helping God’s church prayerfully to pursue God’s purpose for God’s world.

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.

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