The word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus which means coming, i.e., the coming of Christ. It is the season of the Church year which is observed an time of preparation not only for Christmas but also for the Second Coming of Christ as the judge at the last day. It is a penitential season in the Church year when we are called to repent of our sins and return to Christ as persons who have been converted to a new way of life that we call Christian. Advent affords us a time for reflection and taking stock of our lives and our priorities as we prepare for oar Lord’s coming at Bethlehem.
As I reflect on this past year, a simple question has informed much of my ministry within the Diocese. The question has been and will continue to be, ‘What is our mission; what is our ministry?” The question has been and will continue to be asked of institutions, commissions and committee, programs of the Diocese and ordained leaders in the Diocese. Presupposed in the asking of the question is some basic understanding of both mission and ministry. In the various articles on SWEEPS. I have attempted a practical theology of ministry.
In this month’s column, as we begin the season of Advent, I invite your attention to the first part of the question; what is the mission of the Church? In asking questions about the mission of the various institutions of the Diocese, committees and commissions, programs and ordained persons, it strikes me that there ought to be some clarity as to the use of the term “mission’.
What is the mission of the church? I suspect that we could string together an unending list of biblical quotations, theological statements and pastoral assertions in answer to this central question. I shall avoid that temptation which I don’t think would be especially helpful. Rather than stating the obvious which perhaps really isn’t so obvious, I would like to share with you five different ways of conceiving of the mission of the Church which might lead to a more informed understanding of what we are about as a Church.
Why isn’t the answer to the question of what is the Church’s mission obvious? Two recent events reveal a deeper confusion about the mission of the Church; a confusion that, in a positive way, helps us to question the more obvious answers.
The first event took place less than two months ago at our General Convention in Anaheim, California. It’s had little to do with the hundreds of resolutions before the Convention or the myriad meetings that comprised the Convention,
Toward the middle of Convention an article appeared in the magazine section of the New York Times entitled, “The Episcopalians: A Church in Search of Itself’’. As the title implied, the article suggested that perhaps we weren’t too sure of our mission or identity as a Church.
The reaction to the article was more interesting in many ways, than the article itself: a defensive posture, in good Anglican form, which questioned some of the facts and the credibility of the author in terms of his ‘limited research’. And yet despite its limitations and inaccuracies, I sensed a pervasive feeling of fear. A fear that the author had in some way articulated certain basic truths that were more than a bit unsettling, Unsettling in asking basic questions as to who we are and what we are about as a branch of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. A fundamental question of our identity and mission.
Two weeks ago I traveled to Austin, Texas for my first meeting of the Board of Theological Education. The inevitable question arose: what is our mission? Something to do with theological education, Board of Examining Chaplains, seminaries, Council of Deans. But the question remained, what’s our mission?
Two days of struggle resulted in the framing of a question that will guide the mission of the Board: what is the nature and purpose of theological education today? The question refers to a crisis in theological education; a proliferation of theological encyclopedia and a widening gap in the theory-practice split; a center that no longer holds. The question and the crisis at a deeper level refer to the mission not only of theological education but the Church itself.
I view these two events as positive signs and symptoms of our addressing, or needing to address, the question of the mission of the Church. it is my hope and prayer that we will ever be a Church in search of itself. For such is the mission of the Church.
When we think that we have found ourselves, we will be in trouble. For we have been found, claimed and commissioned, not by virtue of our own searching, but by God searching us out, calling us by name and inviting us to share in His ministry.
It is my hope and prayer that we will always question the nature and purpose of theological education. I will rue the day when we proclaim that we have found the right curriculum or the “answer” to Christian education. For scripture and tradition are not a content, a body of knowledge to be mastered, but a process of being informed and formed for mission.
What is the mission?
In 1976 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church gave support to a program titled “Venture in Mission”. The intention of this program was to recall the Church, after the struggle over the ordination of women and Prayer Book revision, to the central purpose of the Church:
Mission. We are now in the second phase of Venture in Mission in a program of review called SWEEPS.
But what is the content of the word mission?
First and foremost, mission, to include the mission of the Church, has to do with mission of God, the Missio Dei. The primary characteristic of the mission of God is a calling and a sending.
He calls us each by name. In such a calling identity is given as a gift and vocation as a way of being fully human.
Such a calling results in a sending, a commissioning, of us to be agents of union, reconciliation and redemption.
Our God sends His son as His incarnate presence. Our God sends His Holy Spirit to preside and reside as His presence in the Church. Our God sends us on a mission that we call Christian vocation.
Mission is not one of many aspects of the Church Mission is its very essence in God’s call to us. His revelation and sending of Himself to us as a gift that we call Grace.
The late Dean Urban T. Holmes, states that there are at least five ways to conceive of this calling and sending that we term mission.
1. Mission as Recruitment:
Recruitment as mission is perhaps the most pervasive and common understanding of most American Christians. If the goal of all mission is union with God, the objective of recruitment is to get the individual person’s name enrolled in the Book of Life (sometimes confused with the parish register).
Mission as recruitment is oriented toward the individual and is sometimes confused with or reduced to one particular form of evangelism. The Church growth movement has mission as recruitment as its base, In a Church that has lost members for over the past fifteen years, mission as recruitment is an obvious answer in many ways.
In this Diocese the formation of a new Commission for Evangelization is in part an effort to recruit new members and bring members who have drifted away back to the Church. It is important however to remember that neither mission nor evangelism can be reduced to recruitment alone. LIFE. (Loving In Faithful Evangelization) as an intentional effort in evangelization in the 1990’s with the goal of doubling the size of the Diocese in the next fifteen years presupposes a healthy Church and effective ministry to include a broader understanding of both mission and evangelization. This broader focus for mission brings us to our second concept of mission.
2. Mission as Liberation:
The objective of mission as liberation is to free people from all that enslaves them and to establish a new and just society, It is the very heart of the Gospel: to feed the hungry, to care for the needy and to free persons from unjust oppressive structures and institutions.
The problem with mission as liberation can be summed up in the term “The Liberal Illusion.” The liberal illusion makes of evil a problem to be solved. It does not take evil seriously enough.
In the Diocese we have established through both Niobrara Convocation and Diocesan Convention a Commission on Lakota/Dakota History, Language and Culture. A basic problem within the state, the Diocese, and local congregations is individual and corporate racism: a racism that cuts both ways. All of which brings us to our next understanding of mission.
3. Mission as Mutual Interdependence:
Partners-in-Mission is an example of this understanding of mission. Its optimistic, receptive, pastoral and the official position of the Anglican Communion declared by the Anglican Congress in Toronto in 1963. Its goal is mutual responsibility and interdependence. It values self determination and the indigenous development of Christian community. In the Diocese it is the core of our five-year program of mission that began last spring with TIME. (To Increase Ministry Effectiveness).
The drawback to this understanding of mission is that we are, finally, not self-determined but God-determined. Such determination by God of us is central in baptism when we are given a name, and identity, a destiny and a vocation. In short our mission is service to God, not self. All of which leads us to the fourth notion of mission.
4.Mission as Church:
Mission as Church is less individualistic than mission as recruitment, less ideological than mission as liberation, less optimistic than mission as mutual interdependence. It strikes at a flawed and pervasive understanding of human being in our culture of narcissism and privatized religion.
Prior to me is Thee. Even more profoundly in our age, prior to me is We, Church as mission means that there is no identity, salvation, true humanity or depth of meaning apart from the community of believers that we term the Church,
Parochialism or rugged congregationalism is the enemy of mission as Church. The centrality of the Eucharist presupposes the centrality of the Church, No Church—no sacraments. Church as mission is the basis for SPACE. (Serving Persons As Caring Episcopalians). All of which leads to our last understanding of mission which is really a nontheory.
5. Mission as Fulfillment:
Mission as fulfillment can be summarized in the Jesuit dictum, “Go in their way, come out Christ’s way.” It is an attempt to listen before speaking and to learn before teaching. It involves a radical willingness to be converted from all cultural idolatries. In our own Diocese this understanding of mission means that we would practice the discipline of listening prayerfully and strive toward a willingness to confront any and all loyalties that would draw us from the love of Christ. Before such loyalties can be confronted, they must be known and shared. This is the difficult prophetic task, a task and form of ministry that has occupied us this past year.
The partial truth and limitations of all five of these understandings of mission help us to guard against reducing mission to any one individual understanding, Taken together they tell us something about the central task of the Church and of us as individuals; the calling of God to us to be in union with Him and with one another.
The calling of God results in our being sent forth to be recruiters, liberators, partners, and the Church in fulfillment of our baptismal vocation which is indeed a co-missioning, our corporate mission in this Diocese.
Are you a recruiter, a liberator, a partner, the Church, a fulfiller of your baptismal covenant?
It is my hope and prayer that during the Advent of this new Church year we might be called to our central task as the Church: Mission. In that calling we are sent forth to love and serve the Lord as we await His coming to Bethlehem and His final coming at the end of the ages.