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What in the World is Mission? Mission and Revitalization Blog #1

Mission Blog #1 – January 13, 2018
What in the World is Mission?

When I was a younger Christian, I was pretty fascinated with missionaries. Jim Elliot, J. Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission, and others were all exciting and intriguing stories. Stories of missionaries smuggling Bibles into closed countries had me imagining Christianized versions of Indiana Jones running through a jungle with forbidden books. They were good stories and spoke to my fledgling faith.

Sometimes though, the stories were told in ways that left me thinking my life could never matter as much in God’s Kingdom as theirs did. The stories I read were told in ways that often put the missionaries up on a pedestal. High and out of reach for the rest of us common, ordinary folk. The stories occasionally implied that if we didn’t follow in their footsteps, our faith was inadequate. I know the books were written for encouragement and inspiration. I wonder though how helpful it was to present stories of missionaries in ways that created such a spiritual ranking. For some, it has led to a sense of their inadequacy and unimportance, a view that missionaries were more holy and spiritual—better Christians—than the rest of us.

What led to that way of thinking of missionaries? Why the disjointed picture that missionaries are maybe more spiritual or more faithful to God than others? Is that really the case? Is a baker or a factory worker, a nursing home caretaker, an artist, a carpenter, a mother caring for her kids—day in, day out—really less faithful in their respective spheres of life? Absolutely not. We are all called to be faithful where we are.

I think the heart of the problem was that over time the Church’s understanding of Mission was boiled down to seeing it as only obedience to particular commands. Mission was compartmentalized into missions, leading some—me included—to see missionaries as more faithful and obedient. We can struggle to take into account the entire drama of Scripture, stretching from Genesis to Revelation. Is Mission really just obedience to commands? Or is there a bigger picture?

I think there’s a bigger picture. Our understanding of Mission, and consequently our understanding of the Church, takes its shape from the whole Bible, not just a few cherry-picked missionary verses. Christopher Wright clarifies the issue of how we read Scripture to understand Mission: “the whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole creation.” Mission is what created the Church and the two can’t be understood rightly apart from each other. Mission is the essence of the Church. When we take into account the whole story of the Bible, we see that our God is a God with a Mission and that his Mission ultimately led to the Church. The line of God’s Mission of Redemption and Reconciliation leads through Abraham and God’s choice of Israel through whom God’s promised salvation would come, through the Advent of Jesus and his death and resurrection, on to his Ascension and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost—the genesis of the Church.

Christians have often believed that Mission is primarily about our activity and initiative, something we do. Elsewhere, Christopher Wright argues persuasively that the Mission of the Church “flows from the prior mission of God.” The Church participates in the Mission of God. Mission is the larger, more expansive category that creates the Church’s self-understanding. In other words, God doesn’t have a Mission for the Church—God has a Church for his Mission. Mission, according to Wright, “is all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose.” From that perspective, Mission integrates the life of the Church as well as our individual lives.

I find the larger category, the larger story, of God’s Mission far more hopeful and generative for life lived in the world with God and neighbour. All spheres of life have to be rethought and reoriented in light of God’s Mission of redemption and renewal. Mission is comprehensive in scope and ends in the New Creation. Nothing in God’s good creation can be sidelined if we see the drama of Scripture as the unfolding of God’s Mission to restore and heal his creation. God’s Mission of redemption and bringing shalom aims at all aspects of his creation, from baking bread and designing computer software, to education and engineering, science and the arts, caring for animals and creation, caring for the poor, the orphans, the widows, and calling nations to account. Because Mission is comprehensive in scope, it integrates our lives. We are all called to participate in the Mission of God, so there can be no hierarchy or ranking of Christians that assumes some Christians are more spiritual or more important than others.

We are called by the gospel and empowered by the Spirit to be faithful in whatever sphere and situation of life we find ourselves in, participating in Mission with God. Each congregation and each Christian is called to be missional wherever and with whoever we find ourselves. The character and Mission of God shape the particulars of what Mission looks like in a given place. Christopher Wright asks a helpful but critical question: “Is the church’s mission primarily the delivery of the gospel message—in which case the verbal element is all that really matters? Or does the church’s mission include the embodiment of the message in life and action?”

It’s a leading question. The Church’s Mission, of course, includes the embodiment of the message in life and action precisely because that is how God’s Mission has always manifested itself in the world – in life and action. We see it beginning with Abraham. We see it with Israel. They were chosen by God to carry his Mission forward within the world. Isaiah highlights that several times, as in Isa. 49: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (see also Isa. 42:6-7). In Acts 13, the quotation from Isaiah is cited by Paul as the basis for his argument that the gospel includes Gentiles, the nations. The climax of God’s commitment to his creation and its redemption is seen fully in the Father sending the Son, the clearest manifestation of God’s Mission. And then the Father and the Son send the Spirit and the Church is born. Mission originates within the life of the Trinity and is initiated for the life of the world.

God has a Church for his Mission. God has FUMC for his Mission. The following two blog posts will build on what’s been sketched here while asking questions like, “Where does Mission take place?” and “How does Mission happen?” FUMC is already participating in the Mission of God in all kinds of ways. As we continue to figure out what revitalizing looks like here, renewing our sense of Mission and broadening our horizons of what his Mission is will be essential for our journey. I think it will also be life-giving.