Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Comprehending mission – chapter 4 – Theology mission, culture

Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology is a wonderful gift. It provides an overview of recent trends in missiology, allowing a person and an institution to locate their questions, their research, their reading in light of other thinkers.

Chapter one, on the who and why of the study of mission, is here. Chapter two, on trends in the Bible in regard to mission, is here. Chapter three part a looked at mission history, the evolution through time, the shifting resources that shaped how the church understood itself. Chapter three part b, on the history of mission today is here.

Chapter four – Theology, Mission, Culture

“Within the realm of missiology, culture becomes a primary conversation partner.” (69)

This includes communication across cultures, agencies of social change, the complex formation of innovation and new contextual projects. (This makes so much sense of my interests and why I find myself reading from change management to social innovation, to indigenous and popular culture.)

The chapter begins with theology, in particular current research on salvation and ecclesiology. This includes the shift to see mission as an aspect of God rather than as a function of the church. It also includes the recent search for a more developed pneumatology, the place of the Spirit of God.

A second section explores the growing importance of social sciences (again this makes sense of my methods, using ethnography and interviews, plus my interest in the ecclesiology and ethnography project). Mission played an active role in the development of ethnography and anthropology. The 1910 World Missionary Conference pleaded that sociology be included as one of five necessary subjects for all candidates in mission training. (It certainly is at Uniting College, where we teach Reading cultures/Sociology for ministry, as a core introductory topic).

“Not fully appreciated, perhaps, is the way in which sustained research on culture has served to keep missiology closely connected to everyday life, which lessens the risk that its theological concerns will be treated only in the abstract.” (95)

A third section explores gospel and culture, the quite deliberate participation in both arenas at the same time. “The doctrine of the incarnation has also been taken as an invitation to think deeply about human culture as the particular sphere within which Christian outreach necessarily takes place.” (86) There is a rich coverage of the development of research in contextualisation and intercultural theology.

“Writing about fifteen years ago, Lamin Sanneh perceived that Western theology was just about the last discipline in the modern university to show serious interest in missionary experience.” (94)

However, in recent years, writings from Timothy Gorringe Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, Max Stackhouse Apologia: Contextualization, Globalization, and Mission in Theological Education and Kevin Vanhoozer To Stake a Claim: Mission and the Western Crisis of Knowledge, have drawn on missiological research.

Posted by steve at 06:08 PM

Sunday, January 27, 2013

mission as a “converting” ordinance

This is some of what I wrote today.

Wesley described Holy Communion as a ‘converting ordinance,’ an event in which through participation in the event of Communion, people encounter Christ. In a sermon on the verse “Do this in remembrance of me,” he wrote:

But experience shows … Ye are the witnesses. For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord’s Supper. John Wesley, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, Vol 3, p. 188-9

It is worth noting first, the language of “experience” and “witnesses,” and thus the priority of experience in Wesley’s theology. Second, the language of “beginning” and “first,” suggesting that conversion is a process. Third, that participation in the ordinance changes the participants.

This provides a theological lens by which to explore innovation as a “converting ordinance,” to consider that while “Fresh Expression Case Study” might have set out to “convert,” the journey of innovation resulted in their experiencing a number of conversions: five in total,

  • Conversion of senses
  • Conversion to hope
  • Conversion by community
  • Conversion through journey
  • Conversion in humanity

Innovation thus becomes a “converting” ordinance. It changes sender, sent and sendee (the intended recipient of the message).

Posted by steve at 09:31 AM

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Last Supper at work for mission -Gustave Van De Woestijne’s

Gustave Van De Woestijne is a Flemish Expressionist painter of the early 20th century. His work includes The Last Supper and it is huge.


It hangs almost floor to ceiling in the Groeninge Museum, Brugge, Belgium. (Image is on flicker here)

In the Catholic context of Belgium, surrounded by the religiosity of previous centuries, it is a stunningly unreligious piece of work. One simple full loaf of bread sits on the table. There is no cup, grapes or any other food on the table. Around the table are clustered 12 disciples, portrayed as workers, Flemish miners or farm hands.

Which leaves the size. Why paint what is one of the largest paintings in the Museum? Why make something so ordinary so large?

Either a sign of no faith? A critique of the ceremony and wafer thin spirituality of the religion he has experienced? It certainly has the checkerboard floor often used in religious art.

Or full of faith? A reminder of the very large place for God in the ordinary, in simple bread, shared among workers hands? If so, it has echoes of the worker priest movement, such an intriguing mission development in France, among Catholics, in the 1940s. Priests asked to be freed from parish duties in order to work, in factories, in order to try and reconnect with the working class. It is a fascinating, bold, and innovative approach to mission, that was closed down by the Pope within a few decades.

It is the type of fresh expression/emerging church I’d love to see, one that jumps out of middle class subcultures and across class boundaries, out from church and worship and among the 24/7 patterns of working life. A movement that could only be nourished by a Jesus breaking bread with workers around ordinary tables of life.

Posted by steve at 06:57 AM

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Comprehending mission

What is mission? “the effort to effect passage over the boundary between faith in Jesus Christ and its absence.” (Jonathon Bonk, Preface to Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology, ix)

Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology is a wonderful gift.

Skreslet provides an overview of recent trends in missiology. Books like these are gold. They allow a person and an institution to locate their questions, their research, their reading. In my case, as I research popular culture, how can it find a place in missiology? As I teach mission shaped ministry, how might the mission at work be located within global mission trends?

Chapter one. Who Studies Christian Mission, and Why?
The chapter begins with a resurrection story. It notes how in the 1960s and 1970s, missiology was in decline. “At many institutions, chairs of mission studies were reoriented and then connected to more politically correct areas of the curriculum, such as ecumenical theology, comparative religion, third world theology, intercultural theology, or world Christianity.” I can see many of those pressures still at play in the Uniting Church in which I currently work.

This decline was prompted by the evaluation of the colonial era. The decline also coincided with a growth in secularity in the West.

However despite unease in the West, Christian mission has grown, often generated by churches outside the West. “The astonishing and quite unexpected vitality that now marks Christian mission worldwide invites scholarly attention.” (2) There has been an explosion, especially since the 1990s, in mission studies, in new journals and new lecturing positions (including here at Uniting College).

Skreslet suggests two current approaches to reflecting on mission are at work.

First, curricular. Introductions in mission have developed in connection with particular training courses. Examples cited include Perspectives in World Christianity, Following Christ in mission and Missionaries of Christ.

Second, theological reflection. “[M]issiology is taken to be a shorthand term for theology of mission, theology of the apostolate, or sometimes the theory of mission.” (4) Examples cited include Transforming Mission, Missiology: An Ecumenical Introduction, Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction, Concepts of Mission: The Evolution of Contemporary Missiology and (especially for Australian’s), Introduction to Missiology.

Skreslet is “not convinced that theology of mission [this second approach] is the best avenue by which to approach the field of missiology.” (9) He is concerned that it privileges certain data. “For modern theologians operating in the West, scripture, tradition and Christian expereince are the sine qua non of their craft … Issues of culture and the existence of other religious traditions may enter into these discussions, but they typically do in in the guise of environmental factors.” (9-10)

In other words, the abstract is more important than the particular. And theologians are more important conversation partners than historians, sociologists and anthropologists. “What we have today, by and large, are many introductions to mission theology but very few treatments of missiology as a whole.” (11)

Skreslet is encouraged by current patterns in dissertation research, younger scholars are pushing the boundaries of missiology ever wider. Every kind of scholarly enquiry can be, and is being, explored.

Having surveyed the field, Skreslet then defines missiology as “the systematic study of all aspects of mission.” (12) It is an intersection point of many disciplines, including secular. He argues for a “community of practice,” a set of “particular scholarly habits.” (13)

First, interest in crossing boundaries and how contact with cultures might transform senders and receivers.

Second, reality of faith and non-faith. It expects a critical empathy with what is being studied.

Third, an integrative impulse. “Christian mission is a social phenomenon that encompasses an unlimited number of local contexts, each of which may be affected by global trends. Every layer of culture – from the material to the conceptual – may be engaged when faith is shared across national, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries.” (14)

Posted by steve at 09:47 AM

Friday, September 21, 2012

the clash of mission images in 2 Corinthians

At first glance, the images of mission in 2 Corinthians 5 sit in stark contrast with the images of mission in 2 Corinthians 6.

In one (2 Corinthians 5), the church are ambassadors of reconciliation. This image is central to the formation and identity of the Uniting Church. In 2 Corinthians it is framed by internal conflict. A church body is divided and in response comes the call for reconciliation. This is intriguing, a stark contrast to images of mission that begin with what God is up to in the world, that pay attention, as in Romans 8:22, to the groaning of creation.

In the other (2 Corinthians 6), the church is called to be no longer yoked with unbelievers. How can this be? How to reconcile, without being in relationship? It seems in stark contrast with the images of mission that begin with Incarnation, with listening in and among, of community development.

Are Paul’s images in conflict?

Well, first, the word “daughters”, which Paul adds in 2 Corinthians 6:18 to the Old Testament text he is quoting. Witherington (Conflict and Community in Corinth) decides that Paul “was more egalitarian that many think, and this text shows his desire to be reconciled with both his male and female converts in Corinth.” (406). In other words, reconciliation remains at work.

Second, 2 Corinthians 6 makes reconciliation practical. It involves whom we eat with and talk to. In other words, it is never simply a God-human relationship. It is also a human-human relationship, the interactions with have with others, our moral and social boundaries in all of life.

What appears at first to be a clash in fact becomes a picture of an alternative future, a reconciling faith with radical social implications for God’s people. Which leaves the question: what is the impact of a mission image (2 Corinthians) that begins with a broken church, in contrast to a mission image (Romans) that begins with a broken creation?

Posted by steve at 09:24 AM

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

conversion and the Uniting Church Preamble

It was great to drop into one of our integrative classes today for a lecture on the Missiology of Conversion.

We have introduced two compulsory Integrative topics in our new Bachelor of Ministry. Rather than assume that by some sort of informal osmosis, students somehow miraculously become able to weave together theory and practice, Bible and ministry, leadership and theology, we’ve decided that we actually need to both model and expect integration.

So the two compulsory Integrative topics explores six models of theological reflection (from Theological Reflection: Methods).

To ground the models, each year a different theme is chosen. The four teaching streams at Uniting College – Bible, missiology, leadership, discipleship – speak to that theme, while the students workshop a case study from their ministry context, using one of the six suggested theological models.

The theme this year is conversion. So on behalf of the missiology stream I introduced a number of contemporary missiologies of conversion.

First, the Uniting Church Revised Preamble to the Constitution. I suggested the Preamble provided a fascinating approach to conversion – God is already present, faith must be embodied in just deeds, conversion invites all parties are in an ever-deepening Gospel process.

Second, we sat with an essay by Wilbert Shenk in Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity which outlines trends in mission in the non-Western world. What do we need to hear, to absorb, from all parts of the globe, not just the Western part, as we begin to think about conversion? What are the best practice insights regarding church, Spirit, Jesus, gospel and culture that need to be shaping us?

Third, a childrens story by Joy Cowley (Tarore and Her Book), which documents how indigenous people in New Zealand were the primary agents in the spread of the Gospel. Again, the story provides a fascinating approach to conversion – God is already present, faith must be embodied in just deeds, conversion invites all parties are in an ever-deepening Gospel process.

Fourth, we conversed

  • What insights from the Preamble might guide conversion?
  • What does “already encountered” (Para 3) mean for conversion?
  • What practices would enable conversion to have a trajectory toward “same love and grace fully and finally revealed in Jesus Christ” (Para 3)?
  • What does “integrity of the Gospel proclaimed” (Para 6) for the mission of the church, past and present?

It was a rich and energising discussion – of mission, of Uniting Church theology, of history.

Posted by steve at 07:04 PM

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

the limitations of single emotion churches

I had a wonderful afternoon with leaders from the Grace network today. It was my first speaking gig as Principal among Uniting Church leaders and needless to say, I woke early, nervous and prayerful.

The Grace network had asked me join them to reflect on mission. I did three things with them.

First, I used the Jesus Deck to engage Matthew 9:36ff. Those gathered offered some great insights and it was wonderful to see the way, once again, that the Jesus Deck opens up such rich conversation.

Second, I suggested a missiological reading of Matthew 9:36ff. I noted the link between compassion, prayer and the sending of the disciples. In other words, mission began with the emotion of compassion. I noted other emotion words around Jesus – anger, love, sorrow – and pointed out how each led to a different expression of mission – anger led to mission as justice-making, love led to mission as disciple-making, sorrow led to mission as intercession.

I suggested that at times the Uniting Church came across as a single emotion church. Some parts make a big deal of justice, but seem to be less passionate about disciple-making or prayer for healing. Other parts make a big deal of proclamation, but seem less passionate about justice. In contrast, the mission of Jesus was wholistic in emotional and mission.

Third, I invited group work on what it might mean to help people mature in their feelings and this generated a lot of excellent discussion (shaped by what I blogged last week regarding A Question of Principal 4). Hopefully I left them with some sense of what is shaping me as Principal – growing people in mission. I certainly left richer for having been with folk working so closely and carefully with people and congregations. On the way, I was asked for some helpful books …

Posted by steve at 09:39 PM

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

missiology and salt-making

I’ve been slowly plowing my way through Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. (One of the upsides of Kindle – it was going free a few months ago. It’s one of the things I love about e-readers, the way I’ve started reading things I never normally would, simply because books are now paper-less). At 486 pages, it’s taken a few months. (One of the downsides of Kindle – there are no visual clues for how big a book is!)

It takes that everyday household – salt – and explores it through history, it’s role as currency, as instigator or wars, in shaping empires and inspiring revolutions. It’s a fascinating walk through human cultures, as seen through something we all take for granted. I couldn’t help reading it with a missiology eye. (For more on a missiology of salt, see here, insights from Marianne Sawicki’s Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus).

The importance of social action

Soon after that, a cleric named de la Marche distributed potatoes to poor parishioners and was nicknamed d’eskop ar patatez, the potato bishop.

Imagine being known, honoured even, as the “potato bishop.” Yes to mission as social action, as care for the poor.

The importance of listening

At the time of the American invention of the jar, a western missionary, one Father Imbert, had gone to China to study the ancient wells of Sichuan. He reported on more than 1,000 ancient wells drilled to great depths and brine lifted in long bamboo buckets. He also observed that the Chinese had elaborate techniques for recovering broken drill shafts. In the West, such obstructions were often the cause of a well being abandoned.

Here is the missionary as learner, as researcher, as culture explorer. In so doing, we are reminded of the creativity of Chinese culture.

The colonising impact of cultures

Unlike the French and the Spanish, English settlers and their American descendants tended to bring salt with them rather than find it where they went.

Might there be something in English/American cultures that prefers to impart rather than contextualise, import rather than nourish what is? Yet in contrast, in the midst of a recipe, the following made me think.

silphium root [a rare plant from Libya much loved and consequently pushed to extinction by the Romans]

Yet here is a Roman culture that is responsible for not nourishing what is local. We often hear Western industrialised cultures blamed for environmental damage, yet here is an early culture killing a plant species.

The contemporary cultural shift

The book finishes with our contemporary world. It describes the rise of monopolies, the two global multinationals that now dominate world salt production. Yet it notes a shift, first in young people moving back to traditional salt-making areas to farm their own salt and second, in consumer demand.

Unlike with the big companies, here the future is quality, not quantity. They command high prices for their salt because it is a product that is handmade and traditional in a world increasingly hungry for a sense of artisans.

It all resonated for me with John Drane’s, After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian Discipleship in an Age of Uncertainty

Uniformity was a remarkable innovation in its day, but it was so successful that today consumers seem to be excited by any salt that is different.

The place of contextualisation. The potential for artisan church.

Posted by steve at 10:16 AM

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Does the Trinity and Rublevs Icon prioritise worship over mission?

trinityiconstylised200.jpg Does Rublev’s Icon encourage a church gathered in worship, rather than a church scattered in mission?

Such is my question as I prepare to speak on mission, including leading worship, amongst leaders of the Uniting churches of the South East on Saturday. It is the only speaking engagement I’m doing in the 3 months of sabbatical. I had said yes before the sabbatical option came up, so I felt it was a commitment I had to honour.

In preparation, I’m aware that the Sunday coming is Trinity Sunday. So the obvious place to go is to Trinity and mission. Here’s what I wrote in 2004.

At the heart of the Trinity is three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – in the giving of love. Love is shared between persons, in an unlimited, ever-spiraling flow of love. The church fathers used to call this perichoresis – the divine dance of love. It is a beautiful metaphor; fluid, whole-bodied, dynamic.

What makes this missional is that this dynamic, fluid, flowing love is shared with the world, in creation, in Christ, and in the activity of the Spirit. This flow of love refuses to remain self-centred.

When God breathes breath into humanity, created in the image of God, we see the relational love of the Trinity shared. Love is never self-indulgent. In Christ, the relational love of the Trinity is shared. The sharing is so radical, so complete, so life-giving, that one person of the Trinity will die for the Other. The affirmation that the Spirit is in our world reminds us that love is always calling us, always inviting us out of our circles, out of our understandings of community, out of our walls and set practices. In this sense the Trinity is missional,

Further, the Trinity offers us unity and diversity, one love shared between three distinct persons. This also guides our mission. The missional church will be an expression of the shared love of God. Equally the missional church will be locally distinctive, a unique, grounded expression of the God-head.

Thus talk about church and mission needs to be grounded in our understandings of God as Trinity. A “missional church” is not new, but a recovering of very ancient understandings, in which we live, we create, we emerge, as an outflow of the shared love of God. We seek to express fluid, whole-boided, dynamic love. We honour the unity with other expressions of church, we applaud diversity, we celebrate uniquely grounded differences.

I’m still happy with that, some 7 years on. But how to express such concepts – intellectual and theological in worship?

One option could be to invite them to draw in the beautiful sandy beaches around Robe, like here. Another could be to adapt the Rublevs Icon children’s talk, which I did with such positive feedback when I preached last year at Brighton Uniting on Trinity Sunday.

But it raises the question with which I began: Won’t contemplation of the icon simply leave me sitting at the table with Jesus? Doesn’t it encourage a church gathered in worship, rather than a church scattered in mission?

Posted by steve at 11:18 AM

Thursday, May 24, 2012

@pentecost mission is for the geriatric

This is a fascinating video, either at Pentecost or for anyone working with a mainline, declining, aging denomination in mission, leadership and change. Fuller Theological Seminary lecturer Mark Lau Branson shares a contextual reading and interpretation of the Pentecost story in Acts 2 in which he suggests that those gathered in Jerusalem were mainly retirees and it is amongst the faithful elderly that God’s surprising spirit turns up.

Mark is author of the fantastic Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change, which explores the use of Appreciative Inquiry in church life, excerpts of which I invariably use when talking about mission with local churches. Mark is also co-author of Churches, Cultures and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities, of which Part 3 especially is a superb resource, offering practical skills of leadership by using a case study of real change.

Posted by steve at 11:31 PM

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

appreciative inquiry and mission through Jess’s eyes

I’m speaking on appreciative inquiry and mission with folk in a Catholic leadership formation programme today. In preparation I’ve been re-reading Mark Lau Branson’s wonderful Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change.

And loving this video, young Jessica affirming all that is good about life.

I’ll use this to seque into the theological foundations for appreciative inquiry, in Luke 10:1-12 and in the Pauline letters. But for now, I’m thankful for my dad, my house, my pyjamas …. Yep, you get it, go Jess … :)

The Gospel: Luke 10: Where is Appreciative Inquiry in this Biblical text?
1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two[a] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. 3 Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. 4 Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
5 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ 6 If the head of the house loves peace, your peace will rest on that house; if not, it will return to you. 7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for workers deserve their wages.


  • Peace is shaped by Old Testament concept of “Shalom” – love of God, love of neighbour, love of alien, love of earth. Go looking to bless, looking to affirm
  • Disciples look for response. They don’t force ourselves. But where there is “life”, we stay.
  • Assumes “common ground,” that we are not the only people who desire the wellbeing of our communities.

Letters of Paul: 1 Corinthians: Where is Appreciative Inquiry in this Biblical text?
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


  • Paul writes to a church in conflict. Yet he starts with thanks.
  • It is important to note that each letter of Paul’s has a unique, specifically, different “thanks.” In other words, the thanks (the AI) is specific.
  • As it is specific it can thus only connect as it truely names.
  • Key “problems” in the church (for example spiritual gifts, eschatology) at Corinth are engaged in the “thanks.” Hence its not Pollyanna!
Posted by steve at 08:55 AM

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

fantastic resources for rural mission

On Friday I’m speaking to Uniting Church folk from rural South Australia. Being a townie, it’s meant a morning of preparation, including working my way through a journal called Rural Theology.

It is a goldmine.

For example, David Walker, “The Social significance of Harvest Festivals in the countryside: an empirical enquiry among those who attend,” Rural Theology 7 (1), 3-16, 2009 researched Harvest Festivals at 27 churches. He found that 16% were visitors and concluded that “Harvest still reaches out beyond the locality of the congregation.”

Another example, Leslie J Francis and Sue Pegg, “Psychological type profile of volunteer workers in a rural Christian charity shop” Rural Theology 5 (1), 53-56, 2007. While church services are more likely to cater for introverts, when a rural church began an opportunity shop, 27 of the volunteers were extroverts, while 3 were introverts. Thus “rural Christian charity shops … extend the range of people in contact with the Christian gospel.” (Francis and Pegg, 55)

Another example, Sue Pegg and Lewis Burton, “Local Festivals in two Pennine villages: the reactions of the local Methodist church congregations.” Rural Theology 4 (1), 11-22, 2006, explore secular local festivals and conclude

“Five main themes emerge from this study of two Pennine villages which may have wider implications for rural ministry. First, local secular festivals provide evangelistic opportunities for local churches. Second, traditional attitudes and practices can prevent churches making the most of such evangelistic opportunities. Third, some discernment is required as not all secular festivals are equally compatible with Christian values and expectations. Fourth, with open and welcoming attitudes built between the church and the village community at festival time, benefits for both church and village can ensue. Fifth, festivals enable the church to be perceived as an integral part of village life, rather than something apart, if the opportunities created by festivals are securely grasped.” (21)

This is not theories about what could be done, but actual data on people who attend harvest festivals and volunteer and might participate into the wider community.

Posted by steve at 02:52 PM

Monday, February 27, 2012

bring back the 1940′s: the church as social pioneer

Amid all the energy around Fresh expressions and pioneering, a colleague last week pointed me toward some writing by Niebuhr, way, way back in 1946, headed “The Church as social pioneer.”

Finally, the social responsibility of the Church needs to be described as that of the pioneer. The Church is that part of the human community which responds first to God-in-Christ and Christ-in-God. It is the sensitive and responsive part in every society and [humankind] as a whole. It is that group which hears the Word of God, which sees His judgments, which has the vision of the resurrection. In its relations with God it is the pioneer part of society that responds to God on behalf of the whole society, somewhat, we may say, as science is the pioneer in responding to pattern or rationality in experience and as artists are the pioneers in responding to beauty. This sort of social responsibility may be illustrated by reference to the Hebrew people and the prophetic remnant. The Israelites, as the major prophets ultimately came to see, had been chosen by God to lead all nations to Him. It was that part of the human [community] which pioneered in understanding the vanity of idol worship and in obeying the law of [love of neighbour]. Hence in it all nations were eventually to be blessed. The idea of representational responsibility is illustrated particularly by Jesus Christ. As has often been pointed out by theology, from New Testament times onward, he is the first-born of many brothers [and sister] not only in resurrection but in rendering obedience to God. His obedience was a sort of pioneering and representative obedience; he obeyed on behalf of humanity, and so showed what all could do and drew forth a divine response in turn toward all the [people] he represented. He discerned the divine mercy and relied upon it as representing [all people] and pioneering for them.

This thought of pioneering or representational responsibility has been somewhat obscured during the long centuries of individualist overemphasis. Its expression in the legal terms of traditional theology is strange and often meaningless to modern ears. Yet with our understanding of the way that life is involved with life, of the manner in which self and society are bound together, of the way in which small groups within a nation act for the whole, it seems that we must move toward a conception similar to the Hebraic and medieval one.

In this representational sense the Church is that part of human society, and that element in each particular society, which moves toward God, which as the priest acting for all [people] worships Him, which believes and trusts in Him on behalf of all, which is the first to obey Him when it becomes aware of a new aspect of His will. Human society in all of its divisions and aspects does not believe. Its institu¬tions are based on unbelief, on lack of confidence in the Lord of heaven and earth. But the Church has conceived faith in God and moves in the spirit of that trust as the hopeful and obedient part of society.

In ethics it is the first to repent for the sins of a society, and it repents on behalf of all. When it becomes apparent that slavery is transgression of the divine commandment, then the Church repents of it turns its back upon it, abolishes it within itself. It does this not as the holy community separate from the world but as the pioneer and representative. It repents for the sin of the whole society and leads in the social act of repentance. When the property institutions of society are subject to question because innocent suffering illuminates their antagonism to the will of God, then the Church undertakes to change its own use of these institutions and to lead society in their reformation. So also the Church be¬comes a pioneer and representative of society in the practice of equality before God, in the reformation of institutions of rulership, and in the acceptance of mutual responsibility of individuals for one another.

In our time, with its dramatic revelations of the evils of nationalism, of racialism and of economic imperialism it is the evident responsibility of the Church to repudiate these attitudes within itself and to act as the pioneer of society in doing so. The apostolic proclamation of good and bad news to [people of colour] without a pioneering repudiation of racial discrimination in the Church contains a note of insincerity and unbelief. The prophetic denunciation of nationalism without a resolute rejection of nationalism in the Church is mostly rhetorical. As the representative and pioneer of [humanity] the Church meets its social responsibility when in its own thinking, organization and action it functions as a world society, undivided by race, class and national interests.

This seems to be the highest form of social responsibility in the Church. It is the direct demonstration of love of God and neighbour rather than a repetition of the commandment to self and others. It is the radical demonstration of faith. Where this responsibility is being exercised there is no longer any question about the reality of the Church. In pioneering and representative action of response to God in Christ the invisible Church becomes visible and the deed of Christ is reduplicated.

Niebuhr, H.R., “The Responsibility of the Church for Society” in The Gospel, the Church and the World ed K.S. Latourette, N.Y. Harper & Bros, 1946, page 111

A number of things I find fascinating. First, pioneer is applied to the community, not the individual. It is the church that is to pioneer, rather than select individuals within the church. And this is framed as a critique of individualism within the church: “This thought of pioneering or representational responsibility has been somewhat obscured during the long centuries of individualist overemphasis.”

Second, the strong sense of mission, the “social responsibility of the Church”, a vision far broader than simply needing a church to grow because the existing one is dying.

Thirdly, the intrinsic inter-relationship between pioneering and the internal life of the church: “the Church meets its social responsibility when in its own thinking, organization and action it functions as a world society, undivided by race, class and national interests.”

Posted by steve at 02:32 PM

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Is it time to change the word “mission”

Let me give one story. Last year I worked for a year with a local church. This involved meeting 4 times with their leaders, preaching once, designing for them some Lenten listening-in-mission exercises and facilitating two forums.

In other words, quite some time.

As the year ended, I asked for an informal catchup, a chance to reflect on the year and what had worked, and what had not.

During the conversation, one of those present suddenly exploded. “I have no time for this black arm band stuff,” he announced. And out poured a long passionate speech, about how busy he was, about how much he prized good relationships with his neighbours, about how there was no way he was going to tell them they needed saving, about how talking to them about god in the hope of getting them church to grow was a sick motivation for being a good neighbour. It was a passionate, articulate speech.

Given that I had preached on mission, I asked him if that was the type of mission he had heard me articulated. When I preached, I had used Luke 10:1-12.

  • Who is God? the Sender.
  • Where is God? in 3 places. First in the church, second in the towns and villages of our communities.
  • What is God up to? seeking relationships, speaking peace and in the seeing of lives changed.

I thought I had done my level, preaching best to offer a contemporary understanding of mission – God is at work in the world and we are invited to participate. Here’s an excerpt from the sermon:

So mission doesn’t starts with us. Not our bright idea. Not something we do because we need a few more people to join our church. It’s simply because God is sending God. Who chooses all types of ordinary, everyday people.

So mission doesn’t starts with us. Not our bright idea. Not something we do because we need a few more people to join our church. It’s simply because God is sending God. Who chooses all types of ordinary, everyday people.

But the stereotypes, the previous bad experiences, seemed to loom to large for what I said to be heard.

Hence my question: Is it time to change the word “mission.” Do we keep trying to redeem the word? Or is it so damaged, that we need to find a new word, a new language?

Posted by steve at 10:31 AM