An Intro to the Missional Ecclesiology Conversation
The Rev. Dr. JR Rozko
Executive Director of the Telos Collective
The Telos Collective is founded on 6 core values: the gospel of the kingdom, sacred cultural engagement, missional ecclesiology, missional leadership, life in the Spirit, and spiritual transformation. While it’s possible to see and treat those individually, there’s also a way in which the latter 4 exist, in an interrelated way, at the center of the first two. You might visualize it like this:
So, when we speak of our organizational mission as “the formation of leaders at the intersection of gospel and culture,” we’re really talking about four value-based domains of leadership formation that intersect with one another and cohere within a robust understanding of the relationship that always exists between the gospel and culture.
For two reasons, this framework offers an important backdrop to this third issue of the Intersection Journal, in which we turn our attention to the topic of missional ecclesiology. Both of those reasons are grounded in a person, Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin was not only among the foremost thought leaders on the subject of the encounter between the gospel and Western culture, but many would suggest that the entire missional church movement is largely a manifestation of the impact of his life and work.
This being the case, our ambition in this issue is to return to a major theme in his writing on the subject of missional ecclesiology asking questions about its relevance for the contemporary moment in which we find ourselves as church leaders.
Written in 1989, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is one of Newbigin’s most significant books. One of his primary goals is to give readers a theological imagination that helps to dislodge the traditional dichotomous thinking between “mission as evangelism” and “mission as social activism.” In the chapter, “Mission: Word, Deed, and New Being, he says,
“It seems to me to be of great importance to insist that mission is not first of all an action of ours. It is an action of God, the triune God – of God the Father who is ceaselessly at work in all creation and in the hearts and minds of all human beings whether they acknowledge him or not, graciously guiding history toward its true end; of God the Son who has become part of this created history in the incarnation; and of God the Holy Spirit who is given as a foretaste of the end to empower an teach the Church and to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment… This is the primal reality of mission; the rest is derivative… if we place in the center of our thinking the reality of God’s mission, we shall be saved from two wrong concepts of mission which are at present deeply dividing the Christian community.”
Here’s how he goes on to describe these concepts.
“On the one hand, there are those who place exclusive emphasis on the winning of individuals to conversion, baptism, and church membership. The numerical growth of the Church becomes the central goal of mission. Action for justice and peace in the world is a secondary matter. It is not the heart of mission. The gospel, it is said, is about changing people, not about changing structures… The primary task is evangelism, the direct preaching of the gospel in words – spoken or written.”
He then goes on to say,
“On the other hand, there are those who condemn this as irrelevant or wrong. The gospel, they will say, is about God’s kingdom, God’s reign over all nations and all things. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the prayer: “Your kingdom come; your will be done, as in heaven so on Earth.” The central responsibility of the church is indicated by that prayer. It is to seek the doing of God’s will of righteousness and peace in this world. A Christian Community which makes its own self-enlargement its primary task may be acting against God’s will… What is needed – it will be said – is not evangelistic preaching but action by Christian along with all people of good will to tackle the terrible problems of the nation, to free the oppressed, heal the sick, and bring hope to the Hopeless.”
Newbigin then concludes,
“If I’m not mistaken, the conflict between these two ways of understanding mission is profoundly weakening the Church’s witness. The conflict continues because both parties have hold of important truth. And I am suggesting that both parties are inadequately aware of the central reality, namely that mission is not primarily our work – whether of preaching or of social action – but primarily the mighty work of God… I am suggesting that both parties to this dispute need to recover a fuller sense of the prior reality, the givenness, the ontological priority of the new reality which the work of Christ has brought into being.”
Mission then, according to Newbigin, is most properly understood as the church’s participation in God’s mission, the missio Dei, which encompasses all of life, not as a particular activity of the church, whether conceived of as evangelism or as social activism. Instead, these all fall into the larger category of ways in which we witness and invite others into the life made possible in Christ.
Newbigin names 6 points of clarity that emerge as this theological vision informs a missional ecclesiology.
- First, we begin to see the absurdity of pitting word and deed, preaching and action, against each other. “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection… The words explain the deeds and the deeds validate the words.”
- Second, it is clear that action for justice and peace in the world is not something which is secondary, marginal to the task of evangelism. It belongs to the heart of the matter.
- Third, it is made clear that action for justice and peace can never mean a total commitment to a particular project identified ambiguously as God’s will. None of these embodies the true end, the real goal of history. That has been embodied once for all in the events which form the substance of the gospel and which – remembered, rehearsed, and reenacted in teaching and liturgy – form the inner core of the Church’s being.
- Fourth, the vision of the ultimate goal of the human story must not be used to withdraw attention from the immediate possibilities which the Lord of history offers. As those who understand the whole human story in the light of the biblical story, we have the responsibility to discern by faith the duties of this particular moment.
- Fifth, it follows that the major role of the Church in relation to the great issues of justice and peace will not be in its formal pronouncements but in its continually nourishing and sustaining men and women who will act responsibly as believers in the course of their secular duties as citizens.
- Finally, there will always be the need to point explicitly to the central reality by which the Church exists, to the central verities of the gospel, to Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, regnant at God’s right hand and to the promise of his coming to judge the living and the dead. This preaching of the gospel can never be irrelevant.
The way we’ve come to summarize this perspective at Telos is in the axiom: “The nature and vocation of the Church are rooted in God’s own life and mission in the world.” The articles we’ve curated for this issue come from authors who have sought to deeply internalize this ecclesiological paradigm and to lead the formation of church communities in light of it. We’ve invited them to share their stories and insights from their years of experience. Beyond this, we’ve also invited them to speak into how this vision maps on to the world we find ourselves in thirty years after Newbigin originally composed these thoughts.
To Become Missional, Stop Focusing on Mission
The Rev. Ben Sternke
Co-founder of Gravity Leadership and Co-rector at the Table Anglican in Indianapolis, IN
June 10th, 2021
I sometimes wonder if the term “missional” has run its course. When I first heard it from people like Darrel Guder and George Hunsberger, it seemed to hold some promise in defining a way of being the Church that was deeply rooted in the life and mission of God. But somewhere in the midst of breathless pronouncements about the next big trend of churches “going missional,” the term got co-opted by people looking for a quick fix for institutional church inertia.
For example, years ago I was working as a consultant with a large church that was wanting to “go missional.” I was trying to help them discern how God might be at work in their midst to bring about a shift of paradigm and posture, new ways of seeing and being rooted in the life and mission of God, and new practices that might be necessary to support that shift. (You can tell I was really excited about it!)
But it quickly became clear that they didn’t actually want me to do that kind of work with them. Instead, they just wanted me to tell them how to implement “missional communities” as a new program at the church to help everyone “get outside the walls” and “reach their neighbors for Christ.” The term “missional,” rather than sparking new imagination for participation in the life and mission of God, often seems to merely conjure low-grade anxiety about whether we’re doing enough mission-y activity at our churches.
This mentality stands in stark contrast to Lesslie Newbigin’s picture of a “missional” church: “It seems to me to be of great importance to insist that mission is not first of all an action of ours. It is an action of God, the triune God.” This trust in God’s missional action is also evident in the early church’s approach to faith. In his remarkable book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider comments on how early Christians were instructed in proper worship and church life by treatises like the Didascalia:
“The Didascalia’s authors were not particularly concerned about mission. They assumed the churches were growing but didn’t write much about growth. Significantly, they didn’t urge the clergy or laity to evangelize. According to their understanding, spreading the message was God’s work, and it was their calling to be ‘helpers for God.’ Instead they wanted their communities to develop practices that expressed the gospel with integrity, both in their members’ relationship to outsiders and especially their behavior toward each other” (p. 226).
Instead of an anxious focus on “mission” (whether it be evangelistic preaching or social action – both good things in their own right), they focused on cultivating practices that “expressed the gospel with integrity,” and these practices were directed “especially” in their behavior toward each other, as well as toward outsiders. In other words, the early church was “missional” precisely by not focusing on mission (at least in the ways we typically do today). Through these gospel-expressing practices, they focused on participating in the life of triune God they’d been drawn into, and trusted that God was at work in and through their communities to keep spreading the message in ways they couldn’t manage or control.
I wonder if we have assumed more than we should when it comes to these kinds of practices in our churches. I think it’s easy to give lip service to these kinds of practices, or just hope they’re happening because we put them on the website and do a sermon series on them once a year.
But it seems to me that “practices that express the gospel with integrity” would be deeply disruptive to our normal ways of conceiving and being the church, and thus take a really long time to do their work in our social-political life together. It’s almost like we have to commit ourselves to a lifetime of these kinds of practices, and then patiently wait for them to “ferment” in our churches over a few generations, at least.
It makes me wonder if the most missional thing we could be doing in our churches right now is stop focusing on “mission” (whether we define that primarily as evangelism or social action), and instead make sure we are actually cultivating the kind of communal practices that, in our behavior toward each other, facilitate our actual participation in the life and mission of the triune God. As Brandon O’Brien suggested in Issue 2 of this journal, instead of attempting to preserve our waning influence in culture, the church would be better served by prioritizing the establishment of credibility.
This is perhaps an obvious point that others have made more eloquently, but it seems to be missing in a lot of the conversations I have with church leaders right now. If we don’t tend to the actual socio-political-liturgical life of our churches, there will be no real telos to any of our “missional” efforts. The church will end up being merely an organization that does some good works in the world, or the team that keeps the “evangelism machine” running.
Without actual, tangible, concrete, ecclesial practices of love for one another, there won’t be anything substantive at the heart of the church’s life. People hearing the gospel and seeking to participate in salvation, instead of joyfully being incorporated into the life of the church, may well quote this Arcade Fire lyric:
I thought I found a way to enter
it was just a reflector
I thought I found the connector
it was just a reflector
just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection
of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection…
The task of discerning these kinds of practices is fraught with landmines. In the sacraments, for example, we have inherited ecclesial practices that we dare not cast aside. But how the sacraments are practiced can reveal the beauty of the gospel or obscure it under layers of clericalism or secularism.
I don’t have a simple rubric for discerning faithful gospel practices for every church (this work is inherently contextual), but I do have two convictions that help us discern the practices of the church I co-lead. (Thanks to my friend and Telos Lab Director Seth Richardson for helping me clarify these thoughts.)
My first conviction is that, in discerning these things, it is vital to pay attention to the actual socio-political effect of our practices, rather than assert our intentions for practices. For example, we may intend for both women and men to be raised up as leaders in our midst, but the only people who get trained to be leaders are men, there is something amiss in our practices of identifying and training leaders.
We must learn to pay close attention to the socio-political dynamic being created through our practices, and ask whether that dynamic is consonant with and participates in the new creation God is unfolding in Christ by the Spirit.
Which leads to my second conviction: practices that “express the gospel with integrity” are those that participate in the reciprocal self-giving love revealed in the crucified messiah that includes and privileges the weak and/or marginalized in our midst. Our practices must emerge from and facilitate a reciprocal, mutual sharing together. In other words, these practices will be, by definition, practices of communion.
The goal of these practices would be to integrate what we do “out there” with what we do “in here.” They will be practices that facilitate our own participation in God’s life and mission while also opening us up to becoming agents of God’s mission. As Lesslie Newbigin affirmed: “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection… The words explain the deeds and the deeds validate the words.”
LIKE WHAT YOU READ? SHARE IT WITH OTHERS.
Embodying God’s Mission Through Church Planting
The Rev. Cameron Robinson
Planting Pastor of Emmanuel Anglican in Duncan, SC
June 17th, 2021
Many of the Christians I know are separated into two camps: those who think of mission as evangelism and those who think of mission as social justice. The best way to tell you how I evade this polarity is to share the story behind the initial phase of our church plant, Emmanuel Anglican.
Emmanuel is unique because we invite those who may have walked away from the faith for whatever reason to begin again and pursue healing through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our desire is to see a new generation embrace the mission of God. This mission formed as we noticed that the two prevailing camps, evangelism or social justice, both seemed to miss the mark, particularly in reaching the African American community.
The ineffectiveness of this polarity continues as I’ve also noticed a consistent challenge in the minds of people both inside and outside the Church. People are naturally conditioned in a “this or that” mindset before they even walk through the doors of our church.
This conditioning often comes in the form of questions like, which type of church are we going to be? Will we be carbon copies of our denomination? Will we merge cultural expressions? Will we be homogenous or multi-cultural? Will we be socio-economically wealthy, or a church on the margins? Will we be traditional Black church or something different? I’ve come to realize, however, that these are the wrong questions. The right questions are, “Who is God, and how is He calling us to participate in His work?” These questions will be answered through God’s intent.
Therefore, my calling as a church planter is to deepen people’s understanding as Jesus did in Matthew 5: “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” I seek to enlighten any polarized belief (prayer vs. action) with the fullness of God’s intent, removing the limitations towards true life. I call it “being God’s mission.”
How We Bear Fruit
The way Emmanuel gets to the place of being God’s mission is through conversation. We try to flesh out our existing beliefs about what God is doing in the world while also measuring those beliefs against the truth of God’s mission. This process happens mainly in one-on-one conversations, but also within the group setting.
Some may ask why we don’t simply chart a path forward without spending time on our current beliefs. I’ve found that even as a church plant, adopting the missio dei has to first contend with the strength of previous church life teaching, which is very difficult if previous churches vigorously embraced polarity—particularly the popular one of prayer and action. Letting go of this polarity first means acknowledging it, which can be surprisingly difficult because “this or that” tends to be the easier mental exercise. I think this is why folks express a genuine exhaustion from years of church. They didn’t receive answers enmeshed in the Gospel which produced life. They received the easier answer that could be printed on a shirt, but couldn’t change lives. This upbringing is hard to shake.
Consequently, the idea of “being God’s mission” feels so little, so passive, compared to the popular responses. So we first lament that we live our lives without the recognition that we are God’s and our work is His. The fruit begins to show when we embrace being God’s mission as opposed to being about mission. This work reorients us and grafts us into God’s being. As God’s beloved, people find themselves commissioned to work with a new blessed assurance within.
This is truly the greatest work I’ve done as a church planter—not the website or the strategic plan, but the individual conversations that develop a healthy ecclesiology, strengthened by a growing understanding of who God is.
The Backdrop of our Beginning
Our first church gatherings were held against the backdrop of streets crowded with shouts of whether Black or Blue lives matter, while “lines of justice” on horseback separated the citizen from the empowered citizen. That, paired with COVID, was an interesting time to start a church.
Moreover, the polarity of the two missional camps, evangelism and social justice, was alive and well. The unchurched could identify the Christians who prayed and chose the pews, and the Christians who acted and chose the streets, very similar to Newbigin’s analysis of the erroneous dichotomy of mission.
I knew if this polarity struck me as odd, there were others who wanted to belong to the faith but didn’t want to choose between prayer and action. Additionally, I began to wonder what was missing from the conversation. As I talked to more and more people, I realized within the streets there was deep anger, fear, sorrow, hopelessness and preparation for the worst, further deepened by a 24-hour news cycle of civil unrest.
I’ve learned that when faced with two options, neither will be successful unless we consider the human condition. It became clear that the dichotomy of prayer or action wasn’t where we needed to start to search for an answer, for both only seemed to create more pain for the unchurched. I wondered, “What does God want of us for a time such as this?” For us at Emmanuel, this is part of cultivating a missional outlook—instead of asking what we can do, we ask what God is doing and how we are to participate as members of his body.
As time progressed, we, like Newbigin, saw promise in both prayer and action. The marriage of these worlds actually aligned to the mission of God.
Newbigin says in his text The Open Secret, “The concern of those who see mission primarily in terms of action for God’s justice is embodied mainly in programs … The concern of those who see mission primarily in terms of personal conversion is expressed mainly at the level of congregational life. The effect of this is that each is robbed of its character by its separation from the other. Christian programs for justice and compassion are severed from their proper roots in the liturgical and sacramental life of the congregation, and so lose their character as signs of the presence of Christ and risk becoming mere crusades fueled by a moralism that can become self-righteous. And the life of the worshipping congregation, severed from its proper expression in compassionate service to the secular community around it, risks becoming a self-centered existence serving only the needs and desires of its members.”
It wasn’t “either or.” It was both. We decided to answer the five-year-long call to plant a church that grafted people into the body of Christ, placing us directly under the care and compassion of the triune God, whose Spirit directed and strengthened us into action.
Planting this church was and is the greatest act of resistance to polarity. We plant a flag that says, “Mission isn’t our work.” Rather, as Newbigin says, “It’s God’s!” The work we do is His.
This Actually Matters
Embracing being God’s mission is a surprising game-changer for many people, and because of it, I have hope for the unreached generation. For far too long, we’ve driven people away from the faith because of polarity. These same people swim through the thickness of pain and wonder if they actually matter to anyone, and if God actually cares.
The failure of the Church has been the war between action and prayer. It is beyond time to invite others into the healing being of God, not only for ourselves, but for our children.
This is what we’re doing at Emmanuel. It’s nothing new, but it’s new for so many people. Folks genuinely seem to exhale when prayer leads to action. This is something we replicate over and over.
Howard Thurman in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, speaks to what could happen if we get this thing right:
“But the child of the disinherited is likely to live a heavy life. A ceiling is placed on his dreaming by the counsel of despair coming from his elders, whom experience has taught to expect little and to hope for less. If, on the other hand, the elders understand in their own experiences and lives the tremendous insight of Jesus, it is possible for them to share their enthusiasm with their children. This is the qualitative overtone springing from the depths of religious insight, and it is contagious. It will put into the hands of the child the key for unlocking the door of his hopes. It must never be forgotten that human beings can be conditioned in favor of the positive as well as the negative.” (45)
This is the message we share with others who join us on this missional journey. We don’t ask which battle we can fight; we look at who God has called together and assess the gifts of that group—and we use them. We don’t have a day of prayer and call it quits; rather, we pray every week for the improvement of the world and for our leaders, and we also confess and repent of our own sins. Then we do what God tells us to. We’re constantly about doing through prayer, and this is a new way for so many. It’s a way that will hopefully heal.
LIKE WHAT YOU READ? SHARE IT WITH OTHERS.
The Rev. Matt Busby
Pastor of Cultural Engagement at the Mission Chattanooga and Director of the Camp House, Chattanooga, TN
June 17th, 2021
Onion Bottom is a place in Chattanooga. Most people who live in Chattanooga have never heard of it, and those who have would argue that it isn’t much of a place. To be honest, there is probably at least some truth to that. There aren’t any houses in Onion Bottom, and most of the lots are vacant industrial land bisected by railroads.
When trying to describe where Onion Bottom is located in Chattanooga, I find that I often do so by describing the negative space of our city. I may say something like, “You know, that gulch between MLK and Southside.” Or “When you look at a roadmap, it’s that donut hole in the middle of the city.” Usually it’s at this point that there is a long “ooohhhhh” of realization. People know exactly where I am talking about, and you can see a look of confusion and wonder come over their face as they realize just how forgotten this particular part of our community is. But what is perplexing and compelling about Onion Bottom is not how seemingly isolated and empty it is, but how much life actually exists here in this neglected center of Chattanooga.
While there is no retail, there is an economic life you will find nowhere else in our city: warehouses taking in produce from farms throughout the south and getting those goods to restaurants and stores; our city’s public works department that employs hundreds of people to care for our infrastructure and streets; and a poultry plant that, while the work is difficult, provides the only living wage job to men and women in our city who have a criminal record.
And while there are no homes in Onion Bottom, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who live here. Onion Bottom is the home of the Community Kitchen and Homeless Healthcare, the two most important institutions serving those in our community who are experiencing homelessness. It should come as no surprise that since the pandemic began, the largest homeless camp in Chattanooga grew here in Onion Bottom. There are also multiple agencies here to serve families experiencing homelessness. In addition, you’ll find a small police station, the city employee gym and the city gas station. All of this sandwiched between, and isolated from, our local university on one side and the most desirable neighborhood in all of Chattanooga on the other.
Onion Bottom is also the home of our church, Mission Chattanooga.
I wanted to begin with a rich description of our neighborhood because I believe that one of the only ways to overcome this gap between mission as evangelism and mission as social action is in the embodied presence of the church in a place.
Being rooted to a place puts boundaries on us, gives shape to our presence in the world. This is true of us individually and corporately as a church. As an individual, I am bounded by my place, and these very boundaries help to shape my loves and my mission in the world. Part of my place is my own home and family, my street, my neighborhood and my larger community. This embodiment should shape my loves and shape the mission that God has called me to in the world. If I am an ambassador of Christ (2 Cor. 5), then my place forms the “embassy” in which I am called to serve and reveal the Kingdom of God. In other words, our mission in the world is primarily local, and this very embodiment resists the abstraction that would separate the needs of my neighbor into categories of spiritual and physical, eternal and temporal.
Let me put this another way. Every day I come to Onion Bottom, I park in a lot that is about half a block from our church. It is not uncommon to encounter a particular gentleman, we will call him Mark, walking down the street talking to himself (at best) or yelling curse words at no one in particular (at worst). Every now and then, I will try to engage with Mark. Sometimes it is fruitful, but most of the time he just ignores me. But when I look into Mark’s eyes, I don’t have the luxury of thinking of mission as evangelism or social action. The needs of my neighbor, the needs of Mark, are both/and not either/or. Place forms the crucible that opens our eyes to see that God’s mission in the world, like Mark’s need, is both/and.
So Onion Bottom is the place where we are called as a church. It is this physical place where we are a foretaste and a sign of God’s reign. It is the place where we are called to reveal God’s Kingdom.
Loving Place Takes Practice
Learning to love your place, learning to see what God is doing in the place where your church has been called, takes practice. That may seem like an odd statement, but I believe that so much of our world has been shaped into a “placelessness” that we are actually taught and shaped not to see or care about our local place. Technology, for all of our economic growth and progress, has served to separate us from our places—cars separate us from one another, the internet pulls our attention away from our community to what is happening “out there,” easily consumed pop culture tends to slowly erase local culture, etc. It is well known at this point that national corporations like Starbucks and Target seek to create common experiences in their stores—both the way they look outside and the experience inside—to where it becomes impossible to tell if you are in Chattanooga or Cincinnati. This sort of abstraction is the norm, and it is problematic for us as the Church because it pulls us away from understanding our calling to a place. (It also shapes us into navel-gazing individuals, but that may be for a different discussion.)
When our culture and society seek to shape placeless communities, how do we discern the particular ways that we are called to love?
- Take a walk – What is God doing right around you and your church? Take a walk, making note of the people, businesses and institutions within a 5-10 minute walk of your church. What does shalom look like in this neighborhood? The Holy Spirit is already at work along these streets, and the Spirit is inviting you to be part of revealing the Kingdom. If you are not committed to the task within this small walk, then who is the Lord calling to these particular streets? Take a walk again and pray. (If your church is in more of a suburban context, then drive around a one-mile radius, asking the same questions.) It is only through such practices that we will possibly learn the “immediate possibilities which the Lord of history offers” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 139).
- Liturgies of Place – Incorporate prayers and liturgies that reflect the needs and challenges, joys and pain of your particular place. This may involve simply naming the businesses along your street in your Prayers of the People. However, it may also mean creating an entire litany for specific seasons that lifts up your neighborhood. This not only petitions the Lord on behalf of your place but shapes your congregation to see the needs in and around your church. Liturgies of place help equip the saints for mission, discipling their loves and imaginations in order that they will “act responsibly as believers in the course of their secular duties as citizens” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 139).
- Learn the story of your neighborhood – One of the beautiful aspects of the missio Dei is that God is already active, and we are invited into his love for the world, His love for a place. The story has already been written, and we are being invited into that story. So in our case, the history of God’s movement in Onion Bottom did not start with us. What was here before? What is the story of redemption that God is already writing?
- Partnership over pioneering – This has become a mantra over the past few years at the Mission Chattanooga. The truth is, I am not sure the Lord is calling us to do or create anything. He may be. But we always start from the posture of partnership. Who else has the Lord already empowered in this place? Who can we come alongside and support for the sake of the Kingdom? Ministry can often feel like a lonely endeavor, so beginning with a posture of partnership may be what God has for us to encourage our brothers and sisters who have already borne labor and love in the place where God has called you.
The missio Dei invites us into the divine love that God has for the world. Our place helps to shape the context and particularity of that love and mission. In other words, God is doing something in Onion Bottom. He is at work here. And we, as his ambassadors, are invited into that particular mission, to reveal his Kingdom and to proclaim his redemption in both word and deed.
LIKE WHAT YOU READ? SHARE IT WITH OTHERS.
Changing Our View of Jesus’ Mission Statement
Becky Castle Miller
Author and Lay Preacher at Church of the Savior, Wheaton, IL
June 17th, 2021
I grew up as a homeschooled pastor’s kid, learning the ABCs with an alphabetical song of Bible verses. Thanks to Psalty the Singing Songbook, I can remember G! God is love! … P! Praise ye the Lord! Later I did Awana, a Christian youth program, where I earned badges for memorizing increasingly longer Bible verses.
Of all the various pieces of God’s word that I hid in my heart, I thought the most important one was John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV). This is probably the most famous verse in the universe. I know many people who aren’t Christians who can quote this one, and I don’t know a church-raised Christian who can’t.
This verse, I thought, encapsulated Jesus’s mission statement. He came as a gift from the Father to the world so that people could confess their belief in him and go to heaven when they died. If this was Jesus’s mission for himself, this was also the mission he gave the Church to fulfill. In order for people to believe, they needed us to tell them the Good News. Starting with that verse.
It did not matter what a person’s particular problems were—Jesus was the answer. It did not matter their cultural context, pain, difficulties, background. It did not matter what was going on in their life, because if they believed in Jesus, they would someday escape from this mortal struggle into eternal peace.
The Church’s mission was evangelism, and as a young Christian soldier, I embraced my mission. I carried the weight of prevailing upon people to believe in Jesus, terrified for their souls if they did not. Immense guilt pressed on me any time that I either failed to speak up or did speak up and failed to persuade. Regrettably, I even resorted to putting verbal and social pressure on people to pray the sinner’s prayer.
Evangelism scared me, but I persisted. I was always looking for better training and techniques to win souls, convinced it was my responsibility to convert people and carry them to heaven.
Reevaluating the Mission
This heavy Christianity crushed me. Legalism and word-of-faith had no real answers for my eventual emotional breakdown and postpartum depression. I started a 12-year-and-ongoing journey to rethink the Bible, Jesus, the Church and our mission.
The most life-altering portion of that journey was the eight years I spent at an international church in the Netherlands. Serving on the pastoral staff of a multi-ethnic community, welcoming people from over a hundred nations, taught me that my view of the gospel and my view of our mission in the world as the Church were far too small. Living a discipleship life with suffering, oppressed, abused Jesus-followers from all over the world invited me to understand problems I hadn’t even been aware of. The hope of heaven someday was important, but it downplayed and ignored people’s needs today.
As my own wounds became more evident and I sought healing, I found the vocabulary and the empathy I needed in the corners of the Church focused on social justice. Seeing injustice all around me in people’s stories and my own experiences ignited my passion for God’s redemptive justice.
Yet in those justice-oriented corners, I noticed now and then a reluctance to share the gospel. Sometimes this was due to questions of the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts or other interpretive or theological problems. Sometimes it was an understandable reaction against the destructive ways evangelism has been practiced.
While sifting through the crumbling constructs of American Christianity and abandoning broken practices and beliefs, I felt myself drawn deeper and deeper into the story of Jesus. I wondered if there was a way to follow Jesus that both shared his words and carried his healing touch.
One concept that helped was recognizing that evangelism and discipleship are not two different things, though they are presented in different seminars at church conferences. They are part of the same process of learning to follow Jesus. It starts with hearing his story and discerning his invitation and continues with forming our lives to be more and more like his. Scot McKnight uses the word “gospeling,” which I like so much better than “evangelizing.” Gospeling is simply telling the story of King Jesus. The impetus is not on me to convince, cajole or convert. I get to tell the story, and the Spirit does the transforming.
I am gospeling when a friend loses a loved one, and I tell the story of Lazarus’s death and Jesus weeping. When I share the parable of the talents with a business student. When I talk about the wedding at Cana with someone newly engaged. I am gospeling when I tell about the important role of Mary Magdalene to someone curious about Jesus but worried she can’t become a Christian because she’s a feminist.
A Bigger Mission
As I went through seminary at Northern, a new Bible verse captivated me. A story about Jesus.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:14-21, NRSV)
This gem of a story shimmers with a rich variation of colors, showing new hues each time I look at it in a different light. As I’ve worked it into papers, sermons and Bible studies, and meditated on it over and over, I’ve become convinced that this is a much more expansive and meaningful encapsulation of Jesus’ mission than John 3:16.
This mission is not just evangelism. It’s also not just social justice. The very declaration of Jesus as he begins his ministry is both.
Yes, he is here to bring good news. But hey, that good news is for the poor. And he’s not just about telling the news and moving on to the next target. He’s here to free captive people, heal disabled people, liberate oppressed people, and shout about God’s extravagant generosity and inclusion.
This is foreshadowing. It ought to come with a spoiler alert. Because Jesus walks right out of Nazareth and starts actually doing these things. Especially the healing-people thing. He’s not promising lepers that if they can hang on through their pain long enough, they’ll die, and that will be great, because they’ll go to heaven. He’s truly, physically, literally healing people’s bodies right on the spot.
He is bringing spiritual freedom, yes, from sin and death, but also tangible freedom now. And he trains his students and instructs them to set up communities to do the same things. They should welcome foreigners and rejects, they should mingle across ethnic lines, they should ignore class distinctions instead of getting hung up on status, they should share everything in common so no one goes without. They should live lives of remembering him and telling his story and also bringing kingdom conditions to life right on the earth where they’re standing.
Living Out the Mission
Evangelism and social action are intertwined from the beginning of Jesus’s mission and carried through to the life of the Church today. As Jesus’s disciples, we should be doing the things he did, and that means both proclaiming and practicing.
Our view of salvation is too small when we see it as personal salvation from death. Our view of the Christian life is too small when we see it as white-knuckling our way through and ignoring our suffering because heaven is waiting for us if we can just hang on.
Salvation is holistic healing here and now for ourselves, and it’s working toward that reality for our neighbors.
With this view of mission, evangelism doesn’t scare me. It delights me, because I love telling stories about Jesus. And I don’t have to force anything to happen. We see in this passage twice that the Spirit empowered Jesus, and the Spirit is the one who fuels our mission today.
So if you’re looking for a new Bible verse to memorize, consider making it Luke 4:18.
LIKE WHAT YOU READ? SHARE IT WITH OTHERS.