Mission: an inclusive approach By John Rickard

Since the massive contribution of David Bosch, it has been abundantly clear that mission is never the mission of the church. Mission is God’s , and we, the church are called to be the instruments or agents (not the exclusive agents however) of God’s mission in the world.

This means that mission is always the initiative of God, as God reaches out into creation, calling people to participate in the reign of God and to live Kin(g)dom values.

Mission is more than and different from recruitment to our brand of religion; it is alerting people to the universal reign of God

The initiative of God is then as paramount in mission as it is in the rest of faith. Since Luther, it has been clear that we cannot earn salvation by our own works. We are saved by grace, and by grace alone. Followers of Jesus are overwhelmed by grace and claimed as God’s people. Yet still our dependence grows. For in the very act of claiming us, the Spirit of God also endows us with gifts and each of these gifts has a corresponding service, as the apostle Paul so clearly states in his epistles to the churches. We are a graced people, but we are also a gifted people, gifted with a variety of gifts, that the faith community might be nurtured and the faith proclaimed both within and outside that community.

There is then, one further component of the three-fold call of God. We are graced, and then gifted, but we are then sent.

We believe that we are the church, that is, we are a community of God’s people called and set apart for witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. We are blessed to be a blessing. As the Father has sent Christ, so Christ sends us. Jesus Christ has defined us as his witnesses where we are. We believe therefore that the Holy Spirit not only calls us but also enables us and gifts us for that mission.

After claiming us, through no merit of our own, and empowering us with the tools to engage in ministry and mission, we are then sent by God, to be instruments or co-partners with God in mission. In the power of the Holy Spirit we become signs of this Kin(g)dom, even a foretaste of the reign of God that is to come, and is already here, in and through us.

Such action is not to earn our salvation. Nor is this act empowered out of our own energy. Neither do we act to achieve our own ends. We are sent to resonate with the mission of God, as God calls the world to faith, and declares a concern and compassion for the marginalised in our time.

Bosch makes an even stronger statement.

The churches mission is not secondary to its being; the church exists in being sent and building itself up for mission.

Once sent by the Other, however, we begin to engage others, others of our own kind who live in a particular context. Often this context is different from our own. These others may or may not have experienced God, and may or may not have an expression of that experience. Significant dialogue is necessary for us to engage these people in ministry and mission. As the Rev Bill Fisher, Director of Unity and International Mission claims,

"there is no way of sharing the Gospel with others in our time without immersing ourselves in their lives."

Evangelism can no longer be done out of relationship, by proclaiming the right words. We must know these people, know and experience their context, have encountered their struggles and lived with them in their joys. Only then are we in a place to make a proclamation of significance that names the Good News as revealed in Jesus Christ in that context.

Such an event is also rarely a one-off event. In order for us to understand, in order for us to comprehend these "significant others", we need to withdraw, to reflect, to sort out, to discern the dynamics of that relationship and how best to communicate the love we ourselves have experienced in the gift of faith.

This dynamic predicates the need for a teaching ministry in the church. Theological education is critical not only to facilitate our own understanding of faith but also to facilitate our encounter with the other, our mission. We are sent by God to act. But to be appropriate, constant reflection on that action is necessary for effective mission and ministry. An action/reflection model continues to be appropriate. We need to be trained to be disciples of Jesus, as we live out our faith in the world. This requires that a least a proportion of the teaching ministry made available to the church be applied locally.

The Mission Cycle

So we are GRACED by God, and GIFTED by God to be effective in God’s ministry and mission. We are then SENT by God into God's world, there to participate in God’s mission. But nurturing is required and reflection is necessary. This is the role of the church, as those who have been gifted in other areas offer a teaching ministry to those who are at mission that all might have the possibility of being DISCIPLES of Jesus. This cycle then can be expressed diagrammatically as follows.

The whole process is, of course, nurtured and sustained by our worship. Here the Spirit inspires us to respond in gratitude and joy to the One who creates and redeems us. Here that same Spirit reconciles us to God, and to each other as people of faith. Here also we are reconciled to those "significant others" who make up so much of human kind.

At this point, however, the cycle turns into a spiral, as we move into the cycle over and over again, each time deepening our encounter with the context into which we are sent. This mission spiral then expands as we seek out God’s calling for us in any given context, drawing the faith community into closer relationship with the world, and the world closer to the worshipping community.

The "Sent" Community; the church at mission

But what does it mean to be sent? How are we to live out such a calling? Further theological reflection is required.

For many years mission in Australia has been defined into two clear and distinct theological streams.

On the one hand is the Evangelical stream that clearly sees its task as proclaiming the Word of God that the world might believe. Exactly how this is done has had diverse manifestations but its primary goal is to win converts for Christ. This stream targets individuals, seeing personal salvation as critical for its work, and includes a desire to increase the membership of the church.

The second stream is commonly called the Ecumenical stream. In this stream, the task of mission is dialogue, dialogue between different denominations in the first instance, but now spreading out to include (in some dialogues) communities of other faith traditions. The missional component is a commitment to work together for the betterment and the well being of all human kind, perhaps even the whole created order.

We in the Uniting Church have tended to define mission using these two streams. Unfortunately, in recent times, these two streams have been interpreted as almost totally polarised. If we endorse one stream or model, then we are frequently critical of the other, seeing it as either irrelevant or even unfaithful. This polarity is most unsatisfactory. It is time for another model, one that is more integrated, that spans the various theological streams with integrity, and yet remains faithful to the mission imperative inherent in the Gospel.

Faith Discourse: The core of mission

Given that the role of the churches is to resonate with this critical work of God using the various gifts given by God for God’s work, we must then acknowledge that there is a great diversity in those gifts. Some are gifted to preach and teach, others are gifted in service and solidarity, some in evangelism and personal conversion, even others in a prophetic ministry that is frequently called social justice.

It is important to note however, that when talking about mission of no matter what flavour, we frequently overlook that which is the primary gift to us all: the gift of faith. It is this gift that turns us towards God. It is this gift that raises within our trembling breasts, the question of how we are called to live as the people of God in community. It is this gift of faith that is the essence, the very core of mission. For this gift demands expression, demands sharing, demands communication, to tell of its power and presence to others; to enter into relationship.

This relational demand of faith is then surprisingly consistent with some interpretations of the postmodern reality. Moving away from the individuality of modernity (based on the "I think, therefore I am" of Descartes), these interpretations argue that to be, is to be in relationship.

"Postmodernity believes that the world is essentially relative, composed not of things but of dynamic relations. Therefore to be is to be related. The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel expresses it this way: "To be is to be with. "

Faith then demands expression, and it is this demand that motives mission. Faith sharing is the core of mission.

For some this sharing has been called evangelism, for others ecumenical dialogue, for some partnership and for others prophetic witness. But in each case this faith discourse is where we name that which motivates us and demonstrate where our commitment lies.

Unfortunately in our time, many of the words we normally use for this discourse have become loaded and overlaid with emotional interpretations from the past. Evangelism, for some, has been characterised as being confined solely to the conservative, evangelical stream of theology. Meanwhile, others have characterised dialogue as a casual conversation between friends where neither participant is terribly passionate about or committed to his/her position. The outcome sought by many such conversations is unity, but I frequently confined to the lowest common denominator that they might achieve consensus in the diverse group.

A new term for this faith sharing is required. I offer the term faith discourse. Such a discourse is defined as the intentional, committed dialogue between various participants, usually in relationship, yet structured in ways appropriate to the context. This discourse then becomes the necessary primary action upon which any act of mission rests.

Diagrammatically, such a proposal can be demonstrated by a series of overlapping circles, each representing a particular area of discourse. At the center there is common ground, an area that represents that which is common to all mission, faith discourse. The rest of the circle represents that which is specific to the particular area of mission, that which is shaped by and targeted towards the specific area of work, whether that is towards the individual, the community, or other denominations, churches, or faiths.

Important thought it is however faith discourse is not the totality of mission. Outcomes are also important. Though these outcomes will be diverse, at least in terms of how they are expressed in the differing sectors of the mission enterprise, there will always be a component of both Word and Deed in each sector. Mission will always be made up of both proclamation and action, as God communicates love through Word and Deed, using our encounter with the other as the medium.

Both Word and Deed: The outcome of mission

1. Mission to Individuals

Here faith discourse takes the form of a personal relationship.

Evangelism would move from an act of recruiting or co-opting those outside the church to an invitation of companionship.

Some forms of discourse in this sector have tended to overlook the need of a contribution from both sides of the relationship. As Bill Fisher says, we must immerse ourselves in the reality of the other if we are to communicate the Good News we have experienced and heard in Jesus Christ. A relationship is required that stimulates change, each partner changing the other.

The traditional outcomes sought here are personal conversion and commitment- unarguably most important responses to the Word of grace revealed in Jesus Christ.

Outcomes associated with Deed tend to be associated with church growth, the building up of the church community, an appropriate inward focus, for the future well being of the faith community.

Many in the Uniting Church have not responded well to this missional calling. Too often we have turned away from the evangelical thrust central to the Gospel, the requirement to build up the church as an act of witness through personal conversion and church growth. Do we love the church? Is the life of our faith community important to our personal life and identity? If so, why are we so reticent to invite our friends to join?

Such a bold focus on church growth has frequently been seen as an underdeveloped missiological position.

An emphasis on evangelism has often meant…an emphasis on individual faith and salvation rather than concern about justice making , peace and environment and towards growth in the church rather than the active presence of the church in the community.

Others have developed this position more fully. Members of the Australian Christian community that make up the group frequently called Generation X (now aged 20-30) tend to respond differently. Instead of seeking personal conversion, many in this age group search for personal meaning and identity through an encounter with the Word of God. Such an emphasis is consistent with Bosch's expectation that the church should be "seeking the seekers".

The Deed response of this group is also different. Instead of turning inward and seeking the growth of the institution, this group tend to seek ways to witness to the Gospel through action. Some offer a sort of lifestyle evangelism, witnessing to the love of God through the way they live. Such a lifestyle usually includes acting together with others of good will in the community (both Christian and non-Christian) for the well being of all humanity, particularly the broken and the marginalized.

The church would (then) witness that its members, like others, hunger for the hope that there is a God who reigns in love and intends the good of the whole earth.

In this sector generational issues often determine the type of engagement.

2. Mission to Community

The community addressed in this section can be the local community or the broader community, the society in which we live. Here all mission begins with a faith discourse that is deeply immersed in social encounter. This means that our mission in this sector is not driven by social analysis alone but by the imperative for justice that is intrinsic to the gospel. Once again, immersion is critical. It is inappropriate for the church to stand outside a confrontation and pass judgment on any aspect of it.

The Word component of this sector is the call to justice, as the church fulfills its responsibility for the prophetic witness in its time. Such prophetic witness might often be directed towards the faith community itself. Even the church is frequently seduced by the dominant culture; enticed away from commitment to living under the reign of God.

The Deed component is two fold. One is the social justice activity of the church, as we, in engaging our surrounding community, strive for justice for the vulnerable and the marginalised. This Deed component is also expressed in the community service program of the church where many are offered a service of nurture and care. In both cases, many of the faithful join, once again, with people of goodwill to work together for the common good.

It (mission) is also to promote understanding, reconciliation and peace among human beings wherever and whatever way this is possible. The churches and Christians should be willing to join all people of good will to identify common beliefs and values which can lead to action for peace. We salute all those who are engaged in promoting better understanding among peoples and nations, reducing the dangers of violence and building the peace, sometimes in seemingly hopeless situations. 

3. Ecumenism

This sector includes both local and structural or denominational ecumenism. Here also, faith discourse is dependent upon relationships. Most of us have experienced how invigorating local ecumenism can be as we join together with other denominations in a local community to engage in dialogue.

Dialogue happens when people who are neighbours or colleagues begin to talk to each other about their beliefs and spiritual experience. It can happen when people join together to struggle for freedom and human rights and discover that they are doing so because of their faith.

Such an encounter of Word has the potential to expand our comprehension of the gospel as revealed in Jesus as we are exposed to interpretations from other denominations. The truthful richness of the gospel becomes clearer to us. Structural ecumenism has the same possibility if we can get beyond the constraints of denominational loyalties.

Such action offers a witness to the world to the visible unity of the church. In fact this faith discourse actually manifests this unity. Some however do not see this action as mission.

In terms of Deed, God's mission in this sector is also frequently seen as joining together with others in order to work together for the common good. Sometimes this is a joining of Christian groups. At other times, Christian groups join with others of goodwill in order to bring about change in a local neighbourhood. Such collective action has frequently brought groups much closer together, and has facilitated breakthroughs in matters of tradition and doctrine where there has previously been an impasse.

 
4. Overseas Churches.

In the Uniting Church the primary faith discourse in this sector has been to partnerships with other churches in our region. We have a longstanding commitment to establish and maintain partnerships with many overseas churches. These partnerships also have the bi-polar focus of both Word and Deed.

The Word focus in these relationships also has to do with Unity. These relationships deepen our perception and understanding of the Gospel as we cross not only denominational boundaries but also boundaries of culture and nationality. Here there is a much greater possibility of expanding our comprehension of the Gospel, as is witnessed at World Council of Churches events, particularly those that focus on matters of both Gospel and culture.

The Deed component is also about doing things together. Gone are the times when western churches send missionaries into developing countries at their own initiative. All activity is done in partnership, in consultation with the host church. The trend to reverse previous mission strategies, where missionaries from the developing countries are now sent to the west and north, is encouraging. Much of Western Christian is in need of conversion.

Sometimes the expected outcome of this partnership is church related, resulting not only in our involvement in churches overseas but also the enrichment of the multicultural nature of many churches in Australia. Frequently however, we act together with the host church, and with others of goodwill for the common good of the overseas community in both political action and social programs. Australia's involvement with the churches of Indonesia during the current crisis is a good example.


5. Other Faiths.

This is a rapidly growing sector of our faith discourse in our multicultural, and multi-faith context. Here the faith discourse is obviously different. The two partners in the discourse have a different faith commitment. This does not mean, however, that the discourse cannot proceed. Rather, each participant must engage the other from the integrity of his or her own faith position in a true dialogue. Such a conversation can only enhance our self-understanding as Christians as we endeavor to state our faith position in relation to the other.

The Word component of such a discourse is not to seek to conversion of the other. Rather it is to share our faith in the context of another faith. It. This sharing facilitates relationship and understanding. It can be risky however. As Michael Nazir-Ali reminds us,

interaction between religious traditions (may) result(s) in change, not only in the individual adherents, but often for the tradition of the whole.

The church then, should never enter into such a faith discourse naively. As Rienzie Perera indicates it may be necessary,

"for the churches to engage in an inter-church dialogue to develop a theological framework to be positive towards other religions and acknowledge that God is at work outside the church. Within that theological framework one will be able to approach other religions not in a spirit of conquest but in a spirit of partnership. A partnership grounded on the theological premise that we are "stewards of the mysteries of God'.

As we enter into such a faith discourse the old tension between dialogue and evangelism is never far from the surface. Does dialogue in this instant override mission? And perhaps more importunately is evangelism diluted and marginalised when churches pursue the path of dialogue? Or to put it the other way, is it really appropriate for us to be proselytizing people of another faith?

The Deed component is less controversial. Here, once again Christians come together with people of other faiths to work for the common good. This may be the well being of those vulnerable ones of the other faith. As in other sectors, this solidarity in action has the potential to bring those in dialogue much closer together.

Conclusion

Obviously the model offered is incredibly truncated. I have done little more than make assertions. Much more needs to be said. Perhaps it could be the topic of further work in the future.

In conclusion however, I would like to claim that I have introduced the following.

1. That the church is a sent community, gifted by God to be co-partner in God's mission.

2. That each of the sectors (personal, communal, denominational, overseas, and living faiths,) is legitimately a part of the mission God has in the world.

3. That all mission begins with faith discourse, whether that be evangelical or ecumenical dialogue. This discourse is critical for mission to be legitimately in resonance with the mission of God. It defines our motives for our involvement and makes them clear to our partners.

4. That all sectors of mission are appropriated in both Word and Deed. The old split between evangelism and social justice or action is no longer tenable.

John Rickard
Sunday 6 February, 2000
 


References

Books

Bosch, David J. Believing in the Future Trinity Press International, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania 1995

Transforming Mission Paradigm Shift in Theology of Mission. Orbis Books Maryknoll New York 1993

Brownson, James V. Speaking the Truth in Love; New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic. Trinity Press International Harrisburg Pennsylvania 1998 Guder, Darrell L. ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. William B Eerdmans Publishing Co Grand Rapids, Michigan 1998

Hall, Douglas John The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity. Trinity Press International Valley Forge, Pennsylvania 1997

Hoedemaker, Bert Secularization and Mission: A Theological Essay. Trinity Press International Harrisburg Pennsylvania USA 1998 Nazir-Ali Michael Citizens and Exiles: Christian Faith in a Plural World SPCK Great Britain 1998 Newbigin, Leslie Truth and Authority in Modernity Trinity Press International Valley Forge, Pennsylvania 1996 Pickard, Steven Liberating Evangelism: Gospel Theology and the Dynamics of Communication. Trinity Press International Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 1999 Sanneh, Lamin, Religion and the Variety of Culture Trinity International Press Valley Forge, Pensylvania 1996

Journals

Chalmers John Reconstructing Mission in a Postmodern era Trinity Occasional Papers October 1996 Vol 15 Supp

Perera, Rienzie Religions, Cultures and Peace: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism and the Common Life in Asia. CCA Theological Conference 1999

Ross Langmead The Word Taking Shape Whitley College June 1999