Member Missions – the Next Step in Mission

By The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab

[The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 2, 2003; Mark 9:2-9.]

Preached as part of a congregational weekend of orientation to the daily missions of the members; St. Anthony on the Desert, Scottsdale, AZ.

Jesus came announcing God is here, right now. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus, God’s agent, took on God’s struggle with evil in his teaching, his healing, and his living. Mark tells us that early on he appointed twelve helpers to go out to do the same. Then one day, he lets Peter, James, and John in on what is really happening. They see him as never before and they hear God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” They have been watching God at work. And they have been part of that work themselves. God has called them to be part of God’s mission – the struggle to overcome evil – to bring life closer to the fulfilment God wants for it.

We are Peter, James, and John. We are Martha, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joanna. Jesus has called us to join God’s mission. We join God in the struggle with evil to make the world a better place. We joined that mission in our baptism. Who are the primary agents of God’s mission? We are! Each of us, the baptized, in our daily living!

We Christians usually see mission as “what the church does in the world.” These are “body missions.” Repairing homes in Aberdeen, Washington; The Center for Health and Reconciliation; my church giving to the local food shelf – these are “body missions.” But, oh, so much more is needed.

The great untapped resource for mission is “member mission” – what each one of us does and can do in our daily places – our homes, our work, our local community, the wider world, and our leisure, as well as our church. I am wrong to say “untapped.” It is going on right now, but we the church have not held up and celebrated what each of our members is doing to make the world a better place. It is time we do. In today’s world, the real changes are made by what each of us does to make life better in each of the places we are in day in and day out. Here are four stories of “member missions” – of what four of the baptized are doing right now to make the world a better place.

Kathy’s sixteen-year-old daughter left home with three other girls. Kathy turned her part of the world upside for four hours, until she found her. Guess where she was? She and the three other girls had taken a room for the night in a hotel in town! She fetched her home. She told her how dangerous this was. She would one day be on her own, but not until school was done and that first solid job was started. In the meantime, God wanted her safe and preparing to do her part to make the world a better place. “You could have lost your life. What God wants is for you to be preparing to live your life responsibly – not fritter it away in foolish larks.” Kathy went further. She took quite a risk. Kathy went to the homes of each of the other three girls to say the same to them: “You could have lost your life and God wants you preparing to live your life responsibly – not fritter it away in foolish larks.” Here the story gets even more interesting. In each home, the same scene. The daughter said, “I don’t have to listen to her.” Each mother said, “Yes, you do – Kathy is saying what I have wanted to say to you for a long time.” Imagine, those parents were so brainwashed by the culture they were unable to take a stand until Kathy showed up! Kathy knew she went in God’s name and by God’s power. And, so, did those other mothers and daughters. They knew that Kathy was a part of a church and fed at Jesus’ table Sunday by Sunday. Kathy was on a “mission.” She was taking on the world’s culture which says: do what you please – and, parents, don’t be too hard on your teens’ self-expression – and don’t lay faith “trips” on your teens. And she prevailed!

Tom is the loan officer at his bank. He ached over the people who were losing their first homes because they could not make the payments. Tom listened to them with care. They had never learned to budget their money. Tom asked the head of his branch if he could bring these people in to teach them how to budget. He got the permission, started the teaching, and foreclosures went down! Tom now travels across the country teaching other loan officers to do the same. Tom says, “I believed Jesus wanted these people to learn to count the cost of a new home and plan for it – like the man building his house on a solid foundation.” Tom’s church teaches stewardship. Tom makes stewardship work in people’s lives!

Ned is president of his school board. The new superintendent is cracking down on decades of bad discipline in the school. One of the rules is you take your cap off in school. Wearing caps is big in the North Country of upstate New York. Ned got a call from a senior. “You’ll have to straighten out that new superintendent. He was giving me a hard time during the assembly over my cap. What shall I do?” Ned said, “Take your cap off.” Only four words and how important they were. Decades of shoddy enforcement of rules ended for that boy. That was “member mission.” Ned believes God wants him in that job on the school board. “No child left behind” and resolutions of church conventions will not work without people like Ned running school boards.

Marie wanted a day care center in the suburb of a big city. Low paid working mothers had no place to leave their children. She went to her church for help, but everyone was too busy. Marie trusted God was already at work in her community and she would find helpers outside the church. She did. Her helpers were a kind of church in the making. Marie would say, “Feeling tired? Come with me to church and pray for strength.” For many of her helpers, God became real for the first time because Marie’s words about God matched what was happening. In three years, Marie phoned her priest saying, “Remember that day care center I talked about? It opens next week. Come and lead us in prayer that it be a safe and happy place for children.”

There are two big lessons in Marie’s story. First, you need a team of helpers in your mission. Second, the mission is God’s, not the church’s. God will raise up people to help. Church and nonchurch people can meet around caring and justice. A day care center is a matter of caring and a matter of justice. Where there is caring – love – and justice, God is at work. The church does not have a mission. The mission has a church. God is on mission everywhere to bring love and justice. That’s why Marie knew God was already there readying people to join her mission.

Today’s church as an institution is on the sidelines of most of today’s problems. The members are not on the sidelines. We are there. And so is God. Each of us is doing something to make the world better in each of our daily places. The goals we seek are God’s goals – God’s missions. It is time to dignify what we do by claiming that grand word “mission” for what we are trying to do.

Maybe, it is time for congregations to recognize the daily missions of the members and say this is what we are here for. Our primary job is to help our members live better wherever they are Monday to Saturday. Sunday is to make sure we are on the right track and to receive the power to stay on it. The readings, sermon and prayers and the activities in our bulletins are to help us be sure we are on the right track – the path of loving and being just in each of our daily places. And the bread and the cup bring us the power – God’s power which we need so much to stay on the path we have set. Don’t miss how realistic Christianity is. We can’t find the path and stay on it without God’s help!

So, St. Anthony on the Desert, maybe it is time to take the next step in mission. Maybe it is time to say we are here to help our members live better wherever they are Monday to Saturday. Let’s see that helping us live better Monday to Saturday is the goal of all we do. Maybe it is time to make this the rule of life for St. Anthony on the Desert.

Where to begin? Begin with your mission statement. “At Saint Anthony’s, every member is on mission and our worship, education and fellowship help us to live better Monday to Saturday.” In those three sessions with newcomers, early on say, “Welcome to the mission. God is already doing great things through you. We know God will do more.” Help newcomers and everyone to discover the missions they are already on – and to share them with each other – and support each other in talk and in prayer.

You will say like those twelve when they came back, “Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us.” Kathy, Ned, Tom, and Marie said it. Each of you can too! – when the members are the missionaries.

[The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab; Coordinator of Member Mission Network, Inc., President of Member Mission Press, Chair of the Spiritual Formation Committee for the United Church of Hinesburg, VT, Author, Speaker, and Workshop Leader.]