It’s Time for a New Take on Mission

“We all want to develop the ministry of the laity. We just don’t have a clue as to how to do it!” I’ve heard that complaint countless times.

Ministry in a variety of settings – congregational and national, ecumenical and denominational – has led me to what I believe is a 21st century way of thinking about mission. This new way is a departure from what we have traditionally thought about when we hear “mission,” “missionary,” or “mission field.”

“Mission in the 21st century” means turning our attention to how we live our lives from Monday to Saturday in all of our daily places. It means recognizing these daily places as our daily mission fields. It means giving people tools to discover and to live their missions in each of their daily places. Mission in the 21st century does not end with what we do on Sunday and in church. Sundays and all of church life are to provide the guidance and the power to help us live better each and every day in the world.

21st Century Mission Begins Simply
Begin to think and live mission in a new 21st century way by simply listing what you are now doing to make life more loving and more just – justice is the public face of love – in each of your daily arenas: home, work, local community, wider world (from the economy to government to culture), leisure, and church. You may discover that you are already on mission and didn’t know it! What a grand discovery when you have been longing for relationship with God!

You’re not alone: clergy and lay leaders pay little attention to how members are, in fact, on mission in their daily places. Most often, church magazines, newsletters, and Sunday bulletins describe only the ministries that take place “under the church roof.” Spirituality is usually limited to one’s relationship with God, with little said about how it properly calls for changes in a person’s life at work, at home, or on public issues.

In my experience, lots of attention goes to growing a church by increasing membership; there’s always attention to “the budget”; and many churches concentrate on increasing the size of their church buildings. Unfortunately, how members transform their daily arenas rarely comes up. Our church leaders must make it their business to find out what members are doing Monday to Saturday, and to help them to do it better.

When will we learn to grow the mission, not the church? Only when we become sufficiently bothered by family violence, war, lack of resources for the poor, injustice, inadequate public education and health care, or the ravaging of the environment. Only then. There is an answer to all of this implied in Matthew 6:33: Grow the mission . . . and “all these things will be given to you.” Is not the mission the kingdom of God in action?

One wonders about the advice to center on “our unique” ministry in our individual congregations and pursue a narrow spirituality because we feel powerless to do something different? Do we continue to place more emphasis on growing the church, rather than stress changing the world out there because we feel powerless?

Church pronouncements do not make for societal change or influence decision-making. Unfortunately, church leaders are on the sidelines, lamenting their powerlessness. But if we open the door to 21st century mission, we realize that the church is already there in places of decision-making: through its members.

A Truth that Needs Facing
These are post-Christian times. That truth needs facing: church leaders are not today’s decision makers. Church pronouncements do not make for societal change or influence decision-making. Unfortunately, church leaders are on the sidelines, lamenting their powerlessness. But if we open the door to 21st century mission, we realize that the church is already there in places of decision-making: through its members.

The church is not powerless. Retreat no more. The power we seek resides in the church through its members. Wherever we have been working to bring about or to increase love and justice, we are doing so by God’s power working through us. We are missionaries – agents of God’s work in Jesus Christ – already. Claim that grand word, “mission,” in a 21st century way. Dignify what the baptized do by calling them missionaries. What they do bears the marks of mission: it is about love and justice; it costs; and it is done only with God’s help.

Go Back to the Beginning
God is on mission. God’s mission is to overcome evil, sin, and death. In Jesus Christ, God has overcome all that is against love and justice. And the risen Christ shares that power with us in what may well be the greater commission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. . . receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22).” Jesus Christ and the church are the visible centers of God’s mission. In baptism, we join God’s mission in Jesus Christ.

That is indeed good news. God has overcome evil, sin, and death in Jesus Christ and the power at work in Jesus is now shared with us. Come home to your part in God’s mission!

Center on the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who comes into the world to proclaim the rule of God and the destruction of the evil powers.  In Jesus’ teaching, healing, and confronting all forms of injustice, see God’s power overcoming evil.

See Jesus resisting sin in himself and, now, sharing his power with us to help us to cope with sin in ourselves. In John 15:15 Jesus says: “I do not call you servants any longer . . . I have called you friends.”

See Jesus as Christus victor – Christ, the victor, over all that resists love and justice. See God’s greatest act of love as sharing with us Jesus’ power to resist evil – the Holy Spirit. We do not come to Jesus just to be loved and cared for. We come to Jesus to join Him in transforming the world, wherever we are, all of the time!

See Jesus beside you empowering you in all that you do to make the world a more loving and just place. Take up a full spirituality – a spirituality that sustains a missionary. Go beyond submission to God to collaboration with God. As God’s coworker, join Jesus in today’s struggle with evil. Be careful about seeing Jesus’ death only as satisfaction for sin or as our substitute taking the punishment we deserved. Those views can lead us to miss joining Jesus in today’s struggle with evil.

A New Day for Mission
Clergy and lay leaders who want to pursue this 21st century vision for mission choose supporting the members in their daily mission fields as the primary purpose of their congregations (or at least one of their primary purposes). To pursue only some “unique” purpose of a congregation, such as music, education, or social concerns, can distract it from supporting the members in their daily living.

Concrete actions are necessary to put flesh on this vision. Everyone is helped to discern his or her present missions in each of their mission fields: home, work, local community, wider world, leisure, and church. This can be daunting. Relax. Usually, one or two of the mission fields get most of our time; still, do not avoid the others.

Foster ongoing small groups where daily missions are shared and prayed for. Discovering or reflecting on our daily missions can bring fresh air to Advent and Lenten programs. Such discovery and reflection are essential for baptism, confirmation, and reaffirmation. Stress to newcomers that members are on mission 24/7/365. Make every notice, publication, and sign point to your congregation as missionaries who gather on Sundays for guidance and the power to live their missions in their daily arenas.

Mission discernment can follow a pattern:

  1. Sense what God is already doing in one of your daily mission fields;
  2. Think through what needs to be done to make life better there;
  3. Among all the alternatives for what to do, choose freely, in prayer, the alternative that is related to your talents and interests; that alternative becomes your present mission there;
  4. Find words to express, in an attractive way, a vision of what you will try to achieve;
  5. Use that vision to attract a teammate(s) to help; and find ways to describe, when the time is right, how the vision might be part of God’s work among us;
  6. When the time is right, invite the teammate(s) to join you with Jesus’ people at Jesus’ table for guidance and strength.

Remember the mission is God’s. The church does not have a mission. The mission has a church.

Important parts of the process are worth noting. Working with one or more teammates is crucial. Building a team is a contemporary form of Jesus sending out his followers in pairs to preach and to heal. Further, missionaries both act and talk. A missionary believes that the deed without the word is dark; and the word without the deed is empty.

Here is where evangelism belongs – inside of mission. The missionary seeks teammates among nonchurch as well as among church people. Remember the mission is God’s. The church does not have a mission. The mission has a church. God is at work everywhere all the time. Anyone who grasps the vision of bringing or increasing love and justice is being grasped by God already. God-talk, when the time is right, can be just a few sentences of how God is believed to be at work right now in this daily place. Such talk can be a far more authentic witness to the saving, empowering work of God than telling one’s “story of meeting God” which can, at times, come across as overly self-concerned.

Beware of the many seductions the church as an institution can use to usurp the daily missions of its members. Resist this usurping. Focus on growing the mission, but in a new way. It is time to take up member mission.