Veronica Zundel challenges us to check we are fulfilling God’s full mission mandate
Do you inwardly cringe when someone says to you: “I’m on a mission”? Nowadays every organisation, whether it be commercial or charitable, has to have a ‘mission statement’ to justify its existence, and the Church is no exception. It has seemed to me for many years that ‘mission’ is often just a word the churches use when they’re embarrassed to say ‘evangelism’. Despite the cringe factor mentioned above, ‘mission’ does at least sound a bit broader, and less threatening, than ‘evangelism’ – who really wants to be ‘evangelised’ (and without an anaesthetic)?!
The missing part
I remember a few years ago, in the church I’ve now left, being very disappointed when promised a sermon on ‘the Church’s relation to the world’ and getting a talk on how to witness to your neighbours and workmates. Is that it? Is that the sum total of how we, who claim to know the source of salvation for the world, are meant to embody and promote it? It seems rather a narrow vision: the Church makes converts who make other converts who then make others – how does that differ from a commercial pyramid scheme?
Such a ‘mission’ doesn’t even seem adequate as a response to what we call ‘the Great Commission’ that Jesus gave his followers in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (NRSV, italics mine). First of all, note that Jesus never instructed us to make converts: his word was ‘disciples’. And secondly, we seem to have a habit of missing out the second half of the command, the bit I italicised. It seems recruitment and baptism aren’t enough: our task is to make lifelong learners of those we gather in – that is, after all, what ‘disciples’ means.
Embracing God’s idea of mission
It doesn’t stop there. Some churches, especially the established churches, have begun to talk in the last few decades of the missio Dei, the mission of God. Mission, it seems, is not our initiative at all; our calling is to join in the mission of God, for God is on a mission. And what does God’s mission encompass? Nothing less than the total transformation of the universe, the making of a ‘new heavens’ (which in its original context simply meant ‘sky’) and a new earth. This means that nothing is outside the mission of God. God is not interested in saving a minority of ‘souls’, but in a wholesale re-creation of what he first created, which has been spoiled by human sin.
If this is so, then it is not just the minister or the evangelist who is involved in mission. The stockbroker who refuses to get involved in insider trading is involved in mission. The protester refusing to let the issue of climate change be ignored is involved in mission. The shoe repairer who decides not to charge a customer because the repair only took her ten seconds (as happened to me the other day) is involved in mission. In fact, everyone who strives to make the world a kinder, fairer, more beautiful place is engaging in mission, perhaps whether they have a conscious Christian faith or not (God has a long history of employing unbelievers, such as the pagan kings Cyrus and Darius, to fulfil his purposes).
Mission, then, is everything we do that God delights in and which brings that new heavens and new earth a little bit nearer. Yes, we may sometimes want to explain to others our Christian motivation for some of our creative or compassionate actions. But actually, unless we are specifically called to be an evangelist, the Bible only calls us to explain our faith if someone asks: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). A lot of the time, our actions should speak for themselves; when they find out we are Christian, people will hopefully, at the very least, understand why we do the things we do (sadly, in recent years many have come to expect from Christians only judgement, bigotry and exclusion, which hardly furthers the mission of God).
Not everyone will take that extra step of investigating why Christians live the way we do (and the way we live will not always be that different from everyone else!). This doesn’t necessarily mean our mission has failed. If we have made the world a better place by being here, we have contributed our own little bit to the missio Dei. And that, perhaps, is enough.
Veronica Zundel is an author and regular contributor to Bible Reading Fellowship’s New Daylight.