What on earth is the point of Christian mission? What does it mean? How are we supposed to respond to it? What connection might it fruitfully have to all kinds of other issues and concerns that rightly claim the attention of the churches together and their ecumenical instruments? These are important questions that demand a serious — and constructive — answer: one that I believe it is possible and necessary to give. But the Gospel is a message of resurrection only by way of the cross. Faith is not optimism that avoids despair, it is hope that transfigures it in the light of a God who overcomes death by becoming death. So before we can engage with mission we have to face loss, hopefully but unflinchingly. Only then can what emerges in its name stand a chance of being genuine hope — as distinct from illusion or denial.
Facing the difficulties and contradictions of mission
There can be more than a little frustration attached to current ecumenical questions about the identity and practice of mission arising from our context. Being encapsulated by a word directly associated with ‘action’, ‘responsibility’, the compulsions of a divine ‘ought’ and inescapable overtones of ‘worthiness’, mission can be a difficult notion to handle — and an even more difficult reality to encounter. Discouragingly nebulous in some hands, and frighteningly specific in others, it seems both to claim territory with ease (‘of course, rightly understood, [choose your topic] is mission’) and then to risk emptying it of clarity (‘when mission is all, it is in danger of turning everything in general into nothing in particular.’)
These difficult habits of a certain cast of missionary mind have combined in the liberal Western sensibility with an acute consciousness of crimes committed over the centuries in the name of mission, with an awareness of the decay of inherited Christian institutions (including some created out of earlier missionary purpose), and with a further sense that much of what mission has been does not work any more.
For example, the motivation of many in the nineteenth century missionary movement was based on an expectation of the closeness of the ‘end of the age’, and of the need to clutch ‘from the jaws of hell’ people who did not acknowledge Christ. At the tough evangelical end of the theological spectrum today such beliefs are still operative. But the true extent to which they have been attenuated or lost even in world evangelicalism is rarely acknowledged and hugely important. The immediate alternatives — the ‘Christic universalism’ of the twentieth century ecumenical movement, the Catholic reawakening, and the apocalyptic personalism of Pentecostal movements are also highly problematic as overarching or controlling models.
What mission might be divorced from such sweeping claims still lacks clarity, however. ‘One size fits all’ theologies are clearly a dead end. But can mission survive without them? If it is to be anything other than a cipher for narrow religious ideology or self-perpetuating religious institutions — that is, if it capable of renewal and change for the twenty first century — Christian mission will have to re-confront the question of who God is and what difference Christ makes for an exponentially plural age. There are few signs that missionary bodies are very interested in doing that. The practice of mission is still most usually associated with variations of the old frameworks, or with the spectral shadow of their abandonment. Alternative hopes, such as those provided by liberation theologies in the 1970s and 1980s, are few and far between. Mostly they have been chewed up by the same concerns to which they were a reaction.
Confusion in the churches
All this provides ample reason for people in ecumenical circles to give up on mission altogether. In some cases this is an active abandonment. But more frequently, given the constraints of the churches’ cultural climate, it is a quiet, polite abdication: the odd nod to mission as some mysterious theoretical necessity, accompanied by a combination of diffidence or active hostility about many of the actual forms it takes in practice. Scepticism about Alpha and about independent ‘missions’ in and from the South is, moreover, to be equated with scepticism about mission per se in some quarters. One does not have to be a conservative evangelical or a conservative Catholic to detect a palpable ‘loss of missionary nerve’ in these islands.
For many of the sceptics the quiet burial of mission seems preferable to its resuscitation in unacceptable guises. But that is to avoid the issue. It is not just the decline of the churches, the flourishing of narrow versions of Christianity and the difficulty of engaging positively with religion in the public square that is the problem with the ‘abandonment’ approach to mission — though those might be seen as valid challenges in their own right. The real question is ‘Do we have any good news to share or develop?’ Does the experience of God in Christ make any tangible difference to the way life can be lived and approached? If it does, ‘mission’ in some shape or form becomes a necessity. If not we might be better off admitting that the game is up.
In the churches themselves many confusions and difficulties abound on these issues. Beyond the confines of comforting confessionalism and institutional maintenance it is often difficult to work out what many churches are actually for. But there are also surprising oases of certainty: evangelical, catholic, radical, charismatic and even liberal. These offer definite ideas about what mission is and what it isn’t. Some are enshrined in church teachings and doctrines. Others are enfleshed more in the practice of activists and missionary movements. In many cases such understandings and realisations are, at best, wonderfully diverse, and, at worst, contradictory to the point of incoherence. Some people, for example, believe that actively converting others to Christianity is the essence of mission; for others it may either be unnecessary or mistaken viewed from the perspective of a certain sort of kingdom theology. We can choose to ‘de-church’ each other on account of our different views on such fundamental matters, of course. That happens a good deal. But we cannot reasonably ignore them.
The limits of missio Dei and the dark night of mission
In practice, therefore, mission stands for everything that the followers of God claim God stands for in the world, even when these ‘standings’ do not add up to much more than a series of unresolved arguments within the household of faith — at least this is how it often seems to those outside it. So ‘mission’ has come publicly to represent the very worst of what is done in the name of God, and the very best, and much that has been lost in between. Talk of God’s mission, the missio Dei, which has dominated ecumenical thinking in this area for the last three decades, is both a help and a distraction in this regard. Positively, it reminds us that it is openness to the active and redeeming love of God which should shape and constrain everything we do. Negatively, it can also be used to legitimate our chosen patterns of missionary response precisely by allowing us to claim that they derive directly from the life of God, rather than requiring us to take full responsibility for the human choices that lie behind them.
This issue was given sharp focus in the San Antonio WCC world mission conference twelve years ago. The theme, ‘Mission in Christ’s Way’, encouraged reflection on what precise forms of mission honour the way of Jesus Christ as we perceive it in the Gospels, and what forms damage it (employing the double sense of ‘in the way’). Theologically, space was also made by some, within a Trinitarian rubric, for impulses of God and a life of the Spirit extending beyond the Christic focus of much that gets labelled missio Dei. That suggests a positive, dialogical approach to other faiths.
As Gordon Kaufman writes in God-Mystery-Diversity: Christian Theology in a Pluralistic Age (Augsburg Fortress, 1996):
“Today… we need a way to understand our religiousness that can honour the integrity and meaning of each religious tradition and yet open it to appreciation of and reconciliation with others.” (p191)
For other Christians, however, such an approach is anathema. They see the particularity of Christ as denying the possibility of truth or salvific worth in other places. The God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer is definitively and exclusively available in Christ. In practice, therefore, both missio Dei and Trinitarianism can be used to justify quite different and even contradictory missionary methods and assumptions. So the notion, very popular in some theological circles these days, that such categories are our primary tools to clarify and cohere our mission thinking would appear inadequate.
Similar problems exist in differing Christian approaches to the status, role, meaning and application of Scripture. Even evangelicals, who claim that the Bible ought to be the defining centre of faith, have found no way of reconciling their own diverse understandings here — and many of the doctrines that might be claimed as constituting an ‘evangelical coherence’ in the midst of the movement’s tangible diversity are far from indisputably ‘biblical’. A conversational, refining, advocating and counter-advocating approach to the text and to the way we shape and are shaped by it seems inevitable if we are to escape the confines of totalising claims on the one hand and dismissive ones on the other.
These struggles and challenges amount to what might be called the apophosis, or dark night, of mission in the present age. But that is surely where real hope resides. The ‘dark night’ of collective spiritual yearning is not just a place of loss, difficulty and confusion — though it is all those things at times. It is also an opportunity for purgation, cleansing and testing in the presence of what Jim Garrison, who wrote about God and the threat of nuclear annihilation, once intriguingly called ‘the luminous darkness of the divine.’ To put it another way, darkness takes on a different quality when it is experienced in the shadow the cross — which is the beginning of a path to life; the death of a certain false conception of self, community and faith so that a life-giving one can emerge.
Generally, however, much mission thinking and practice has avoided or denied the dark, preferring metaphors of unabandoned light. Emil Brunner once famously wrote that ‘the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.’ That sounds very straightforward — the energy and heat-giving activity of the church is the church’s true nature. But the lesions and confusions of the world do not allow us to rest as easily as this simple analogy might seem to suggest. For fire is not just a source of life and light, it is also a source of death and destruction. Flames can consume as well as refine. And so it is with the church: it can give life and deny it.
Of course this double sense of ‘fire’ as life and death can be associated positively with the idea that Divine reconciliation and judgement belong together: that everything which prevents reconciliation between humanity, creation and God needs removing so that real reconciling can happen. This is right. The problem is that the Christian communities generated, sustained and sent forth by this story of Divine judgement and reconciliation have often been tempted to confuse their own judgements with those of God, and what they wish to be reconciled with what God may choose to offer. This has been a source of massive distortion in the practice of mission: it has permitted divisiveness, collusion, and manipulative witness, even destruction in the name of Christ. It has also proceeded on the basis of a Manichean division of both culture and faith into good and bad, and a failure to acknowledge the persistence and growth of other faiths and life stances as anything other than an inconvenient or demonic fact.
Redeeming mission for a changing world
So, viewed in this way, and accepting the variegated history it possesses, the most challenging question for Christians and for the churches together today is ‘how can mission be redeemed?’ That is, how can an association with the life of God focused proactively on Jesus Christ bring liberating judgement and liberating reconciliation to bear on a fractured and hurting world? Other missionary faiths will need to face that same question in their own way, of course — justifying to each other their respective foci, and offering accounts of their understanding which are brave enough to contend for truth and humble enough to seek appropriate (but not careless or indiscriminate) accommodation.
I want to suggest that first and foremost mission is the response we make to this question about redeeming mission itself — another phrase with a deliberate ‘double meaning’, specifying something that can cleanse precisely because it has been cleansed. In this, its broadest sense, mission is not primarily an activity but a perspective. It asks ‘how can everything we do, say and become as part of the church be more faithfully a reflection of the life-giving, demanding, yet ultimately grace-full God we meet in Jesus Christ?’ What do international affairs, church life, racial justice, human rights, peace, women’s rights, engagement with the economy (and so on) look like when viewed through the lens of a missionary vocation? That is, how do they contribute towards the total witness of the church in the world? What can they show of the Gospel to which they are accountable? How do they shape and carry forward that Gospel? What difference does the experience of the hope of God in Jesus Christ make? How is that hope to be related to all the other hopes that arise in our midst, including those of other religions?
These are not just concerns for a few hobbyists: for mission agencies, mission departments or Commissions on Mission. They are questions for all involved in coordinating and developing the work of the churches together, whatever our other concerns. We all have something to give and to learn by asking ‘the missionary question’. Mission specialists can and should help with this. They should also listen and learn. For as soon as they begin to dominate they are in danger of corrupting the missionary ideal, which is faithful service, as David Bosch has reminded us. Mission is concerned with ‘everything’ in the light of the demands of God’s coming kingdom, but the things it is concerned with also have a natural life and language of their own which can be brought to bear in shaping and reshaping mission in a temperament of reciprocity and openness to the leading of the Spirit.
Of course there is also a specificity to mission, as well as this broad horizon and questioning about what the realm of God is and how it moulds and constrains all that we do. The specificity of mission lies in the area of articulating and transmitting a transforming vision of the Christian hope which seeks to be loyal to the insights and inheritances of our traditions, is capable of sustaining us through disagreement as well as agreement, is rooted in the dynamic of the Jesus event, is disposed towards the needs of ‘the last, the least and the lost’ (M. M. Thomas), and is critically open to the changing nature of the world and of belief.
As the writer of one of the Epistles of Peter reminds us, we are to be ‘always ready to give an account of the shape and grounds of the hope within us.’ This is what is meant by evangelism. It is about words, to be sure. It is about being grasped by a hope and a faith that compels us to share and develop it. But it is about hearing and receiving too, and about deeds and ways of being that substantiate its words and claims. As Bishop Roy Williamson once said, ‘What people are saying to the church is “don’t just tell me, show me!” ‘
Mission also involves pilgrimage because the steadfast love of God requires ever-new responses. In early times this movement had a certain geographical predictability (‘from the West to the rest.’) Now, as is widely known, the personal movements and conveyances at the heart of mission are multi-directional, within and across national and other boundaries. They are about receiving as well as giving. World Christianity has numerous centres, not just one or two. And its huge growth in Africa, China and parts of Asia poses new opportunities and new threats, as Philip Jenkins points out in his forthcoming book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (OUP, 2002).
Meanwhile the global preponderance of missions and missionizing corresponding to the more isolationist strands of US church life is not to be underestimated, especially when it occurs in the same places as the growth of rejectionist Islam. There are also continued efforts at mission partnership among historic, established churches, along with unease or unclarity about what this means. So the global picture is very varied indeed.
Movement is the common feature in all this. Failing to move in a time of change does not mean remaining in the same place, but losing ground. So there is something inherently urgent about mission. At the same time, because (as missio Dei concept reminds us) a reliable God is the focus of all true mission, we should not need to be anxious. ‘Mission statements’ can be neurotic as well as directional. The simple equation of mission and activism can be profoundly damaging. We do not own the realm of God. We are, as Archbishop Oscar Romero tellingly put it, ‘Prophets of a future not our own.’ Again this is overlooked by the missionary impulse at its peril.
The church and its missionary calling
This ‘we’ is where the church (by which I mean the churches together) comes in. The church in all its diversity and quarrellousness is both the product and the progenitor of the Gospel. It is, or ought to be, a sign of the message it announces and lives out. Its own nature and relations either reinforce or deny the hope of the Gospel. It is part of the message. But it is not all of it. Only the kingdom, God’s promise of the transformation of creation in all its breadth and intimacy, will last. Nothing else. Even so, the church (exceptionally difficult though it can be for many of us) is essential. Not only is it ineluctably intertwined with the message, it is also the only place where Christian habits, hopes, beliefs, possibilities and solidarities can be nurtured, transformed and sustained. We cannot do faith alone. We are called to create and share life in and beyond the Body.
But where ideologized versions of the church or the churches dominate, or where they rudely cancel each other out, the rightful focus of mission upon the kingdom (‘God’s domination-free order’ according to Walter Wink) and upon the anti-lordly Lordship of Jesus Christ are lost. So the church, rightly understood, is brought to an end as well as given a beginning in mission. Meanwhile its massive diversity is both a corrective to its pretensions, and also a living test bed for the possibility of a communion-of-difference that lies at the heart of the Gospel message. Moreover, it constantly stands in judgement before a God whose redeeming concerns are extended towards ‘the ends of the earth’ (a phrase from the book of Acts that requires reinterpreting for each new generation and context) and the oikumene (the whole inhabited household.)
There is very much more that could be said about mission today, but I will end by offering a cumulative set of definitions. Some of these are mine. Others are from rather more important observers and practitioners. They start from a classical missio Dei statement and then seek to give this weight and definition through both the encounter with cultures and faiths and the broad biblical hope of unity in redeemed diversity. The last paragraph, from Bert Hoedemaker, would perhaps best sum up my own understanding of mission today — the constructive and serious answer I promised as a possibility at the beginning. But it is an invitation, not a last word.
The meanings of mission today — a growing account
“Mission is discovering what God is doing to in the world and joining [God] in that activity” (Bishop John V. Taylor, emphasis mine).
“Mission is the continuing story of Jesus Christ: crucified in a world of hate for the sake of love, alive through God for the transformation of life in the face of death. We are part of this story of God and the world mediated by Christ, for good and ill. We are also part of the argument about what the story means, how it relates to other stories, and what kind of hope it generates. The name of this argument is Christianity.”
“Mission is testimony to our experience of the truthful nature of God expressed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit — all in answer to the contemporary challenge: ‘Who is God and how is God justified in the face of atrocities in God’s name?’ It is talk that seeks to redeem, rather than to provoke or justify.” (The pivotal question is from Canon Tim Dakin of CMS)
“Mission is a process of questioning. It asks ‘Who or what really saves?’ (in the face of toxic religion and secular nihilism). ‘Who or what really gives life?’ (in the face of missionary violence and earthly dominations). ‘What kind of truth will really set us free, and what distortions of truth will enslave us?’ (in the face of human and religious illusions about power and our capacity to deploy it).”
“Mission is the church crossing frontiers in the form of a servant.” (Dr David Bosch, emphasis mine).
“[Mission is] the inter-cultural, inter-religious, inter-national and inter-social encounter centred on a dialogue about the roots and source of human life.” (Dr Kai Funkschmidt, emphasis mine).
“Mission is a creative interaction, communication and tension between faith and culture in a plural, changing, inter-textual and multi-scriptural society. It requires both mutuality and distinctiveness among all parties involved.”
“Mission in the context of a world suspended between the passing away of the old and the coming into being of a newness we do not yet comprehend is necessarily inter-mission.”
“The fundamental polarity with which mission deals is not the polarity between human beings and the church or Christianity, but between contextual human struggles for meaning and direction on the one hand, and the vision of divine judgement and reconciliation on the other. Mission is the effort to localize and actualize the promise that God is constructing one heaven and earth for a diverse and pluriform humanity; it is the reflection of the dual movement of gathering and multiplying. It is upholding the metanarrative of human suffering and final redemption that takes its clue in Jesus Christ.” (Professor Bert Hoedemaker in Eds. Barrow and Smith, Christian Mission in Western Society, CTBI 2001, p231, emphasis BH’s).
Mission continued: the alternative to a conclusion
Certain key words have been highlighted in these definitions:
God, world, activity, story, testimony, questioning, church crossing frontiers, encounter, dialogue, interaction-communication- tension, mutuality, distinctiveness, inter-mission, one-diverse-pluriform.
These phrases, taken together, say something about what mission is and can be today. They also suggest what it cannot and should not be. They need to rest alongside many stories and examples from the life of churches and communities. They need to be unpacked and analysed, tried through explorations into our Scriptural inheritance, tested in the life of the world today.
There are plenty more connections and insights to be derived from these nine modest attempts to ‘say what mission is’. And, of course, there are many missionary witnesses who would say something very different. Mission can never be finally pinned down, partly because those who speak and do it are so incredibly varied, and partly because it is about a God who is tantalisingly apart as well as lovingly a part of our story.
For these reasons a key element of the missionary task is to argue about, re-interpret, tease out and communicate the meaning of the story of God and the world mediated though Jesus Christ, all in creative relation to other accounts (as we need to keep reminding ourselves in an increasingly plural context). For as we observed at the beginning of this exploration, there is no glory without the risk of radical loss. But there is an abiding love to be explored, shared and practiced — through a developing account of the hope among and beyond us. This is the heart of mission.
Finally, one of the reasons that a Churches’ Commission on Mission exists within CTBI and within the life of the churches together is to provide a space where issues about the meaning and function of Christian mission (both local and global) can be discussed and determined. Moreover, both in its points of clarity and its opportunities for creative disagreement, CCOM as a Four Nations association of mission churches, departments and agencies can work with other partners in CTBI to explore what the mission of churches together might usefully mean, and what it calls on us to be and do in terms of ‘ecumenical instrumentality.’ For which, of course, we pray necessarily and earnestly! For mission, if it is truly bound up with the life of God, always involves an element of living beyond our means.