Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On the Point of Mission

Trinity has a little tag-line on its brochures 'A Mission-Shaped College for a Mission-Shaped Church'. I find this idea exciting, but I'm not sure we're quite there yet. There is actually very little discussion of what mission is, or why we should do it. (This is being addressed with several new courses being written on missiology). In conversations around the college I am surprised by how often I still come across the equation of mission with evangelism. Here's Newbigin on the point of mission:

'...it is obvious that the centre of the picture is not occupied by the question of the saving, or the failure to save, individual souls from perdition. That question has dominated Protestant missionary thinking at many times and places. Clearly it cannot be left out of the picture, but I do not find that in the New Testament it occupies the center. If this were the central question, St Paul could not have said that his work in the Eastern Roman world was finished. However many local churches had come into being through his ministry, only a tiny minority of those who had died during the years of his ministry had died as Christian believers. If this is the criterion by missions are to be judged, then plainly they have been and still are a colossal failure. Not only today, but through all the centuries, the great majority of human beings who have died have died without faith in Christ. The missionary calling has sometimes been interpreted as a calling to stem this fearful cataract of souls going to eternal perdition. But I do not find this in the center of the New Testament representation of the missionary calling. Certainly Jesus tells us that God seeks the last lost sheep, and Paul is ready to be all things to all people in order that he may by all means save some. And he goes on to say, "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings...

There is no room either for anxiety about our failure or for boasting about our success. There is room only for faithful witness to the one in whom the whole purpose of God for cosmic history has been revealed and effected, the crucified, risen, and regnant Christ.'

'It will be clear from what I have said about Paul's eschatological vision of salvation that I am not placing at the center of the argument the question of the salvation or perdition of the individual. Clearly that is part of what is involved, but my contention is that the biblical picture is distorted if this is put in the center. But it may be asked: if it is true that those who die without faith in Christ are not necessarily lost, and if it is also true that those who are baptized Christians are not necessarily saved, what is the point of missions? Why not leave events to take their course? In answer to that question, I would refer again to the word of Paul which I quoted earlier, "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." Jesus said as he was on his way to the cross "Where I am, there shall my servant be". The one who has been called and loved by the Lord, the one who wishes to love and serve the Lord, will want to be where he is. And where he is is on that frontier which runs between the kingdom of God and the usurped power of the evil one. When Jesus sent out his disciples on his mission, he showed them his hands and his side. They will share in his mission as they share in his passion, as they follow him in challenging and unmasking the powers of evil. There is no other way to be with him. At the heart of mission is simply the desire to be with him and to give him the service of our lives. At the heart of mission is thanksgiving and praise. We distort matters when we make mission an enterprise of our own in which we can justify ourselves by our works... the Church's mission began as the radioactive fallout from an explosion of joy. When it is true to its nature, it is so to the end. Mission is acted out doxology. That is its deepest secret. Its purpose is that God may be glorified.'


Jon Swales said...

Its true that we often here people saying evangelism = mission.

However I probably find it more upsetting when mission does not include any mention of evangelism.

By evangelism i mean something like the proclamation the 'Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom, who lived died, and rose again'. This proclamation of CHrist brings with it, implicitely, a command and appeal for the individual to repent and join the kingdom movement,

Mission is broader than evangelism and involves the transformation of all spheres of life to taht which God intends it to be. It includes what has historically been called 'social action' but also includes political activism. It also includes the celebration.

When people leave evangelism out of the picture they are at risk of misunderstanding that the gospel, as well as having cosmic and global significance, is somehting which can transform, redeem, bring shalom, to the individual.

At trintiy i would like to see, as you know, an understanding of mission which is both 'creational', and 'cosmic' but also includes evangelism. A broad understanding of mission, as Newbiggin shows, does not have to buy into a religious pluralistic ideology.
Err! I will try and put a longer post on my blog.

Jon said...

I agree with you Jon. I guess I just wonder how many people have as good and understanding of both mission and evangelism as you express here?

It's my impression, and its only that, that you would be more likely to find folk at Trinity who equate mission with evangelism than those who don't think evangelism should be part of mission. I could be wrong.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree.
I know that Chris Wright 'Mission of God' is being read by several students which is encouraging.

Ok, Heres a question?

God has called us all to Mission. Should the organised Church concentrate on 'evangelism' in its outreach, whilst other groups can focus in on political, environemntal and social concerns... I don't have a clear answer but would want to see people empowered to do mission outide the CHurch walls...

Jon said...

Empowered to do mission outside the church walls, definitely. I'm not sure about concentrating on evangelism at the expense of other forms of outreach.

I think they both should feed into each other. So evangelism is seen not just as saving souls or getting people into a personal relationship with God, but as recruitment for God's wider mission in the world.

And on the other hand, the church's acts of service, social action, or whatever you call it, should lead to people asking 'why are you doing this?' and therefore give opportunities to tell the story (evangelism).

I have another juicy quote from Newbigin coming up which addresses this question.