For the last several years, the buzz word in our denomination has been "missional". I've had a couple of different problems with this. One, I don't like buzz words. When I see everyone climbing on board a band wagon, no matter how worthy and wonderful the band wagon is, something inside me begins to rebel. Second, most likely because I'm an oldest child, I don't like being told what to do. So when church leaders begin telling me to be missional, I have an instinctively immature knee jerk reaction along the lines of, "You can't tell me what to do. I'll be missional when I feel like being missional!" Third, the word "mission" carries with it so many negative connotations. It's loaded with baggage. Therefore, it has seemed wise to give the term wide berth. But then in the last year, good friends - respected friends, have headed off to China and Bolivia to spend a few years engaged in....missions. So I've reluctantly pulled the word out again and dusted it off, hoping to somehow redeem the word in my own life.
And here's the truth I've been dodging for awhile - churches do need to be missional. Our God is a missional God, always at work pursuing us, seeking us out, transforming our minds, our hearts and our spirits. And God sent a missional Son into this world. Jesus spent his last few years as a missionary. And when he left, he commissioned his followers to continue his work. It seems clear that mission work is foundational in the life of the church.
Here are Jesus' final words for his disciples....and therefore for us, in the book of Matthew. "God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I'll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age (The Message Bible)." This leads one to believe that Jesus' Great Commission is inextricably linked with discipleship and mission.
Discipleship is the daily and courageous living out of our faith. Mission takes things further. It is the impulse or decision to intentionally reach out to others as representatives of Christ and the Church. But let's back up a little...
I found a helpful little book called, "Is It Insensitive to Share Your Faith?" by James Krabill. Krabill and his wife spent years living and working as teachers in Ivory Coast, Africa. Krabill maintains that if we want to truly comprehend the truth Jesus speaks, we must, "train our minds to think clearly, open our hearts to experience deeply" and then act faithfully on our mind's and hearts' leading. This is a good definition of discipleship. Speaking for myself now, I'm pretty good at the "training my mind" bit. That's fun - to read, to think about, to discuss, and write about theology. I have a much more difficult time with the heart part. That's the piece that requires vulnerability. If I open my heart to the world, the world will surely break it. Far better to keep it safe, keep it insulated. But keeping our heart safe means completely cutting off its ability to grow and whether we like it or not, brokenness is often a ripe condition for growth. Discipleship requires an open mind and an open heart. This sounds trite and cliched, and yet it is also simple truth.
How do we achieve an open heart and mind? Krabill offers three suggestions I appreciate. Encapsulated in his offering is the heart of mission.
First, we confess. As representatives of the church, we have a lot of confessing to do. Certainly if we take a look at the history of mission, we will be reminded of an immoral wedding between imperial powers and the church. Krabill provides a cringeworthy list of anecdotes to prove his point. Here are three...
"In 1099, Christian Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, capturing the city for the Church. In a final drive to rid the place of 'infidels,' the soldiers rounded up the Jewish population, chased them into their houses of worship, and then lit the buildings on fire. When small children were discovered attempting to escape the flames, the soldiers captured them, threw them up into the air, and caught them on their swords. All this was done while the troops marched in formation around the enflamed buildings, singing 'Christ, We Do All Adore Thee.'
"In the early 1500's, Columbus petitioned the king and queen of Spain with these words, 'I hope in our Lord that Your Highnesses will determine to send priests in great diligence in order to unite to the Church such great populations and to convert them, just as Your Highnesses have destroyed those who were unwilling to confess the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.'
"In Washington D.C. in 1976, thirty Protestant leaders, many of them household names because of their international radio and TV ministries, met with President Ford at the White House, at their own request, to express concern over lagging U.S. military strength. They noted that whenever the U.S. appeared weak, it became difficult for them to function overseas. But when America was perceived as militarily strong, it was easier for them to carry out their ministries without harassment."
This list is shamefully long. The beginning can be traced to the 4th century and the list gets longer everyday.
I had lunch this summer with three college friends. I believe each would call themselves agnostic. Because I'm a pastor, we talked a little about religion. I brought up my interest in the emerging church, a church that works to break with much of the institutioanl and traditional forms of church we have inherited and maintained since the time of Constantine. This piqued their interest. They wanted to know more about this newly emerging way to think about church. I think they would be interested in a community where it feels safe to talk about God and ask hard questions. But presently, they are repelled by their understandings and experiences of church.
Anyone stepping into mission work must be aware of how the Christian Church is perceived. These perceptions cover the gamut from all forms of positive to all forms of negative and everything in between. And perceptions contain a lot of truth. Missional people, those who choose to represent Christ's church, must embody a humility that will allow them to spend time on their knees before those who have been wronged, confessing the sins of the church.
Second, we converse. If confession is the uncomfortable part of being missional, conversing is the fun part. More recently, I have been taken with how innately important it is for us as humans to be able to share our stories. I joined facebook a few months ago. As far as I can tell, facebook is a personal storytelling forum. People share sometimes trivial, sometimes very meaningful experiences from their daily living and their friends go online to read these stories and to express their affirmations, offer encouragement and provide advice and wisdom. And then the process is reciprocated many times over. When you knit these wall posts together, fragments of life stories begin to take shape. We may no longer be a primarily oral culture, sharing our stories around the supper fire at night. But that need to share and hear story has not been diminished in the least. We have simply found new ways to express ourselves.
At the heart of mission is story. In sharing our stories, we build relationships...bridges that unite differences. Huge gulfs of misunderstanding span the differences between gender, generation, nationality, culture, socio-economic status and religion. Conversation doesn't eliminate the divide, but it begins to build the bridge that relationship will complete. Being a missionary, a representative of Christ's church, means sharing your story and your understandings and then listening to others share their differing stories, whether the "other" lives next door or on the other side of the world.
Third, we commend. I like this term. We do not force or coerce or guilt trip or scare or persuade or threaten or cajole or plead or pressure. We commend. Krabill writes,
"The landscape of history is cluttered with ill-fated attempts to impose the Christian faith on unsuspecting, unwilling recipients and to clone them into something other than what they were created to be. Far too often, the methods used in transmitting the gospel have contradicted the message of God's peacemaking initiative in Jesus. In such instances, the church has communicated a message falsely perverse and counter-intuitive to what God is actually up to in the world."
If we are really serious about following Jesus, his words and his example, then it seems only natural to share how Jesus' story has shaped our own. Jesus, in fact, commissions us all to do exactly this - to share God's good news with everyone. But we offer our commendation with humility, recognizing that others have their own glimpse of God's truth to reveal as well - a glimpse that may, through the power of story and relationship, transform our own limited understandings. And we commend, understanding the Christian Church has undergone a quiet revolution in the last century. The majority of Christians, the majority of missionaries, now come from countries other than our own. What does the United States have to learn about church from the univeral Church? But we do commend. With open ears, we offer our commendations to and about God for all those seeking the open conversation.