Monday, January 31, 2011

Which Mission? Whose Mission?

by Mike Stroope
The world as we know it is rapidly changing. Current economic, demographic, technological, and political changes can cause our heads to spin. Yet, one change that may not be as obvious is that the American context is becoming less and less Christian, especially in the way Christianity has been traditionally understood and followed. People are asking such questions as “Why bother with church?” “What has the Christian faith to do with the real problems of life?” In some quarters, the questions are not as benign. These people aggressively ask, "Why are Christians so bigoted, narrow-minded, and anti-everything?" Studies show that while there is a growing interest in matters spiritual, Christianity and the church are increasingly viewed as irrelevant or passé, especially when it comes to our collective lives as Americans.

So, how are Christians to respond to this new reality? The response of some is to do whatever they can to mimic their surroundings. Thus, they feel they must forgo distinctions that are out of step with the wider culture in order for Christianity to remain viable and relevant. So, in speech and action, they seek to excise exclusive language and to avoid an uncomfortable stance on issues related to morality, gender, and eternal destiny. Their mission, they say, is to accompany society in such a way that they have a voice in the national/cultural conversation.

Fear is one of the motivators for these Christians. They fear being marginalized by society, so they carefully measure their words and actions in order not to alienate. The result is that society determines what the concerns, priorities, and sensibilities of the church are to look and sound like. And while this is in many ways appropriate and healthy, a line can easily be crossed and the church loose its distinct voice and its agenda begin looking no different than any other club or cause. An indication that this line has been crossed is when the standards for the kind of music used in worship, the way the church markets itself, the services it offers, the subject matter of sermons, and the causes that the church undertakes are set chiefly by external forces rather than internal convictions.

The tendency of other Christians in the face of the new reality is to mount a vigorous defense of the church, to reiterate its rightful place within American society, or to redouble efforts to bolster it’s reputation and profile. The shift underway threatens the existence of the church, and thus, these Christian feel compelled do whatever they can to secure the church's place, protect its interests, and ensure that Christians get what they need. The end result is that much of the church’s mission becomes the garnering of resources necessary to perpetuate who it is and to protect its interests.

Fear is likewise a motivator for these Christians. Specifically they fear being taken advantage of by the wider society or losing what they feel rightfully belongs to them. These fears also impact their speech and action. They employ insider language in order to create a sense of belonging for those on the inside and exclude those on the outside. And while this language provides a secure connection and identity for brothers and sisters on the inside, it also categorically defines the outsider.

As a result, these Christians act out their faith in sacred rather than public space. They travel to a specific building called church to do Christian kinds of things. They gather within havens of agreed beliefs about morality, politics, and gender. The safety of these havens protects them from threatening, worldly influences and forces. And while they must make necessary forays into the world to work, shop, and attend public events, it is in the sacred space that life makes sense. Thus, mission for these Christians means attracting those on the outside to the sacred space and then convincing them to defect.

In both cases, response is not a matter of conservative versus liberal, mega versus small, rural versus urban, or Baptists versus Methodists. Rather, in both we find two ways in which Christians of all theological persuasions and denominational affiliations and churches of all sizes and locations deal with the changing context. At one extreme, the mission of the church is to accommodate. On the other side, mission is to attract.

There is a third response. Rather than being for or against society, Christians set themselves toward the mission of God. Orientation and response are not ultimately determined by changes in society but by the unchanging and relentless purposes of God. The mission of God rises above mere accommodation and attraction to a way of being in and for the world defined by who God is and how God acts toward the world.
Mission and missional are used by both those who accommodate and those who attract in order to describe and justify what they do. And yet, before describing mission as what we do, mission must be understood as divine being and action. Mission does not belong to us, rather it originates from and is defined by who God is and what God does. Rather than accommodating the spirit and patterns of society, God is distinctively other. Rather than submitting to a temporal, local agenda, God's ways are higher than any person or society's ways. Rather than seeking to be relevant or current, God makes all things new. Rather than protecting what is his, God gives. Rather than looking out for his own interests, God loves. Rather than pulling everything to himself, God sends. God, who creates and sustains all things, so loves the world, that He gives his only begotten Son. This is mission; this is the mission of God.

For our response to the current shift in American society to be faithful and true, it must begin with an acknowledgment of God's mission and an alignment of our minds and hearts, words and actions with this mission. Christopher Wright says, "it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world, as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission--God's mission" (The Mission of God, 62). Missions goes awry when the church acts as though mission begins and ends with it.
The mission of God encompasses more than a few verses in the New Testament and includes more than missionaries who live and work in cross-cultural settings. How it impacts the whole of the church is a longer conversation than this article, but I will suggest four ways in which we might acknowledge and align our lives with it.

•Interpretation. The mission of God should guide the way in which we read and interpret scripture. Reading the Bible, both Old and New Testament, as a missionary text about a missionary God changes everything - the way we view our purpose, God's action in history, the end of all creation, etc.

•Inversion. The mission of God should critique the manner in which we speak, act, and love. If we allow it, the mission of God provides a lens through which everything is turned upside down - is inverted.

•Imagination. The mission of God should frame the way we imagine the world - economics, race, politics, relationships, vocation - and only then will it affect our actions. As a missional reading of scripture inverts our way of seeing reality, we can begin imagining what could be, what should be.

•Implementation. The mission of God calls us to action. If acknowledged and understood, the mission of God will not allow us to passively acquiesce to or quietly retreat from our culture but will demand that we respond as Christ did - with our lives.

We do not live above God's mission, as if it is ours to control and manage. His mission is not a program to run or resources to manage. Mission is his words and actions of love and grace toward the world. And while we are always the object of this mission and never the subject of its design and intent, we can become participants through God’s gracious invitation and by his empowerment. But in order to do so, we must set aside our fears and re-read scripture, re-think our lives, re-imagine the world, and re-enact God's glory, passion and love, in light of the mission of God.

Two defining questions ...
Which mission guides my response to the changing society around me?
Whose mission gives definition to who I am and how I act?



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