COS Lecture 1: On a Mission
Throughout the month of July I am teaching in the Course of Study for Ordained Ministry here at Duke. Twenty-one United Methodist local pastors (nearly all of them rural clergy) are taking part with me in "Course of Study 513 - Our Mission from God: Transforming Agent." The purpose of the course is to gain theological understanding for leading congregations to carry out the mission of the church as God's agent of redemption and transformation in the world. Periodically I will be posting my lectures and lecture notes from the course on this blog.I hope that this will benefit my students: and perhaps a few other readers as well.
Below is material from our first lecture. I hope it might be a blessing.
Class Session I Lecture:
The God of Mission and the Mission of the Church
“The mission of the church is to serve God and neighbor by sharing the Gospel for the redemption of the world. Redemption is God’s holy activity that transforms individuals, societies, and all of life. When faithful to its mission, the church serves as an agent of God’s transforming redemption. Based on this understanding of the nature of the church and its mission, this course seeks to help pastors gain theological understanding for leading congregations to carry out the mission of the church as God’s agent of transformation.”
A Word About Mission
The church of Jesus Christ is the way that God gets what God wants. The Church is God’s vessel of transformation. The church of Jesus Christ is the primary way that God changes creation, creatures, communities, and countries. The mission of the church, as our General Conference has reminded us, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
And yet the church has no true mission of its own. The church has a mission, only because God has a mission.
The church’s mission begins in the heart of the God revealed to us in the Son and in Scripture as the God who is love. This God who is love is also the God we know as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A God whose truth is larger than our categories and our math, who is one, and yet at the same time a community of three. The church has a mission, the church exists, only because the love of this God who is love, who is Trinity, overflows, spills beyond itself to create and to invite in and embrace others beyond the circle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I have brought with me an icon that I keep on my wall that was painted in 15th century by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev. It is an icon of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seated around a table. What is amazing to me about the icon is the way that the painting invites you in: there is a space for the viewer: you are invited to become part of the circle of love, to join the feast at the table. All are invited into the life of the God who is love, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The church is an extension of this God-offered invitation. In fact, the church is meant to function like this icon, as an image of this God who is beloved community and who created us in their image, as a kind of icon of God that invites others into God’s eternal life.
All this is to say, that the Church’s transforming mission , then, is not something we have thought of, or defined in the book of Discipline. In fact, it is not even something we do, but something God does, something we simply have the saving gift of participating in. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian hung by the Nazis in a concentration camp, wrote something to the effect that Christianity is not primarily about a person’s own concerns or interests or mission: it is about becoming caught up, swooped up, in the way of Jesus Christ. It is as if, at Pentecost, not only tongues of fire but a giant tidal wave of grace began to spread over the world, and we have been swept along for the ride.
So the church does not have a mission of its own: it is a group of people whose lives have been swept up in the redemptive out-reaching love of the Trinity, a group of people following behind Jesus so closely that their mission in life has become Christ’s own, God’s own. They have become part of God’s love for the world.
This is somewhat different from the way many people think about the mission of the Christian. In “A Generous Orthodoxy,” Brian McLaren has a diagram that helps us think about the mission of God and the mission of the church, and why its important to keep remembering that they are one and the same. This is how many people think of the transformation we call salvation. (Draw diagram of GOD – ME – Church – World ). He writes, “In this diagram, the largest concern is me, my soul, my personal destiny in heaven, my maturity, and my rewards. Occasionally, after “winning” people based on personal self-interest, churches can entice people to care a little about the church- but is it any surprise that people “won to Christ” by self-interest come to church asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”
“Is it any surprise,” he continues, “that with this understanding of salvation, churches tend to become gatherings of self-interested people who gather for mutual self-interest- constantly treating the church as a purveyor of religious goods services, constantly shopping and ‘trading up’ for churches that can ‘meet my needs’ better? Is it any surprise that it’s stinking hard to convince churches that they have a mission to the world when most Christians equate (only the) ‘personal salvation’ of individual souls with the ultimate aim of Jesus?”
McLaren then offers a different diagram, a radically different way of thinking about where we are in God’s mission. (Draw large circle of God, world within that circle, church within that circle, me within that one.) He says, “In this diagram, Jesus comes with saving love for the world. He creates the church as a missional community to join him in his mission of saving the world. He invites me to be a part of this community to experience his saving love and to participate in it . . . now every Christian is a missionary and every place is a mission field.”
This is the transformational mission of the church.
One image I have for the church is that Simon of Cyrene: the church is that part of humanity that has moved from being a bystander in God’s acts of salvation, to become a cross-bearer, carrying the cross, sharing physically in the mission of Christ’s salvation. And perhaps it is by becoming part of that mission of salvation that we ourselves are being saved: we find our lives by losing them in the Trinity’s saving mission, by taking up our corner of Christ’s saving burden.
When we talk about mission then, we’re not just talking about a committee in the church: the church doesn’t just have a mission, it is a mission, an expression of the mission, the desire, the dream, the love of God. As Leslie Newbigin as said, “The church lives for this mission of outreaching love as a fire exists for burning.” It is why we are here.