A pastor in a rough council estate has received a grant from the national denominational resource to start a local football club. Young men who would usually have been seen causing trouble now have something to do with their free time, and an opportunity to gain the social and practical skills which might aid them in a search for employment.
The young men talk of how their lives now have purpose, reason. The community sees a reduction in crime. The area becomes friendlier, and there is reconciliation between the generations.
Is this the work of the Gospel?
Is this a Christian ministry because is has been run by a church?
All across this land many churches are imaginatively engaging with their communities which have undergone a dramatic transformation as rich people decide they want to hoard their wealth rather than invest it in human societies (I won’t call it ‘recession’ since this implies that we’re all helpless before it. I suspect this is not really the case).
Job clubs, CV workshops, foodbanks, ladies groups, youth clubs, toddler groups, messy church and community meals. These are good things, no doubt.
They are church-run contexts in which it is assumed people will meet Christian and experience a positive impact in their lives. This may or may not lead to a confession of faith and people joining the church.
Is this what mission is? Social work garbed in religious trappings?
Jesus, who Christians attempt to simultaneously imitate and follow, said:
As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. (John 20:21)
When I read this, I can’t help but remember his words which he said to his disciples earlier:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9-11)
If Christ’s mission from the Father (the reason the Father sent him) was to communicate to humanity the love which he experienced with the Father, and if the followers of Jesus are commissioned to do likewise, then perhaps it can be proposed that mission is the communication of Divine Love in and through human agents.
This is the love experienced by the church through the ages which Paul called knowledge surpassing (Eph 3:19).
So the task of the church is to demonstrate, witness to and actualise a love which defies definition. Just as well we believe in the Spirit of God which empowers the church.
If this love is beyond comprehension, then it cannot be directly communicated (or told about per se).
Love cannot be communicated directly. It always seems to be garbed in a context which need not be love, yet becomes so. The mission of the Father in sending the Son is to communicate his love. This, it seems, is only possible through the agency of a human person. Namely, Jesus.
A context like a wedding, a meal with a tax collector, an interaction with a prostitute can be transforming–even positively transforming–yet it is uniquely God’s love which ‘saves’. Whatever that means.
Is it belonging to a religious organisation, a church? If this is the case, then when our mission activity creates new church members, could we say that the love of God has been shared and received?
If the love of God is not the transformation of the individual or community through Christian efforts. And if it is not the joining of a church community, then what is it?
How can we identify the substance of the sharing of the love of God?
It seems to me that this question must be addressed before Christians can claim their activities are in any way special, unique or any different at all from any marketing campaign or social club.
The difficulty lies in the fact that this love cannot be connected directly to an activity or a communication. It is contained within these things, yet not constrained or defined by them. It transcends speech and acts yet remains dependent upon human agency.
My suspicion is that Jesus holds the clue to this missional mystery. We Christians maintain that his acts are the acts of God. Yet they remain human acts. That they are human acts is plain, since Jesus is reported to be a man by the witnesses to him. That they are God’s acts is faith, and maybe similarly mission is an act of faith.
Faith that the Spirit is with his people, that he has set apart their works for the unique purposes of God.