In Search of the Centre of Mission

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.

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8 Comments

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  1. I agree totally that starting a football team isn’t bringing the gospel to the lost – but am not clear at all from the rest of the blog exactly what you see the gospel is – the gospel that Paul was so angry that the foolish galations had allowed themselves to be detracted from. Can you concisely explainyour view of the gospel (in addition to God’s love for all) – in so far as how the gospel changes individual lives and what the benefit of the gospel should be on an everlasting scale to people. The founder of one mission we work with says he can feed people bread and keep them alive for 20 more years but when they die they are still destined for hell if he hasn’t given them the opportunity to hear the gospel. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of GOd.

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    • In light of the text I quoted from John, I think the Gospel can be seen as an invitation to share in the loving purposes of God.

      This means it is a call to follow Jesus and do his ministry in the world, but also it is the opportunity to be united and reconciled to God and to share in the relationship the Father, Son and Spirit share in perfect love.

      How it changes individual lives is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a story best told by the individual. Though I think there are a few things which are common enough to be expected. For instance, identifying with the Christian community as a new family and allowing those new friendships to take root in one’s life. As this happens, it is very common to see life change as the impact of the Spirit-led people of God begins to shape this new disciple.

      And most amazing is the fact that this invitation into the life of God lasts forever and secures our whole being in the power and grace of the Lord into the new heavens and new earth which are so soon in coming.

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  2. but all this is very ego centric and human in nature. It reads very much like a works based doctrine. What spiritual change does the gospel offer and bring about – what do people need to know about their spiritual reality in your opinion? What IS the loving purpose of God? HOW are we united and reconciled and HOW do we follow Jesus and and HOW do we have relationship.

    Humanly speaking the Christian life isn’t difficult – it’s impossible. So what’s the difference between being a follower of Christ and being a follower of a religion?

    I would question that a fundamental point of the gospel is to do his ministry. If I die two seconds after I accepted Christ I would no less have met the gospel than if I lived for another 100 years.

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    • Yes, it is human in nature. This is because Jesus is fully human and invites humans to respond humanly. I don’t mean to seem as though I think the Gospel is works-based. Rather, I want to maintain that discipleship (that is, the saving relationship with Jesus) begins with a concrete step of obedience. The obedience doesn’t save, but brings us into discipleship with Jesus. This is what saves.

      I don’t have any diagnosis to give people about their ‘spiritual reality’. Jesus is clear enough in his command to come and follow. I can only echo and witness to that call. There’s no shortcut. No prayer to pray. No doctrine to sign up to. Only following Jesus.

      The loving purpose of God, in my estimation, is the work of God to reconcile all creation back to himself. The life and ministry of Jesus is the demonstration of this and the means of its fulfilment. God, in Christ, enters human existence and in dying as a human offers the way for all human life to be reconciled to the life of God. So Christ opens the way and beckons all humanity to follow. He has created a people on the earth who are filled with his life in order to carry this call through the world for all time.

      Is Christian life impossible? I think it can be demanding at times, and certainly in our day and age it becomes harder and harder for a person to choose obedience. Yet I think Christian life becomes comprehendible in the church. This is to say that the ‘impossibility’ of leaving all and committing to the works of God becomes entirely possible when there is a community of people who are all committed to the same. Church is the difference between following Christ and following a religious-ethcial system.

      And in response to the last point, I am taking the Gospel to be an eternal work. That is to say, the invitation to follow Christ is for this time and calls people to discipleship, and in the age to come it is the participation in the new creation. In this way whether one passes away the day after hearing the Gospel, or spends 50 years serving Christ, the Gospel is one and the same in that it allows humans to join in the life and work of God in creation.

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  3. I enjoyed this post immensely, and found your responses to Beverly interesting. I think raising questions of missionality inevitably brings around questions of ecclesiology. What do you think is the purpose of Church? Is it to share the gospel? To be the body of Christ? To support Christians? To make new Christians? If it is any or all of these, which is most important?

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  4. Divine Love is the centre of mission. Is that what you’re saying? (Just thought I should clarify)

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    • Amen to Divine Love being the centre of mission (in that it is our desire to show people how much God loves them) and the way we should always act (Ephesians 6 – doing everything for God not man) but does this achieve their spiritual change (the only thing that will help them eternally) without telling them the Gospel? Are good works enough to bring people to a saving knowledge of Grace/Christ? Do works done out of love always glorify God – or can non Christians also do an awful lot of good works out of love?

      What is our command from Jesus to do? Good Works or preach (proclaim) the Good News? How can they hear without a preacher? (proclaimer). And Mark 16 says that signs and wonders are the way to confirm the gospel not good works. Good works are just the evidence that we are changed by the gospel not the way we are supposed to bring people to know the gospel of grace/Christ.

      Ian I am intrigued by your comment obedience doesn’t save? Isn’t belief in a real way obedience? Isn’t confessing with your mouth and believing with your heart (the only way to be saved) a real form obedience to the word of God?

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      • I call it Divine Love to distinguish it from human acts of love. That is not to say that human acts of love are bad or wrong, just to recognise that they are always limited in a way God’s love is not.

        Moreover, Divine Love is a characteristic of God. We get to experience and enjoy it through the Gospel and in the Gospel it is our delight to witness to this love through our speech and acts.

        So in this way the works we do in mission are a demonstration of the character of God AND our opportunity to experience God.

        Here’s where the proclamation of the Gospel comes in. Mission is the action of a disciple. The preacher, with the authority of the word of Christ, commends and encourages us to discipleship, to say a ‘yes’ to Jesus. That yes brings us into alignment with God’s work in the world and puts us in a place where a saving relationship is possible.

        I want to maintain that it is grace alone which saves. So, the acs of doing mission or the act of responding to a call and believing are both contingent upon God’s grace. His grace in creating a living body of people by his Spirit, and the grace he has in calling out to sinners that they may know him. The acts we do in response to this do not merit us anything, but they are necessary for the sinner to become a disciple, which is the only saving relationship one can have with Jesus.

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