Creating fresh vision for mission in the 21st century (Part 1)

Creating fresh vision for mission in the 21st century

In this blog I want to reignite mission in my own heart – a mission for the church in the 21st century.

The word “mission” reveals the purpose of why the church exists in the world. John Stott, in his book “Christian Mission in the Modern World” states in the introduction “one can hardly discuss church-world relations and omit the concept of mission”. He goes on to argue that “mission is a comprehensive word that embraces everything which God sends His people into the world to do, including evangelism and social responsibility”(Stott, 1975, p. 35) Stott, almost prophetically, set the tone for mission in the 21st century way back in 1975. He redefined mission by shifting the emphasis from a mission mandate of Matthew 28: 18-20 to a mission model of John 20:21. This has become the overarching theme for missions in the 21st century. Stott’s assertion that “the living God of the Bible is a sending God”(Stott, 1975, p. 21) has become the assertion for the missional movement of this century.

Mission then is participating in the mission of the Father initiated by the Son. God is a God mission. He sent Jesus to carry out this work of mission. The focus of mission in John 20:21 is not so much the sending of the disciples, but on the sending of the Son. It is the Father who sends the Son. In the Greek, “As the Father has sent me” implies a sending in the past that continues to hold good in the present.(Beasley-Murray, 2002, pp. 378–380) “The mission of Christ is here regarded not in the point of its historical fulfillment (sent), but in the permanence of its effects (hath sent). The form of the fulfillment of Christ’s mission was now to be changed, but the mission itself was still continued and still effective. The apostles were commissioned to carry on Christ’s work, and not to begin a new one”(Beasley-Murray, 2002, p. 380). In other words, in sending out the disciples, they were to continue the work of the Father that Christ started in the power of the Holy Spirit. Mission then is the work of the Trinity. The imago Dei sends the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Son sends the disciples out to continue that work.

This mission that the Father sent Christ into the world to fulfill is the work of atonement. Human beings, created as “Eikons” (images) of God to be in relationship with the Triune God and to be His representative in the world, needed to be reconciled back to God because of the fall. This work of atonement becomes the key mission that the church continues in the world. In the Bible narrative, humans “are created as Eikons, cracked in their present Eikonic struggle, shaped into Christ-like Eikons as they follow Jesus, and destined to be conformed to Christ in union with God and communion with others in eternity.”(McKnight, 2007, p. 20) That is what the body of Christ does as it participates in the mission of Christ. “Atonement is not just something done to us and for us, it is something we participate in—in this world, in the here and now. It is not just something done, but something that is being done and something we do as we join God in the missio Dei”(McKnight, 2007, pp. 30–31). If the Kingdom of God is the new society “in which the will of God is established to transform all of life”(McKnight, 2007, p. 9), then mission is being part of this atoning work of God in the world. Atonement brings reconciliation with God and extends to our relationship with each other “so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life.”(McKnight, 2007, p. 9).

The mission of atonement is about inviting people to encounter God and His Kingdom and be reconciled to him and to others in God’s Kingdom. McKnight is right when he said that the gospel is more than just a personal conversion experience that takes us to Heaven. Instead of seeing the gospel just as ‘the gospel of sin management’(Willard, 1998, pp. 35–39), a broader picture of the gospel must be embraced that includes a call to enter God’s Kingdom and be discipled as part of this new community. The intention of Jesus was not just to generate a salvation culture but a gospel culture that “carried within it the power, the capacity, and the requirement to summon people who want to be in to be The Discipled”.(McKnight, 2011, p. 33) Instead of reducing the gospel to individual salvation through the forgiveness of sins, it needs to be broadened to include the communal story of salvation .

The gospel must be seen as “the saving Story of Jesus completing Israel’s Story, and Jesus clearly set himself as the center of God’s saving plan of Israel”.(McKnight, 2011, p. 111) This is the same gospel proclaimed by the apostles. The apostle Paul presented “the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scripture of the Old Testament”.(McKnight, 2011, p. 61) For Peter the gospel is about Jesus being “both Messiah of Israel and Lord of the whole world”.(McKnight, 2011, p. 122) The gospel must be a Spirit-led invitation into a radical encounter with God’s Kingdom that breaks into the lives of people(Fitch & Holsclaw, 2013). This understanding of the gospel will determine how the church functions in mission within society. If the gospel is merely about personal forgiveness, then being involved in mission is about doing evangelism or stating the church’s position on social or moral issues, instead of living out the Kingdom life through word and deed. However, if mission is about being a community of faith in the world, then participating in God’s mission involves entering into our world incarnationally and becoming a witness who embodies the reality of God’s Kingdom in the world.

An integral part of mission is the proclamation of the gospel “summoning people to respond”.(McKnight, 2011, p. 133) A more complete presentation of the gospel must include a response that allows the biblical story to shape people(McKnight, 2011, p. 153), immersing them in the story of Jesus,(McKnight, 2011, p. 153) contextualizing the biblical story as a church for a different culture and for a different generation, developing counter stories that go against individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, scientific naturalism, new age, postmodern tribalism, and salvation by therapy(McKnight, 2011, p. 157), and finally embrace the story so that they are transformed by the gospel story(McKnight, 2011, p. 158). If the church embraces a true gospel culture, it will result in personal transformation by this gospel, leading to “serving others in love and compassion”.(McKnight, 2011, p. 160)

This clearer understanding of mission leads to a clearer understanding of the church. The church is a community of disciples who have responded to the invitation to be part of the Kingdom community and is willing to embrace the gospel culture set out in the gospel story. If the gospel is Jesus, then being part of His body is not an option but a necessity in fulfilling that gospel. By receiving salvation, an individual becomes part of the faith community and adopts its “practices, patterns and politics” . Membership and involvement in a Christian community becomes an inseparable part of the gospel.

According to McKnight the church is called to embody and extend God’s atoning work by seeking the holistic welfare of the society it is in, to stand for justice that is both restorative and relational, and to be part of God’s mission in the world(McKnight, 2007). Instead of the church focusing on being a community of forgiven sinners, it needs to focus on being a community where people are challenged to live under the Lordship of Christ. That has been the core focus of the redemptive story of the Bible. There is a cost involved. By declaring Jesus as Lord, it brings the new community into conflict with the other ‘lords’ in their lives. The church is the new community “wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life.”(McKnight, 2007, p. 9). The church is called to embody and extend God’s atoning work by seeking the holistic welfare of the society it is in, to stand for justice that is both restorative and relational, and to be part of God’s mission in the world. It becomes the fulfillment of Micah 6:8 where God calls for his people to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. Evangelism is demonstrated as the church lives out certain virtues in the world. These virtues, which include presence, patience, courage and humility, cause the church to stand with the poor and marginalized and to stand against oppressive powers influencing society. As Stott says, “In our servant roles (like Jesus) we can find the right synthesis of evangelism and social action”.(Stott, 1975, p. 25)

As the church exists as a new community, the practice of evangelism finds its fulfillment in the “beauty of holiness made real in the church” . Through the Christian community sharing life together and being involved in spiritual practices like rituals, service and spiritual formation, the church demonstrates the beauty of holiness and becomes a “new and unprecedented social existence” in the world. Therefore evangelism cannot be about methods or techniques but a Christian practice done communally with other followers of Christ. When the community of faith is present in the world in a distinctive way it allows the beauty of holiness to be touched, tasted and tried . This picture is portrayed in the Maori word for gospel, “Te Rongopai” which literally means good taste or good feeling. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not one that just targets the mind but one that allows the world to taste and experience the goodness of God. For the church to be that beauty of holiness in the world, it needs to return to the biblical narrative where the church is the salt and light, not through coercive means, but through the shape of life that the church presents in and to the world. This shape is seen in and through the practices that show the world a new way of life and invites the world to share in that life. The church should not get caught up with the “creative reconstructions of evangelism” where it falls into the trap of reinventing a Christendom model of evangelism.

When we become this new community of faith, we become the church that the apostle Paul had a vision for. The church was to be a community where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Galatians 3:28). Instead the church would be the gathering of all kinds of people who belong to Jesus. For Paul, there was the coming together of the different cultures, classes, and genders to become a community of faith that embraces the many differences that exists. It was not about a Gentile becoming a Jew to be a follower of Christ. Rather a Gentile can still remain a Gentile and still be a Christian. The church in Paul’s mind was based on ecclesial salvation and formation, not just personal salvation and individual transformation (Ephesians 2: 11-22). This makes the church a fellowship of differences, rather than an assimilated community, that presents to the world how the gospel can create peace in the midst of differences. To function as this fellowship of differences, there needs to be grace and love, which is found in the gospel of the Kingdom.

Finally the church on mission needs to engage with the 21st century so there needs to be an understanding of what the 21st century looks like. Western culture has shifted away from a Christendom culture to a new culture that the church in the west needs to understand if they are to be relevant to the majority of people it serves. The church must change from relating to a Christendom culture to a post-Christendom culture.

The Christendom culture was influenced by what Stone refers to as the “rival narratives”(Stone, 2007, pp. 111–170) to the biblical narrative and this has influenced and distorted the church’s understanding and practices of true evangelism as found in the biblical narrative. Israel, as God’s chosen people, was called to bear witness to God’s peace in the world. Jesus came announcing the presence of God’s Kingdom and that it is available to everyone who would respond. The early church presented the apostolic message by focusing on Jesus as the fulfillment of the long-promised reign of God’s peace that is now made known through the church. Through the Biblical narrative, Stone presents evangelism as the faithful, virtuous witness to God’s peace in the world(Stone, 2007). However this biblical narrative changed when the “rival narratives” influenced the church. Stone specifically looks at the narratives of Constantine and modernity and how these narratives influenced the church’s response to Christendom culture. The narrative of Constantinianism created a shift of ecclesial identity when the church identified itself with the imperial power and became its main influence, rather than identifying itself with the servanthood and sacrifice of Jesus and his followers. This became the beginning of Christendom where church and state became entwined together. As a result of this merge, the church no longer allowed the world to be in a place of disbelief(Stone, 2007). The church expected society to hold on to their beliefs. In modernity, the individual became the central focus where they had the freedom to pursue their private ends and self-interests. This led to the church adopting modernity’s emphasis on the individual and turned evangelism to an individual’s decision to follow Christ.

When culture shifted to post-Christendom, the church continued to assume the role they had in Christendom. But the world around the church had changed and the church suddenly found itself no longer in the place they used to be. Society held or promoted beliefs that went against the beliefs of the church. To describe this post-Christendom culture Fitch and Holsclaw uses three words. These three words are post-attractional, post-positional and post-universal.(Fitch & Holsclaw, 2013, pp. 6–8) In post-Christendom, people no longer gravitate to church and are not connected to church. They are more likely to be repelled than attracted to church. The church no longer holds the position of influence within society like they used to have. They now exist in the fringe of society and ignored by many. Finally in post-Christendom, there is no longer a belief in universal truth. Fitch and Holsclaw, in using these three words, helped paint a picture of the “far country” of post-Christendom that the church is engaging as missionaries. Without understanding this new culture, missional engagement is impossible because mission is about entering incarnationally into the new culture. The starting point in any missional engagement is understanding this new culture.

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