What is the mission of the church? Does the nature of Christianity in the 21st century play any role in discerning the mission for the local church?
While the mission statement of the United Methodist Church is, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”, these words only scratch the surface of what the church has been called to be. And if you were to ask Will Willimon, he would tell you that the UMC has drastically failed at this mission. What it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ can vary from denomination to denomination and even vary between congregations of the same denomination. To understand the nature of mission, first we must understand the nature of the church.
Nature of the Church
The church exists to be in partnership with others. The church is not a singular entity, nor can it survive on it’s own. The church is not one person gathering to worship or to serve the community; but, rather it is the community gathering around One Person, so that the lives and work of the gathering community will mirror the life and work of Jesus Christ. When a church is existing to mirror and follow in the life of Jesus Christ, the church is then being called out of this world. The church is being called out to be the beacon of light on the hill.
The church is also called out to be a living sacrament and instrument of the grace of God, continually working to advance both the Kingdom of God as it exists today and in the future. This call to be a living sacrament has been a part of the Christian story from the earliest gathering of followers of Christ after Pentecost. The Apostle Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” What does it mean then to be a “living sacrifice”? In my estimation, this requires followers of Christ to devote all aspects of their daily lives to living out the teachings of Christ.
While it may seem obvious to point to our holy texts as evidence for why the church is by it’s very definition and founding mission focused, this idea has been reaffirmed by generations of Christians. The assembly of Vatican II agreed with Paul’s words from Romans by stating, “the church is called ‘the visible sacrament of… saving unity’ and even the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’”. Even while the church was busy determining doctrine and dogma, the foundation of being of the world and for the world remained at the forefront of what the church was and is to be.
Nature of Mission
My understanding of mission is formed through Jesus’ proclamation concerning the reign of God and the significance of the Easter event (Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday). Bosch writes, “God’s reign is not understood as exclusively future but as both future and already present.” For me, as a Christian, this is a call to me to live in the new kingdom where the least are now first, and as a church leader my ministry should be shaped around the idea that the kingdom is here and we do not need to sit and wait for an invitation to the be a part of God’s reign. We have the opportunity to experience God’s reign now!
Second, it is the Easter event that provides “boldness” for Christians today. Bosch notes that without Easter, the gospels make no sense. New life is offered to us by Christ because of the resurrection. In ministry, this means we are to call out that God has overcome death and because of this we too can seek new life emboldened by the work of the risen Christ.
The nature of mission is also biblically footed. In Matthew’s gospel the elements of mission that are key are the call to mission, which is grounded in “the story of Jesus as told in earlier passages” and the portrayal that mission is a call to both Jews and Gentiles. These two elements of Matthew’s gospel are paramount to the understanding of mission through the lense of Matthew’s gospel. The identity of what mission means for Christians is rooted in the understanding that the Son of Man took on flesh and that the Great Commission is framed from the beginning to the end of Jesus’ ministry. In regards to the portrayal of mission as a call to both Jews and Gentile, the theology of Matthew’s gospel does contradict itself, yet Matthew does not try to reconcile this: Jesus was sent to Israel and Matthew’s affirmation and promotion of the mission for Gentiles.
In Luke’s gospel mission is portrayed as initiated by the Spirit. The Spirit that descended upon Jesus during his baptism is the same Spirit that descended upon the disciples and descends upon us today. It is not us who initiates or sustains the mission of the church, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that enables us to fulfill the mission we have been called to. Bosch writes, “the Spirit not only initiates mission, he also guides the missionaries”. This means, that the work accomplished by the church in the name of Christ is a direct result of God working through the church, and not work of the church. For mission to be successful, it must be initiated and sustained by the Holy Spirit.
From the writings of Paul the key element for understanding mission is that the church is called to be a new community. This does not mean that the church is to be a community separate from the world, but rather the church is to be so engaged in the world that it is impossible for the mission of the church to be ignored by the members of the community. A key point to highlight is that “Gentile Christians should never lose sight of the fact that Israel is the matrix of the eschatological people of God.”. Gentile Christian communities are not to be seen as a “new Israel”.
Mission is “God’s turning to the world”. By turning towards the world, instead inward upon itself, the mission of the church has the power to become the agent of peace, hope, and reconciliation. The very nature of the mission of the church has to be based in the local church so that those who are called to be the earthly agents of God are able to not only proclaim the reign of God but to also serve and advocate for the same people that Christ said would blessed in the Kingdom of God:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Not only is the nature of mission to care for those listed above by Christ, but it is also the churches earthly responsibility that the blessedness assured to the least by Christ is realized. This is to be done in partnership with those whom a missionary is called to serve. No longer can mission work have the focus of “us doing work or preaching for them” but instead the mission work of the church should “us doing working and preaching the word of God with them”. David Bosch notes that mission work can “no longer be viewed as one-way traffic”.