“Mission” and “service”

The word “mission” has an odd set of connotations and associations in Christian contexts. It acquired much of its contemporary centrality and resonance from the efforts of the “Western” churches to convert to Christianity the inhabitants of other and especially poorer countries, especially from the eighteenth century onwards. It thus came to mean the sending of individuals to far places where an effort was to be made to bring people to the Church.

This meaning was extended to “home” or “inner” missions that tried to reach the populations of the new industrial cities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here again the emphasis was on evangelistic preaching to win new people to faith in Christ.

Thus “mission” was activity centred on proclamation to those without faith to bring them to conversion and baptism.

In many cases this core objective was supplemented by various kinds of work to improve the material conditions of those to whom the message was proclaimed. Medical services especially were often offered but education was also prominent. This applied to varying degrees both to foreign and to home mission work.

More recently there has been in some parts of the Church a move to emphasise the latter more and the evangelism less. In the URC, for example, the term “mission”, via association with the “mission Dei” (God’s mission to bring the Kingdom), has often come to mean primarily “community building” and other practical work. Provision of forms of community and other service provision can come to be missional in itself with proclamation of the gospel (in words) an optional extra. One will often hear quoted the phrase attributed to Saint Francis (I’ve never checked this attribution now I think of it) “Proclaim the gospel, use words where necessary”, interpreted to mean that loving care for others is in itself an enactment of the gospel message.

Theologically I disagree with this redefinition of the word “mission” pretty strongly. The idea that an kind of ethical action (which is how I see these “missional” activities) can be directly and straightforwardly substituted for the gospel is one I absolutely reject, from two slightly distinct directions:

  1. it fails completely to acknowledge that others may do exactly the same things without any contact with or interest in the good news about Jesus, potentially simply appropriating their motives to our distinct proclamation in ways they would find illegitimate;
  2. it makes it impossible for us clearly to articulate the anti- or post-ethical dimension of our message without which it becomes, to my mind, vacuous or worse.

This is a hobby horse of mind, my objection to the “moralisation of the Gospel and I’ve written on it extensively in other posts on this blog (here, here, here, and here, for example) and I won’t labour the point here. The point about this post is that I have found myself over the last couple of weeks starting to use exactly this language myself. In one of my churches I have come to believe and to say that our “mission” is to serve rather than, immediately, to evangelise.

I may or may not be right about this but what strikes me is how contrary this is to my expectation when I started here. This is not a bad thing, indeed it may be a good thing, but it does seem worth noting and reflecting on.

This conclusion of mine is based on the opportunities and imperatives that arise from immersing myself in the life of the church in question. The congregation is involved in a range of activities that serve the community in which it is placed. The worshipping gathering on Sunday is, on the whole, a stable and long established one. The connections with those who do not belong to us are strong but not directly related to the gospel message, rather they are based on the imperative to love the neighbour.

This too is part of discipleship. One can, it seems to me, be called to a variety of different things and this calling will be specific to each disciple. Our imperative is to respond to that call, rather than to derive and follow an abstract and universal pattern of Christian life (although there are things that all Christians need to do, prayer, worship, study of scripture).

What I have objected to about some of the talk about mission as service that I have encountered is my feeling (which may always have been mistaken) that it tended towards squeezing out the possibility that sometimes and for some people evangelistic preaching was genuinely the right thing. What I have come to see is that this reaction would be a bad thing if it, in turn, failed to leave room for the possibility that sometimes, for some people, a vocation to serve without proclaiming was the right thing.

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