The Mission of the Church
In The Open Secret Leslie Newbigin puts an idea into words that has been the heart of much Christian activity in history, namely that “a church that is not ‘the church in mission’ is no church at all.”1 This statement is not so much condemnation as observation; that it is possible for us to hear it as condemnatory speaks volumes about our particular shortcomings as contemporary Christians.
To say that Christianity is a missionary religion is nothing new-it has long been categorized as one of the three great missionary religions, along with Buddhism and Islam. There is a difference however, between saying that Christianity is a missionary religion and in stating that it is essentially missionary in character. A religion might become missionary through circumstance or accident-or it can be missionary in its very essence and character, as Christianity reveals itself to be.
The missionary character of the Church is rooted in the life and work of Christ and it is here that the Church finds its authority. Because the Church derives its authority from Christ it is natural that it derive the basic structure of its mission from Christ’s ministry. This is a situation both liberating and restrictive. It is restrictive in the sense that anything done without the intent of glorifying God or bringing all things into subjection to Christ can not be considered within the scope of the mission of the Church. It is liberating in another sense because of exactly how much and how great a diversity of things can be seen this way.
One of the recurring themes in scripture that becomes prevalent in the New Testament is that of God calling people to be heralds or prophets of his coming work. John is sent to prepare the way for Christ and Jesus himself is sent forth to proclaim the Kingdom of God. If the shape of the Churches’ ministry is determined in part by the shape of Jesus’ ministry then it is clear that part of the Churches role is to proclaim. Just as Jesus is sent from the Father, he in turn sends his disciples forth to proclaim the good news of The Kingdom which has been fully inaugurated by his resurrection.
The person and work of Christ serves not only as the foundation and framework of the Church’s mission, but also as the content of her proclamation. “We preach Christ crucified,” (1 Cor. 1:23) says Paul, and in doing so we are proclaiming the work of the incarnate Word who through union with humanity opened the way to God, through the crucifixion made it possible for us to follow and through the resurrection defeated death and offers us the hope of everlasting life with him. This is the message-the Christ-we proclaim.
The purpose of this mission is to proclaim the Lordship of Christ, as Newbigin states “The Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all.”2 The affirmation of Jesus as Lord of all is not separate, but is intimately tied to the proclamation of salvation and freedom from the bondage of sin and death. Our freedom and our hope is in Christ because Christ has defeated death and been raised from the dead-therefore, in proclaiming Christ’s Lordship we are proclaiming the power of God to heal and bring life from death.
So then, Christ sends us forth to proclaim the message of salvation. Yet Jesus’ ministry itself was not limited to proclaiming the coming Kingdom. He demonstrated that the Kingdom was present among us through his healings, the people he chose to associate with and the various other miracles he performed. Jesus gave us a blueprint of the ways in which we might proclaim the Gospel.
This sending is not limited in scope, indeed the “community that confesses that Jesus is Lord has been, from the very beginning, a movement launched into the public life of mankind.” As Newbigin shows, the very name the Church used for itself indicated its universal character “It was from the beginning a movement claiming the allegiance of all peoples, and it used for itself with almost total consistency the name ecclesia-the assembly of all citizens called to deal with the public affairs of the city.”3
How does Christ’s work manifest itself in the mission of the Church? The answer to that is just this: certainly Christ proclaimed the Kingdom, and so should we. But there were physical manifestations of the Kingdom throughout Christ’s ministry; Christ healed, the blind, the lepers, the paralytic. He fed the hungry. All these works were intimately connected with his proclamation of the Kingdom and they should be no less so of ours. Because of this, the work of Christian mission is intimately tied up with the physical well-being of those being evangelized. To ignore the temporal reality that people face is to invite indictment by the Gospel-the story of Lazarus and Dives comes to mind, as does James’ admonition “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16).
The missionary character of Christianity is so strong in fact that it has overcome theological obstacles to evangelism no less than practical ones. The early Calvinist ambiguity about missions gave way to the force of the missionary imperative in part because a rejection of missionary work can finally only be supported within a framework that does not take scripture seriously and borders upon a rejection of Christianity itself.
This strong affirmation of mission as essential to the Church’s character stems from basic observation of the Apostles’ ministries. In the earliest days of the Church, and enshrined particularly in the Pauline corpus and the book of Acts, we see a people proclaiming their faith and continuing the work of Christ in the world. The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer acknowledges this work in the common obligation it places on all Christians, lay or ordained “to represent Christ and his Church” and to “follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.”4 Implicit in this is the recognition that there is an obligation on the part of every Christian, that “the origin of [our] confession is not in [us]. It is committed to [us].” And we are charged with the delivery of that message, as Newbigin states, for “‘You did not choose me,’ says Jesus to his apostles, ‘I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit’ (John 15:16)”5
Within Jesus’ ministry we see the fulfillment of God’s purposes of salvation offered to all people. The work of the early Church testifies to this fulfillment, which the prophets foretold, as we acknowledge in the Third Song of Isaiah, “Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning.”6 The early Church testified to the universal character of Christ’s mission, saying in a manner reminiscent of the Prophets “for with your blood you have redeemed for God, from every family, language, people and nation, a kingdom of priests to serve our God.”7
The nature of the Church has changed, and our missions must reflect that. There are dangers in this shift. As Newbigin pointed out, the growth of some churches overseas has enabled established churches to begin thinking of mission primarily in terms of cross-cultural exchange with other Christians. Yet this is not mission; indeed the propensity of North American and European Christians to see the mission field as somewhere “over there” has led them to be slow in responding to the opening of a vast mission field in the heart of the old Christendom.8
It is true that challenges continue to face Christians in other parts of the globe. The “church now exists as a global fellowship present in almost every part of the world and is increasingly conscious of its universal character” as illustrated by the dramatic growth of Christianity in the two thirds world. This explosion has led both to amazingly refreshing examples of the Christian faith and horrible perversions of the gospel such as the Lord’s Resistance Army and other syncretistic and violent groups. The Church continues to find the delicate balance between enculturation and syncretism, between affirming that the Gospel is translatable and translating it out of existence.9
The line between enculturation and syncretism is one that both Newbigin and Elizondo walk. In the end, it appears that Newbigin’s approach is more tenable. Much of what Elizondo highlights in his book The Future is Mestizo is laudable-the idea that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not necessitate the destruction of indigenous cultures for instance, that “Jesus of Nazareth offers the world a true way of becoming a universal family without destroying the local genius or even the local religion of the people. Transformation yes, but destruction no.”10 These are good ideas which have sadley not always been accepted in the history of Christian missions, when there have been times that missionaries attempted to make people into good Europeans or good Victorians as much or more than they attempted to help them be good Christians.
Yet the preceding statement begs Elizondo’s definition of religion even as it conveys a deep truth-that the Gospel can thrive within the culture of any people and that the return the Church receives from that culture is often an aspect of the Gospel that we couldn’t hear before. The negative side of this-what might be called “deep enculturation”-is a situation in which the uniqueness of the Gospel is sacrificed. Elizondo highlights this problem, which he deems strength, when he relates:
I have a good friend who is a Catholic priest/Buddhist monk. He says that his Buddhism has helped him to be a better Catholic and his Catholicism has helped him to be a better Buddhist. The Christian Faith is being expressed through pre-Columbian rites and customs in many areas of Latin America, through the ancient African myths and rituals, and through the deeply mystical religious traditions of India.11
In this situation, Newbigin’s understanding seems better suited to preserving the particularity of the Gospel while still maintaining that the message of Christ’s hope can embed itself within any given culture and express the hope of salvation in terms understandable to that people-terms which may even help shed light on our understandings of the Gospel as well. In this understanding, the Gospel must be allowed to work within the parameters of a given culture, within the language of that society; yet, the Gospel leaves nothing untransformed by its power, so that “the introduction of the name of Jesus places the structure under a strain that it cannot bear without breaking. Jesus is now not just Lord, not just avatar, but unique avatar. The word kavdul can no longer refer to a monad: it must refer to a reality, within which there is a relationship of hearing and answering.”12
As we proceed in mission, recognizing the moral and theological necessity of opening the Gospel up to other cultures rather than simply attempting to create carbon copy churches, our assurance is that the Spirit provides the means of recognizing who Christ is in a given cultural context. Indeed, mission “is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in its missionary journey.”13 We need to recognize that the Gospel is by its very nature disruptive of paradigms and therefore attempting to convey Jesus to people in a particular way may not have the desired result. Rather the Spirit must intercede, in a manner that Newbigin highlights at the point of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Lord: “Jesus tells Peter that the confession ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ is not the work of ‘flesh and blood’ but a gift of the Father (Matt. 16-17).”14
These issues highlight what is possibly the most important reason to return to the paradigm of the apostles as our examples in missions, namely the fact that their Mediterranean Roman world was much more like our contemporary marketplace of religions and our state of pluralism than the past several centuries have been. Many of the issues faced today by missionaries center around questions of culture and inclusion, or enculturation and syncretism-situations very similar to the context of the early church. The underlying problems energizing these questions are the same as those which faced the church at the Jerusalem council. Our task in these times is to be as secure in our faith as our forebears were, being unafraid to engage in dialogue so that we might return the good things in other faiths to the good God who created and inspired them and in so doing witness to our Lord by our actions and our love, but also recognizing those things that run counter to the heart of the Gospel and the unique nature of Jesus Christ, who is our only salvation.
- Leslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 2. [↩]
- Ibid.,, 17 [↩]
- ibid.,16 [↩]
- BCP, 855-856 [↩]
- Newbigin, 17 [↩]
- BCP, 87 [↩]
- BCP [↩]
- Newbigin, 8-10 [↩]
- ibid., 7 [↩]
- Virgilio Elizondo, The Future Is Mestizo (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2000), 107. [↩]
- ibid., 109 [↩]
- Newbigin, 20. [↩]
- Newbigin, 20. [↩]
- ibid., 20 [↩]