I have been so encouraged by the many God-sized conversations I have had with numerous people this past week, all centering on missions and the role of the Church in its call to expand the Gospel of Christ to the next generation. I love the Church! If you are just joining us we are in the midst of a blog series on the topic of missions, attempting to get at the question, “What on earth am I here for?” I am honored you have chosen to join me in the dialogue. Let’s dive in!
Today, missions is used in all sorts of ways, with people, cultures, and churches turning it, twisting it, and shaping it in every which-way imaginable to fit their needs, some taking a more healthful approach than others. So how do we define a word that has gone through such dynamic change? I picture it as trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, not impossible but certainly difficult. Originally, mission was solely a church word in reference to God’s activity on Earth to bring about salvation in people, but today mission is everywhere. It seems that wherever you look, mission activity is present. Just the other day I was in the waiting room at my doctor’s office and there on the wall hung a mission statement for the clinic, nicely framed for all to see. All the doctors, nurses, and front-staff signed the mounting in which the statement was framed. Mission is everywhere! Here are examples of mission statements from some well-known businesses:
Coca-Cola: “To make it possible for every thirsty person wherever they may be in the world to satisfy their thirst with one of our products.”
Starbucks: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
7-Eleven: “To consistently serve the changing needs of customers for their convenience.”
Disney: “We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.”
Baskin Robbins: “Wherever a treat is sold, Baskin Robbins is there to put a smile on your face.”
These statements point to something bigger a company aspires to become, something that a whole company can rally around. It sets a preferred future. As you read through the above mission statements, it quickly becomes apparent that these businesses are not primarily about the product being sold, whether that is ice cream, coffee, slurpees, soda, or a day of family fun. Their main focus is the customer. No one would argue that the statements above are powerful in emotional or inspirational effect and serve a unifying and vision-casting purpose for the company it represents. But who gets to decide on a mission statement? How did these companies come up with the mission held within this impacting phrase? In the business world it typically is the board of directors who create the mission statement, who in turn implement it among the corporation through myriad of ways. What about in the church? Who creates and defines mission in the congregational setting? The Board of Elders? Church Council? The pastor?
The truth of the matter is, when speaking of mission statements and the theology of missions within the church, there is something bigger going on. The church has no mission of its own, it is all an outflow from God, the Author and Perfector of all things! It is easy to get caught up in the hype of creating perfectly crafted mission statements, programming mission events, and pushing local servant opportunities while forgetting about the foundation at the core of what it is all about. Look online at any book store and you will see an ever-increasing list of books and studies on missions and servant evangelism. At the end of the day “missions” is not about a program but is about people and connecting them to the saving power of the Gospel, enlivened by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not a ministry but a way of life that so infects a person and organization they cannot help but share what they know with someone else through the words they use and how they live their life. I think it would be interesting to gather a crew of people who were to tasked to go out and collect as many mission statements from various Lutheran churches across America. I would hope, at some level, that you would find in these mission statements some similarity. In all honesty, should this surprise us? After all, every mission statement is a biblically-based, Christ-centered reflection of the greater mission God is working in our lives, of reaching out to those who do not yet have a relationship with Him. God is doing something bigger. He is reconciling a broken and lost world back to Himself.
This story of reconciliation is not a new story but one that began thousands of years ago when God spoke life into being. As we peer beyond the veneer of a serpent, fruit, and the disobedience of a man and woman, it quickly becomes apparent that mission is something rooted deeply in the Old Testament. After all, we follow a missionary God. Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God is a fabulous book that looks at the grand narrative of mission as found throughout the biblical account. He argues that the birth of the missional church dates back further than the Acts 2 Pentecost event, pinpointing all the way back to Abraham as God plants the seed of Promise for a covenantal people known as Israel. About this grand story Wright says:
Theologically as well as historically, a line runs from exodus and Sinai in our text to the incarnation and Easter events. What YHWH (and no other god) had redemptively initiated in the history of Israel (and no other people), he brought to completion for the whole world in Jesus of Nazareth (and no other person). (385)
Wright begins the narrative of reconciliation with the Exodus event as Moses leads the people of God out of slavery toward the Promised Land. I, however, would argue that this missional line woven throughout the Bible runs back further than the Exodus, to the Garden of Eden in the moment of creation itself! As Dr. Henry Rowold mentioned in a lecture on the missio dei, “Mission is the primal impulse of all creation.” Every living thing, from animals to humans, cries out for reconciliation and redemption from God. In our time together, he went on to discuss Genesis 1-3 in terms of mission. In Genesis 1-2 God puts Adam and Eve in the Garden in order to serve and keep it (See Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15). This is not only mission talk but mission purpose! God loves His creation so much so that He goes out of His way to take care of it, love it, and nurture it. Rowald also touched on the idea of how Adam and Eve’s actions in the garden were the human extension of the mission of God. Everything changes in Genesis 3 when sin enters into the equation. Immediately there is a drifting away from the mission of serving and keeping that God had instituted Adam and Eve to follow. And as they disobeyed YHWH Himself and ate from the forbidden tree, God was no longer the center of all things, man was. We all know the story well. They were tempted. They ate. They hid. The next few moments are incredibly powerful and illuminating for all of scripture.
In the next moments God acts in four notable ways as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience: there is judgment on sin, shown with the curse; there is a promise given (Genesis 3:15); their nakedness and shame is covered as God provides them with clothes; and lastly, God calls out to them a critical question. At its heart, this question is a missional question. It is the first time in scripture we see God speaking directly to Adam and Eve since the Fall. He calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8-9). This verbal action by God in response to Adam and Eve’s sinful act is arguably one of the most illuminating events in the Bible, giving us a glimpse into God’s heart. When God asks this question it is not to know physically where they are, after all, He already knows the answer to that, being the omniscient and omnipresent God that He is. This is a question of relationship in which we still hear its echoes today. It is a question that drives all of scripture, holding immense significance for us in our walk with God. After all, the action shows the Lord’s passion to see the best for His creation. Through the playing out of this scene God has made it clear – He is in the business of seeking and saving that which was lost. The rest of the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of God seeking to reconcile a lost world back to Himself.
From the creation story, you see a God who is passionate about taking care of His creation as a shepherd watches over His sheep. The answer to the question “Where are you?” first introduced in the Garden, is hidden in the nature of God Himself. Look at the interplay of God Himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who work together to reflect a theology of mission. All parts of the Trinity are mightily at work in the purpose to restore the marred relationship begun in the Garden. As we see the inner relationships of God at work in our lives, the passion and purpose of God Himself quickly become apparent. This concept of God is not new. John of Damascus, a Greek theologian in the eighth century, described the relationship of the Trinity as a perichoresis. The term first appeared on the scene in the fourth century by Gregory of Nazianzus but was further developed by John of Damascus. A perichoresis is literally in the Greek, a “circle dance”. Andre Rublev, alive in the early fifteenth century, depicts the perichoresis dance in his famous icon as shown in the following image:
Look at the interplay of the Father, Son, and Spirit in Rublev’s icon. Can you tell who is who? What images stand out? Why? What is Rublev exploring in his interpretation of God? In the Fall, we fell out of the above perichoresis relationship with YHWH, but since that moment our gracious God has been hard at work, inviting us back into relationship with Him. Life within a particular community of faith is the place the perichoresis dance is lived out in everyday life. Through the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit God extends His righteous hand toward us, inviting us back in the midst of His circle dance of life.
Let’s hit the pause button in our discussion on missions. What do you think about missions? Where does it come from? What on earth are you here for? Let’s keep talking about this crucial topic for the church today! The bottom line is, missions is not a new concept but is something in the DNA of the God we follow, passed on to those who follow Him. We see glimpses of it in the creation story and all through scripture. It is time for us as the Body of Christ to tap into our God-given mDNA (missional DNA) once again. Through the Spirit’s guidance, we must seek fresh ways to bring the ancient story of the circle dance of faith and life to a whole new generation of people who have not yet heard and experienced the music placed within our hearts by God Himself.
I am truly honored to have you join me in this journey. As always, I hope you engage in the conversation.
Dancing with Jesus!