During the past few weeks we have been looking at missions, one of the core and foundational teachings of the Christian faith scattered all throughout the Bible. First, let me say again that it is a true privilege to have you join me on this humble journey. I do not pretend to have all the answers, and this is by no means an exhaustive look at missions and outreach, but in many ways is intended to be a springboard into further thought and discussion. I am but a clay and broken vessel seeking the shaping hands of the Potter, Jesus Christ. I humbly come before you to offer the following thoughts.
A little review. So far we have taken a brief look at missions from a biblical perspective and seen how it is a topic that finds its origin in God and given voice by us, His people. The God we follow is a missional God, clearly shown throughout scripture, who invites us into the center of a perichoresis dance (i.e. “circle dance”) between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a dance involving all parts of the Triune God who are continually at work to redeem and restore creation lost from the Fall. The question God spoke to the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, still echoes today, “Where are you?” It is a missional question revealing the nature and heart of God.
Does this mission ever change? Yes and no. No, the foundation, authority, and core of our message will never change. Christ crucified and His reconciling work on the cross for all of humanity will always be central to our message and purpose as a church. Getting this transformational message out into the world as described in Matthew 28 is not something optional for us as the church. These are our marching orders, given to us by God Himself. What has changed through the years is “how” this message has been expressed and delivered, depending highly upon the cultural context in which the mission has been expressed and lived. What people are hungering for, whether they realize it or not, is the incarnational nature of the cross in their lives. People may not have the vocabulary for or the realization of “sin” or “guilt”, but everyone can certainly see, know, feel, taste, and touch things like death, sickness, pain, and suffering. It is everywhere! We all cry out for rescuing, or rather, the Rescuer, Jesus Christ. This is where we have the humbling privilege of being Jesus’ hands and feet to broken people hungering for peace and hope in their life. When it comes to missions, people yearn for us to be, as Eshetu Abate states, “Jesus with skin on.” (Raj & Garcia, The Theology of the Cross, 129) Abate goes on to say, “It is through the cross of Christ and His resurrection that we can make sense of the present world and our own existence.” (135) The cross of suffering and death on which Jesus painfully hung gives hope and a purpose for living like nothing else in the world. Nothing can compare! Not even close!
A fascinating book on missions is David Bosch’s Transforming Mission. The author takes an honest and penetrating look at missions from the beginning of creation to where we find ourselves today. The author describes five main eras or epochs the church has traveled through, which in turn have shaped missions in the context, people, and culture in which they were experienced. We currently find ourselves on the verge of a sixth epoch. Bosch does not necessarily write in a sequential pattern of events, but he does do an excellent job of describing how and what people were thinking at the various times of history. For example, in speaking of the shift between two earlier epochs in the life of the church, he writes of two game-changer moments that came together in the building up of the early church. They were Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the Council of Nicea. As these events unfolded, the Christian faith began to take a special and unique place in the earthly kingdom which resulted in the shift of the church from a missional movement to an institutionalized entity. More and more, missions took on the form of colonial expansion rather than a movement. This truly was a defining moment for the life of the church.
Another interesting idea Bosch talks about is the thought that within “…every period since the early church there was a tendency to take one specific biblical verse as the missionary text. … it somehow embodied the missionary paradigm of the period.” (339) Moving from John 3:16 in the patristic period to Luke 14:23, Matthew 24:14, and most recently to Matthew 28:18-20. Why is this important? It is important because it demonstrates a shift in thought, or better yet, focus, on how people looked at, interpreted, and lived out missions in their daily lives. It also shows a shift in the way people viewed God in the sending process. At one end of the spectrum you have a God who loved the world so much so that He was willing to send His Son to redeem that world (John 3:16), to a God encouraging His servant to go out and get people into the Kingdom no matter the obstacle, leading them to come into God’s house so it may be full (Luke 14:23). From a “preach it”, attractional mentality (Matthew 24:14), to a “go and meet the lost where they are at” way of life (Matthew 28:18-20). What a shifting of thought in how people view and live missional living! Today, it appears the church is taking steps away from an institutionalized, attractional model of church, reclaiming its missional roots.
Alan Hirsch has written a profound book called The Forgotten Ways, a great travel companion for anyone seeking to navigate through the murky waters of a theology of mission and missional living. He seeks to provide insights and direction from a lifetime of experience in church and missional systems to some of the big struggles the church faces today. Hirsch sets the stage for his book by stating that within all of God’s children lays the capacity for transforming the culture around them. The question is, will we take ownership of it by getting ourselves out of the way of the Spirit’s work? What Hirsch brilliantly does is look at some of the successful Jesus movements of the past to see if there are lessons we can apply to our current situation. Specifically, in regard to the explosion of the Acts 2 church, he asks, “How did they do this? How did they grow from being a small movement to the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries?” (18) As Hirsh dives into what made past Jesus movements successful, he comes up with something called Apostolic Genius which has several break-out components called mDNA (Apostolic environment, missional – incarnational impulse, disciple making, communitas and not community, organic systems, and at the center is Jesus is Lord). The goal for Apostolic Genius is to have all mDNA (or “missional” DNA) components operationally balanced because they play off each other in a synergistic way.
Hirsch was on to something. Living a missio dei centered life cannot be made into a checklist of things one must do, rather it is based on a relationship with the One who made us and redeemed us from a life apart from Him. I believe there is much we can learn from past Jesus movements. Just as Bosch explored how missions changed and transformed through several different eras of our past, so too, Hirsch would point us back to the heart of what the missional movement was about. This is the unchanging message that gave each movement its force and zeal. Again, the substance has not changed, just its outward trappings. If there is anything to return to in life, it would be the cross. It is this thread that has been woven into each paradigm of history, from Genesis to the end of time.
As we have seen, missions is something that, at the micro level, has changed over time to fit the culture and people of a particular context. At the macro level, God’s overall mission to seek and save the lost has remained constant since the uttering of a simple yet heart-piercing question, “Where are you?” God’s passion and heart for the lost is evident in the very beginning of creation as His creative hand was at work. This same hand restored a broken Adam and Eve with clothes. This same hand has been shown time and time again throughout history as our Lord invites us into the perichoresis dance. This is the hand that felt real nails and bled painful blood so as to reconcile our helpless state. This same hand extends to us bread and wine in a meal of forgiveness and life. At its core, just as in the Garden, mission involves the hand of God in our lives in both serving and keeping a Kingdom unto Himself.
It is incredible to think that in the mysterious economy of God He has chosen to use us, flawed, broken, and sinful people to carry out His most precious and mission critical task … connecting people to Jesus. One of my favorite statements I heard on missional leadership was made in a class aptly named “Leadership and the Missio Dei”. The comment was made by Janis McDaniels. It quickly became apparent during her brief time with us in class that she is the most humble, down to earth, Christ-centered leaders you will ever meet. One of the things she said struck a chord with me. She said, “Leaders open doors for others and get out of the way.” It is so much easier to close a door on someone than it is to open one. Isn’t it? All too often we get so caught up in the business of running church that we are literally chasing people out the door. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the church has done and will continue to do marvelous things in the eras to come, but when our focus shifts from people to program there is a problem. One of the things that would help our leaders think more missionally is if both pastors and lay people would add “door opener” to the top of their list of what it means to be a Christian. And be ready to get out of the way!
Leadership, but especially missional leadership, is all about relationships. It is a leadership style that points to the most important relationship of all – namely Jesus Christ – as its foundation, authority, and vision. By the grace of God we do not act alone in our leadership efforts. A missional leader defines reality in the life of the congregation as following the lead of the ultimate Leader, Jesus Christ. He is the One whom we follow. Aubrey Malphurs says it best, “Leaders are followers and good leaders make good followers. In fact, if you can’t follow well, you will make a poor leader.” (Being Leaders, 120) May we forever be followers of the King of Kings, setting our feet in the footstep of His sure and certain footing that leads the way toward a brilliant future of hope and promise. Following this Leader makes all the difference in the world! It is my hope and prayer as we step toward a tomorrow that has some clouds of uncertainty, may we boldly step out with the words of the hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith: “Christ be my leader by night as by day; safe through the darkness for He is the Way. Gladly I follow, my future His care, darkness is daylight when Jesus is there.” (Lutheran Service Book, “Christ Be My Leader”, v. 1, 861) Honestly, I do not know what all of the next steps will bring in this journey, which for those of us who are planners can be a tough place to live. But one thing we can know, is God is present in this unknown darkness to lead us and the congregation we go to serve, His children, toward a brightly visioned future.
Listen closely. Can you hear the Shepherd calling? From a garden we hear a voice echoing, “Where are you?”
Many years later, from a cross we hear the same voice proclaiming once and for all, “It is finished!”
It is at this pivotal moment that all of creation seemed to groan an answer to the Almighty’s question echoing from the beginning of time, “Here I am! Here I am!” The mission that began so long ago in a Garden and continued in an Exodus event, finds a sense of promised fulfillment and future hope all in a single moment. This is the place where missio dei comes alive to give the clarity of voice and vision to the Spirit within us in the face of a clattering world.
Christ be my Leader!