What is Mission? Being Sent on a Mission from God (Ministry Blog Series – 3)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of papers on ministry that I have written down the years for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales. This post was rather written as a blog post last year for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales. It fits neatly in the series, though, so I hope you enjoy.

When I was director of vocations for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales, I used to sit on a comfy seat in my living room chatting over coffee with candidates who felt God was calling them to ministry. There are far worse ways to spend an afternoon! I would chat about their spiritual life and they would tell me about their church worship and private prayer. And I’d then ask whether they had been involved in outreach and mission? At that point there was often a long silence. I can only imagine they were desperately struggling to think of a time they struck up a conversation with a stranger about the life-transforming power of Jesus.

When many of us hear the words “mission” and “evangelism”, we naturally think of people persuading others the truths of their belief. When I think of “mission” I remember the over-enthusiastic UBM people on Llandudno Beach who used to mesmerise us children with puppets and a song about Jesus wanting us to be sunbeams. And I think of the Salvation Army group in my favourite musical Guys and Dolls, persuading gangsters to repent and welcome God into their lives. And I think of Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where my friends and I would visit to debate our faith with ardent atheists. And I think of films like The Mission and Scorsese’s Silence, about priests baptising new Christians in far away, exotic lands.

But, let me take you back to my living room with my vocations candidates. Sitting there, still struggling to think of examples of when they brought somebody to faith, I would then read to them the Anglican five marks of mission, which were identified with personal evangelism at the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 and which summarise what “mission” entails. And, yes, the list does include (1) preaching the good news and (2) baptising new believers. But the list doesn’t stop there – it also reminds us that mission involves (3) responding to human need through love, (4) transforming unjust structures in society, challenging violence, and pursuing peace, and (5) caring for God’s creation. On hearing this list, my candidates would suddenly start to detail examples of when they had been working in food banks, or volunteering with the Samaritans, or protesting against climate change or war, or campaigning against inequality, or teaching in schools, or collecting for charities, or visiting the sick or elderly. It was so inspirational to hear that they had been doing mission, in all sorts of wonderful ways!

The Oxford Dictionary defines mission as “an important assignment given to a person or group of people”. By factoring in the origin of the word “mission”, which comes from the Latin missio, meaning ‘to send’, we start to discover Christian outreach is really about. In the gospels, Jesus sends out his disciples two by two (Luke 10-1-9). This was a “mission” – an important assignment given to this band of followers. And Jesus is giving that same mission to us today! But he’s not sending us out to do any old work.

Theologians talk about us being sent to carry out Missio Dei – God’s mission. Jurgen Moltmann writes that “it is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church”. In other words, each time we are doing God’s work, we are doing mission. When we look at what’s lacking in society and we do something about it, we are doing mission. When we look where our world is crying out for peace, compassion and hope and we do something about it, we are doing mission. When we work towards the Kingdom of God, as Jesus commanded his disciples as he sent them out, we are doing mission! As theologian David Bosch puts it: “To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love”.

When the New Testament refers to God’s mission (whether in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) or in Jesus’s first sermon in a synagogue (Luke 4:16–21)), it often does so by looking back at the wonderful vision of the liberation of God’s people in the Old Testament. Isaiah, for example, gives a picture of hope to the Israelites who are suffering far from home on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates in Babylon. They are feeling lost, abandoned, and hopeless, much like so many people feel today in our world. And Isaiah says to them: despite all you are going through, despite the pain and sadness and frustration you feel, remember that there is still great hope for the future – fresh springs of living water will flow where there was once arid desert, those who are oppressed and marginalised will be raised up and liberated, those who are sick or disabled will be revived and made whole, those who are fearful or frustrated will be lifted up in joy, those who are hungry will be satisfied and made full, and creation that is groaning through misuse and greed will be made new and fresh!

This is a picture of what God wants us to bring to this world. We are being sent, each and every one of us. We are being sent to bring God’s light and life to our friends and neighbours. We are being sent to bring reconciliation and healing to our struggling communities. We are being sent to be beacons of hope and joy to our broken world.

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

hailA few days ago, I attended my 12-year-old son’s school Christmas concert. While his is not a church school, the event took place at a local church. My son was taking the role of a shepherd from Bethlehem, trying to explain to his boss why he had lost all his sheep after he and his mates had run into town to find a child in a stable. He insisted that he had nothing to do with the cut-price lamb being sold in town the following morning, and he swore that he’d not been drinking when he had heard great noises and seen lights in the sky. While he was performing, Cardiff was hit with the most ferocious hailstorm that I have seen in years. So, as he said the words “there were great noises in the sky”, the heavens opened and the church’s stained-glass windows sounded like they were about to shatter. I overheard one parent say to another on the way out, “I loved the wonderful sound effects when the shepherd was speaking!”

We hear so much these days about rechristening Christmas as the “winter festival”, but this event, based in a church and introduced by the local vicar, was very much rooted in faith. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say it was based around a story – a story of a newborn that gives flesh, heart, and spirit to all our hopes and desires, all our needs and wants.

The Hobbit JackanoryI have always loved stories. I remember running home from school as a child, out of breath and with legs aching, because I didn’t want to miss the TV programme Jackanory, where a famous person sat in a big armchair and read from a children’s novels. When I go out to visit schools now, despite all the technology available, I’ve noticed that school children still love to sit and listen to teacher simply reading a good storybook, just as they love to hear a nighttime story from mum or dad.

The reality is, of course, that people of all ages get stories and people have always loved telling and hearing stories – from amphitheatres of the Greeks and Romans to the Elizabethan plays of Shakespearean England. The popularity of TV programmes, soap operas, films, and books bear witness to the fact that stories are still a language people can understand. If we, as a church, want to connect with generations that are seemingly lost from our congregations, we need to be looking to story.

With all this in mind, I’ve often been tempted simply to tell a ten-minute story instead of a sermon on a Sunday morning. I wonder if I’d get complaints? “There’s not enough exegesis”; “there’s not enough teaching”. The lack of explanation in Jesus’ parables, of course, would have confused some people, but he urges us in the Parable of the Sower to make our own interpretations. “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear”.

parablesIn fact, the writer Rob Lacey made a detailed assessment of Jesus’s words and teaching. In his book Are we Getting Through?, he concluded that Jesus spoke to the general public in two different ways: he either told stories or he asked questions. These stories were memorable, intriguing, and vivid, using images and objects that the people of his day could identify with (sheep, coins, trees, vineyards). Yet, in the two thousand years since Jesus, the church seems to have decided it knows better. Our church services rarely include stories, not even in many of our sermons! Furthermore, we Christians are far more inclined to give answers than ask questions.

the bibleAnd it’s not only Jesus either. Our faith is founded on story. The recent Channel 5 series The Bible has shown just some of the wonderful tales of faith and courage from Genesis through to Revelation. Story is integral to our faith, from Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph and his colourful coat, Moses, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah, to the stories of Christmas and Easter, the parables, and the adventures of St Paul. And the great thing about these magnificent stories of our faith is that every story has two levels – two “storeys”, if you like. In other words, they have the story itself, wonderful and fantastical. But, beyond that, is another level, another “storey” – and that is how does the story speak to us? What profound and eternal truths can we take from the story?

tell-me-a-storySo, this Christmas, why not do two things. First, why not start to really listen to stories. After all, God speaks to us through stories. Ask yourself, what is he saying to you? Allow his story to inform the stories you engage with – the story of a small child born in a dirty stable, a story of hope, a story of peace, a story of love. How does that story relate to the stories you listen to? How can the stories you hear inform your faith, teach your faith, challenge your faith.

But, secondly, I challenge you to tell stories this Christmas. You’ll be with your friends and families, so have the confidence to share stories with them – tales that you find fascinating yourself or tales of your own life. My own daughter is obsessed with stories of my childhood. Almost every dinnertime, she will suddenly say: “Tell me a story of when you were young, daddy”. I must admit, I’m running out of little-mischievous-Trys stories by now, and am tempted to start making some up! But it’s not only children – in the same way that my daughter loves hearing my stories, when I go to visit parishioners I love hearing their stories about their lives and families.

we-all-have-stories-to-tellBut, in telling stories this Christmas, why not also allow those stories to interact with the spirit of the festive season. Share stories, ones you have read or seen on television, and explain how they have inspired you towards Christ’s hope, compassion, and forgiveness. But, perhaps most importantly, tell your own personal stories by letting people know how your lives have been transformed by his story – the eternal story of peace and love that began when “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in the cry of a newborn.

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Unto us a child is born: A new baby at Christmas

Christmas is Coming: But do we really need the nativity story?

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