It is surprising what happens when the meaning of one word in your vocabulary changes. In my case, that word is “mission”. For most of my life mission has referred to a journey with a purpose, undertaken by an individual or a group. As a teen I watched every mission to the moon with fascination. Growing up in the United Church I learned that the Mission and Service Fund was our calling to “live love”. As a minister I worked hard with congregations to craft mission statements that gave direction to our objectives and goals. Mission had to do with us, with what we needed to do, because – as we said to ourselves – “God has no other hands but ours”.
But I am undergoing a conversion in my life because of a conversion in my understanding of the word “mission”. It started with the deep sense of fatigue and anxiety that I sensed in the church and beyond. Our instinctive reaction to this sinking feeling is to solve the problem by working harder, by doing more, by getting our mission statements right. Yet the more pressure that we feel to get it right, the more burdensome our life together seems. Somehow the deep joy and vitality and energy that should mark an inspired Christian community slips away, like mercury, between our fingers.
Two dates in my journey of repentance – of turning – stand out. In 1995 the congregation at University Hill called me to join with them. It was a congregation that had boomed and then busted – almost – but was beyond its crisis of survival and prepared to talk about mission. My skills in leading suburban congregations no longer fit. So, in 1998, I went back to school and took the congregation with me. We spent four years together on a shared journey through the Doctor of Ministry degree at Columbia Theological Seminary. It was there that we glimpsed the huge change that one word can make in our life.
We heard again, as if for the first time, the ancient news of the “missio Dei” – the mission of God. It seems such a small shift in emphasis, but it is huge. Shifting the locus of mission off of the church and onto the God who is met in Jesus Christ has been, for us, good news of immense joy. We no longer worry about crafting a mission statement, nor do we speak about “the mission of the church”. Instead, we focus our attention and our lives on what God is up to in the world and in the church and in our bodies and souls. Of course, coming to believe that God is actually up to things is the key issue for all people formed by modernity. There are powerful forces at work in the world and the church, seeking to deny the inspiration of deep hope that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. These forces leave in their wake an insipid despair that can trust only in what humans can achieve – as if God had no other hands but ours.
This focus on God’s mission here, among us, is the hallmark of those who speak about becoming a “missional church”. No longer is mission something that we do. It is not project oriented, nor is it other oriented. It is focused on the changes God intends in our life together so that our distinctive ways are a sign of God’s activity in the world. We do not have the luxury of choosing the nature of the mission. Our mission statement as a church is a given. Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God even as we also hold Canadian passports.
This dual-citizenship is the stuff of our life together. It drives the agenda of our Board meetings (now structured each month by the five ancient marks of the church – kerygma/proclamation, liturgia/worship, koinonia/community, diakonia/service and didache/training). In worship, gathered around the Font and Table, we learn again not to think of this community as our property (as in “Welcome to our church”). Instead, we are recovering the ancient language of Christian hospitality. Frequent celebrations of the Eucharist teach us that Christ is met as both host and stranger here. This is Christ’s church, not ours. These worship practices have led to the daring witness of new-found voices that testify to the radical hospitality of Christ. To my wonder, our move to focus single-mindedly on the hospitality of God in Christ has resulted in a number of families in the congregation making major household decisions to make room for others.
In turning away from a focus on our mission, and in turning towards the good news of God’s mission, an unmistakable vitality is coursing through the veins of the congregation. There is a quality of joy and of longing, of faith and of impatience that is palpable. In the midst of it all I find myself, nearly a quarter century after ordination, on a journey of conversion. And I find that I am not alone in the congregation or in BC Conference. And I thank God for this time and place and calling.
- Edwin Searcy
first published by the Gospel & Our Culture Network in 2003