"This is certainly part of the core mission of the church." A comment to this effect came at the conclusion to a presentation on climate change at General Synod, and it certainly stimulated conversation. Just what do we consider to be the 'core mission of the church', and how does it relate to evangelism? Are evangelism and mission essentially the same? Should not our core focus be in saving souls?
This is more than a matter of semantics. With the attention given to 'mission-shaped' ministry and rediscovery of what it means to 'be church', notions of mission can mean very different things to different people. However, it may be that we are framing our questions the wrong way round. Does the church have a mission in its own right, and is it in any position to decide what such a mission is?
I contend that a biblical view of mission must be grounded firmly in the mission of God (or Missio Dei if you prefer more sophisticated sounding labels). Using the succinct summary (variously attributed), "It's not the church of God that has a mission, but the God of mission who has a church" (now appearing on the Church of England website for mission and evangelism). The notion of mission is as large as the sweep of the biblical narrative itself—from creation to new creation, with the vision of all things, 'things in heaven and things on earth' being united in Christ (Eph. 1:10). As Christopher Wright expresses it, 'the whole Bible is itself is a "missional" phenomenon… the product of and witness to the ultimate mission of God.'1
Notions of mission have undergone helpful reconsideration in recent times, especially within the Anglican Church. The 'five marks of mission' (Lambeth Conference1988) have proven a useful starting point and succinct summary:
- To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To seek to transform unjust structures of society
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth
A formulation such as this has been adopted widely throughout the Anglican Communion. At the risk of a generalisation, it would be reasonable to say that evangelicals have been more comfortable with items 1 and 2 as 'core business', and those of a more liberal outlook have gravitated to items 3-5 as the heart of ministry. The challenge of addressing each aspect as indispensable to an understanding of mission remains — the tendency to pick and choose which aspects we are more 'into' rather defeats the formulation of mission in five integral dimensions.
However, what is less recognised is that consideration regarding mission has developed significantly beyond the 'five marks'—in some cases adding further perspectives, in other cases modifying the way in which they are framed. The work of the MISSIO group2 merits closer attention. Amongst a number of helpful qualifications, two strike me as especially important. One has already been alluded to: understanding mission as 'God-in-action'. Picking up an affirmation of Lambeth Conf. 1998, they note: '"Mission goes out from God. Mission is God's way of loving and saving the world... So mission is never our invention or choice." The initiative in mission is God's, not ours. We are called simply to serve God's mission by living and proclaiming the good news.'
A second observation follows from this. In identifying 'Mission as church', the report elaborates: 'The Five Marks stress the doing of mission. Faithful action is the measure of our response to Christ (cf. Matt. 25:31-46; James 2:14-26). However, the challenge facing us is not just to do mission but to be a people of mission. That is, we are learning to allow every dimension of church life to be shaped and directed by our identity as a sign, foretaste and instrument of God's reign in Christ. Our understanding of mission needs to make that clear.'
Further reflections were also made in the Primate's Presidential Address to the 2007 General Synod in Canberra:
The church does not have a mission apart from Christ's mission. It was Jesus himself who said "as the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20.21, 17.18). And secondly, whatever we do, in word or deed, every aspect of mission is directed towards making known the good news of the Kingdom. So rather than simply being one of a number of marks of mission what has been the first mark should be developed and made an over-arching heading:
The Mission of the Church is the Mission of Christ to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
The other marks then flesh out dimensions of that one mission.
The proclamation of the Good News is not just one item on a menu list, and certainly not an optional one at that. It is intrinsic to every aspect of mission.
So how extensive is the notion of mission? If we follow the consideration of mission above, then mission is as comprehensive as God's engagement with this world. When the seraphim proclaim God's holiness as recorded in Isaiah 6:3: 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts', they continued with a profound affirmation—'the whole earth is full of his glory'. The proclamation of the gospel entails witnessing to and speaking of God's glory in every dimension. It encompasses the whole of creation, all people and the whole person, over all history and throughout all of time—past, present and future. It testifies to the end of history, and the gospel pronouncement concerning the end times. In other words, it is a narrative still very much in progress, and urges every person to view themselves and to respond to God's gospel mission within this grand drama. Key relationships are then understood in this context (reconciled to God in Christ, receiving new life through the Spirit).
As Alison Morgan evocatively expresses it, the 'whole world beats with the creative, sustaining power of the Spirit; withdraw the Spirit from any living thing and it would dissolve immediately into death'.3 To understand life and purpose in gospel terms, we must think in terms of the movement from creation to a new creation. It is within this broader revelation that we then understand Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom-reign of God and the place of his incarnation, life, teachings, death, resurrection, ascension and coming parousia.
You cannot separate evangelism from mission, and we should not narrow God's purposes in creation and redemption in any way that separates the 'spiritual' from the totality of creation. Christopher Wright's definition is compelling: 'Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God's people, at God's invitation and command, in God's own mission within history of God's world for the redemption of God's creation.'4 It is in this context that we may place environmental issues such as climate change and its impact on the most vulnerable people in our global community. Our relationship with the earth is that of responsible stewardship and respect for God's creation, and the climate related circumstances of our own community and beyond is a matter of loving our neighbour as a reflection of our love of God.
Is all this 'core business' of the kingdom? A term such as 'core' is relative, but we are in danger of narrowing God's missional purposes when we reduce our focus unduly. To proclaim the good news that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:13) is certainly the heart of the gospel, but it is far from the extent of it. The cross of Christ is central to the gospel, but not the end. Paul Avis expresses it succinctly: '…mission is bigger than evangelization. Evangelization is a part of which mission is the whole.'5 Evangelism opens a door to the wider world of God's mission that knows no limits.
Tim Harris is the Dean of Bishopdale College, Nelson, NZ.