Mark Short outlines what a Mission Society should look like, and what it has to do with church.
Long before missionalbecame the favourite adjective for churches wanting to serve on the cutting edge, voluntary societies like The Bush Church Aid Society have defined themselves in terms of mission (early editions of the Society"s Real Australian magazine refer to "Home Missions" in contrast to the "Foreign Missions" supported by other Societies). But what does a commitment to mission look like for us?
First, it is important to recognise that we are not a church. We aren"t a local gathering of God"s people around the Risen Lord Jesus.
But we do have a vital and necessary connection with the church. The thousands of people who express our mission through their prayers, giving and going do so largely because their faith has been awakened and encouraged through one or more churches. In turn BCA needs to ensure that the formation and strengthening of churches is central to what we do. If, as Leslie Newbiggin argued, a healthy local church is one of most powerful demonstrations of the gospel to a sceptical age, then we have no place supporting programs that exist in isolation or independent from a local gathering of believers.
So what disciplines will sustain a healthy partnership between BCA and churches? Let me suggest four:
No ministry or church exists in a vacuum. Faithful stewardship requires that we understand the time and place where God has called us to serve Him and make him known. What can we say about the people who live there – their hopes and fears, their besetting idols, their understanding or misunderstanding of the gospel?
Tim Keller calls this gospel contextualisation – “It is giving people the Bible"s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”1 One could add that at times contextualisation requires that we bring to the surface questions that people aren"t, but should be asking given their particular time and place.
Sometimes we are so far away from a particular context that we fail to understand it. At other times we are so immersed in our context that it becomes like our own face – something so familiar to us that we find it difficult to discern and describe is unique features.
A Society like BCA can help by providing the "mid range" perspective which allows us to see the subtle ways in which one mission field differs from the next.
That is certainly true of what Australians call the bush. Seen from Flinders or Pitt Street it may all look the same but a closer look reveals the important ways in which one rural location differs from another. More settled farming communities aren"t the same as towns or districts with a significant lifestyle and tourism component. Mining communities have their own character as do locations with significant numbers of indigenous people.
Whenever we send people to serve in a particular location and whenever we seek to assist Christians already embedded in a location we need to do so with an informed understanding of the connection points between the gospel and the people in that place.
Times of transition are moments of threat and opportunity for believers in Christ. Moving from one home to another, from education to work or from paid work to retirement can result in a loss of contact with other Christians and the adoption of values and priorities which are hostile to the gospel. But every move is also an opportunity to re-evaluate budgets and diaries in light of the gospel and to commit or re-commit to mission and ministry.
Precisely because its work is not limited to one location a Society like BCA can help believers navigate these transitions with gospel intentionality. In recent years it has supported ministries in larger regional centres which are transition points for younger adults and others moving to and from larger cities and more remote rural areas. We are working with soon-to-be and recent retirees to help them endure their big trip around Australia has service and mission at its heart. We encourage Christians who have benefitted from BCA-supported ministry in mining towns to connect with a bible-based and mission focussed church if and when they return to the coast.
There is at least a half truth in the claim that traditional denominations, with their bureaucratic structures and standardised processes, are creatures of modernity2.
If our post-modern world favours more fluid and de-centralised networks then Societies like BCA should be ideally placed to facilitate this, assuming they don"t simply replicate denominational structures under another label.
Networks grow through connections around a shared interest, vision or opportunity. They often develop from the ground up rather than from a centralised initiative. BCA is already engaged with embryonic networks in the areas of mining chaplaincy, rural church planting and indigenous leadership and hopes to play its part in facilitating their growth.
Tending the Vision
The recent Australian book Driven by Purpose describes the phenomenon of "mission drift" as it relates to charities:
“Few charities know who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. It is probable that, at one time, within each organisation someone did know….however, that clarity is no longer there for most organisations. It has been muddled by a focus on service delivery, it has been obscured by a focus on financial performance or, perhaps, financial survival, it has been pushed out by a desire and need to professionalise a purpose that once was well understood but poorly executed.”3
Mission organisations can fall prey to the same trajectory. Lacking a grounding in churchly disciplines such as the regular reading and teaching of Scripture they can drift into a respectable status quo where the gospel imperatives which once gave them purpose are at best assumed and at worst denied.
There are several ways in which a Mission Society can keep itself honest in this area
. by regularly articulating its gospel convictions in meetings and publications
. by ensuring that matters of conviction as well as competence and character are given due attention in the recruitment and induction of board members and staff
. by listening carefully to the voice of the "friendly critic" within or outside the organisation who calls it out on any discrepancy between what is espoused and what is practised
Looking back on his first ten years at the helm of BCA the first Organising Missioner recalls that from the outset it was driven by the conviction that “Australia needed a robust Gospel more than anything else.”4. Generations later that need remains as pressing as ever and BCA"s contribution to God"s mission down under hinges on large part on whether we continue to heed that call.
Since September 2011 Mark has been National Director of The Bush Church Aid Society. He previously served in Parish ministry in rural New South Wales. Married to Monica with two sons, he is passionate about enabling churches and Christians in the bush to be at the forefront of God"s mission.
2 as argued by Alan Roxburgh"Reframing Denominations for a Missional Perspective" in C Van Gelder (ed) The Missional Church and Denominations: Helping Congerations Develop a Missional Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp75-103
3 (Stephen Judd, Anne Robinson & Felicity Errington Driven by Purpose: Charities that make the difference (Greenwich: Hammond Press, 2012), pp4-5
4 S.J. Kikby These Ten Years (BCA Sydney 1930) p6