I’m going to begin with a little joke from my homeland. Jock was leaving his home in the glen to find work in London. And as he was leaving, Mrs Dunn came and said “Och Jock, if you’re going to London, do you think you could try to find my son, Neil? He left for London six months ago and he hasn’t even written home since. Could you find my Neily and let me know if he’s all right? All I know is that he’s in London WC1.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs Dunn,” said Jock, “I’ll find Neily and make sure he writes.”
So Jock sets off and as he arrives at Euston Station he’s in luck straight away. No sooner does he step off the train than he finds a sign saying “WC”. “This must be it”, he thinks. And sure enough, inside there are a series of numbered cubicles. So he goes up to No1 and bangs on the door.
“Are you Neily Dunn in there?” He asks.
“Yes,” comes a voice, “but there’s no paper.”
“Well that’s a terrible excuse for not writing to your mother!”
Christian mission has acquired a bit of a reputation for behaving a bit like Jock there – having a set message we want to communicate and ploughing ahead with it, regardless of the context of our audience. It is a bit of an unfair caricature, but even the Church itself would admit that there is some truth in that criticism. Christian mission abroad has changed radically from the days when it was about making little Englishmen around the rest of the world. But for all our progress in international mission, we have not yet re-imagined mission in a way that connects effectively at home. And there are, it seems to me, two key reasons for that: firstly, we are unused to being in a missionary situation at home; and secondly, we have not sufficiently caught up with what modern Britain is like. So of course, we are struggling to engage.
Now, in the light of this, it can surely be unarguable that the Church needs to engage in mission at home. If we don’t, the Church will become increasingly irrelevant to people’s lives and could well disappear entirely from British society. So coming together to create a mission community is a positive statement of intent about our desire to recapture the imagination of our communities and to offer something of value to them.
But it is surely equally evident that to do that effectively, we need to re-imagine mission. Simply coming up with a message that we tell the world, regardless of their context is not going to work. Even the starting point of assuming that mission is about us ‘telling other people’ is not going to work. One of the best legacies of Christianity in this country is that we have an educated population able to think for themselves, so mission needs to capture their imagination and that requires us to re-imagine what it’s about.
So how do we re-imagine mission? Well, I think we need to go back to basics. And today we have perhaps the most succinct definition of mission from the lips of Jesus himself: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
The whole dynamic of mission is that of being sent by God. It is of God giving himself to the world. ‘God sent his son into the world.’ And now, he sends to do the same thing he was sent to do. Mission is not what the Church does. Mission is what God does, reaching out to engage with the world. And the Church is called to join in with what God does. As Rowan Williams said, “Mission is seeing what God is up to, and joining in.”
So surely the first thing we can stick in our thinking caps as we re-imagine mission is that we need to be where our communities are. Jesus did that perfectly in his life. Theologians use the term ‘incarnational’ to describe Jesus’ ministry. The incarnation is Jesus’ birth, God taking on human flesh and living a human life. That is the first step of Jesus being sent. So the Church also needs to begin its mission by inhabiting the world as Jesus did, because we are sent into the world in the same way that Jesus was.
But we are also called to be different. Jesus says of his disciples, “they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world”. This is where the idea comes of Christians being ‘in the world, but not of the world’ and it is a good guiding principle for the Church. Now Christians have interpreted this differently over the years. Some emphasise the ‘not of the world’ by living in distinctive communities. The evangelical tradition, including Methodism, has seen that as foundational to their mission. But more anciently it was what gave rise to monasticism and other very distinctive Christian communities. Other Churches in the Catholic and liberal traditions have tended to emphasise being ‘in the world’. That allows us to walk alongside our neighbours very closely, but the danger is that we lose our Christian distinctiveness. By contrast, emphasising the ‘not of the world’ element can be very powerful in demonstrating the radical change Christianity can bring to human lives, but the challenge is to engage with the world and not to become a cloistered holy huddle. It’s a delicate balance, which is why we need to come together across the denominations and across the traditions of evangelical, catholic and liberal because we each have so much to offer each other in re-imagining our mission.
But above all, our calling is to be sent as Jesus was sent. So how did Jesus balance this ‘in the world, but not of the world’ dynamic? Well, he was wonderfully human. He engaged with the full range of humanity, notably those in the margins beyond the confines of respectable society: he ate and drank with them, partied with them and spoke with them. He listened to them and engaged with the reality of their lives. One of the reasons why the Church has struggled to agree on Jesus’ message was that he didn’t come with one standard message for every context. Instead, he engaged deeply with people’s concerns, spoke to the issues they were facing and offered them a glimpse of a better world, one where healing, reconciliation and freedom were possible. And that approach powerfully captured their imagination.
So if we are to be sent in the way that Jesus was sent, to be part of God’s great reaching out into the world, surely we need to engage deeply with our communities, as Jesus did, not better than the world around us, but sharing its plight, its joys and its pains, its quest for truth and its blindness. But we can also point to how Jesus has made a difference in our lives, that when Jesus engaged with our lives he brought healing, he brought understanding, he brought a peace that the world cannot give and he brought a joy that explains how we live as Christians – why we celebrate, why we worship, why we serve.
So as we look to launch our mission community, I’m asking us to think about two questions: “what are the issues that most concern our communities?” And “what does the Christian faith have to offer about those concerns?” What can we contribute that they might receive as a gift, or a relief? What can we offer, as we walk alongside our neighbours, that might excite them or capture their imagination? What might make them look afresh at the faith and wonder whether there might, after all, be something here that is relevant to their lives?
It seems to me that there lies the starting point for re-engaging with our communities, not telling them what to do, but exploring with them the issues that really matter to them and showing how Jesus makes a transformative difference. It is in the reality of people’s lives that Christian mission takes place and we have a great deal of positive things to offer, don’t we? In education, Christianity has always held that education is valuable for its own sake, not just as a series of exams by which children are judged; in health, the belief that every life is sacred; in disability that being human is more than looking perfect. These are all big issues for people today and there are many more. And we have an important contribution to make on each because Jesus had plenty to say about all these things.
So we will be starting this process by thinking about these questions at our plenary PCC meeting on Wednesday, but the question is for all of us, so I’m going to be asking our PCCs to take the conversation out into the pews and into the streets. No-one else can give you the answers, no-one in Lambeth Palace, or Bishop’s House or even the Vicarage. Each of us has to wrestle with these questions because it is each of us who is sent by Jesus. And the answers we each come up with will be different, because our contexts are different. But we nonetheless engage with the world together, because despite our differences, the abiding truth is that we are all one in Jesus. So as you engage with what God is doing in your community, as you are sent out in the same way Jesus was sent out, the Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth, bring us together in his name and draw others into his circle of love. So let’s get praying, let’s get listening, let’s get thinking and let’s make a difference together as a mission community.
Thrimby (joint) 13 May 2018