What is Mission?

January 9, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Robert Heaney

Mission is a word we associate with what we do. The “we,” of course, is too often associated with those of us who live or who are from the so-called Global North. This has not always been the case. Indeed, our forebears might not really ever have associated the word with human agency. Not until the sixteenth century, in fact. Before that time “mission” referred to the nature of God and the nature of God as Trinity. The one God is eternal sentness and self-giving between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in ever giving love and life and grace. The one God is overflowing ever-living light and boundary-crossing love. That overflowing and boundary-crossing love is not, however, hidden in the being of God. On the contrary, that overflowing grace is revealed in the first missional act, “let there be light.” That is to say, God is mission and mission is what God does.

The first missionary act is God creating and crossing the creator-creature boundary for life. To begin with God is to begin with mission. To begin with mission is to begin with God. First and foremost, when we say “mission,” we name not what we do but who God is and what God does. If we “do” mission then it is in response to God’s mission. It is a participating in God’s mission. That means mission does not begin in activism, but in contemplation and discernment, first in scripture and then in tradition, in history and in context. Through such discernment the first question is not, “what should we do?” The first question is, “who is God?” and “what is the work of God?”

Acknowledging the real danger of over-simplification and reductionism we can, at the very least, say that contemplating the nature of God opens up to us the revelation that God is love. As Episcopalians, we baptize people in the name of the Trinity and thus we can further testify to this eternal grace as mission that is boundary-crossing love. It is who God is. It is what God does. Mission is crossing boundaries for life.

As Christians, the fulfillment of the divine mission of crossing boundaries for life is the person and work of Jesus Christ. For that reason, the foundation for how Episcopalians understand mission is proclamation of the Gospel. The first mark of our five marks of mission is “To proclaim the good news of the kingdom.” This mark is not an optional extra, nor is it simply the point of departure for an understanding of mission. It is the defining mark of Christian mission. It is what distinguishes the work of the church from the work of charity. But more, it is the means of taking heed of God’s mission, God’s creativity and God’s re-creativity. For God’s mission gives birth to the church and the church “is alive in the act of proclamation” (Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit [1993], 206).

Proclaiming the kingdom is the word and work that witnesses to creatures and creation coming under the healing will of God through Jesus Christ. It is inviting alienated people into the salvation of God and fellowship of a renewed and renewing humanity and world. It is what makes the other four marks of formation, of service, of reconciliation and sustainability mission. In full these marks are:

To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers (formation).

To respond to human need by loving service (service).

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of

every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation (reconciliation).

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew life (sustainability).

Let us be honest. As Episcopalians, we often give the impression that we are more comfortable with these four marks of mission. However, because mission begins with the nature of the boundary-crossing God, we cannot opt out of the challenging, complicated, controversial ministry of speaking the Gospel and grounding the Gospel. We cannot opt out of seeking the Gospel in people beyond our contexts, our traditions and our experience. We are not called to belligerence. We are not called to proselytism. Rather, we are called to witness. We are called to evangelism. We are called to explain the reason for the joy and hope that is in our hearts, remembering always that the first and chief agent of mission is God.

That, however, is not something that we always see in the Modern Missionary Movement as it became implicated in expansionisms of so-called Western nations and Western agenda. While the Movement did not know of the Five Marks, its problem became what our temptation is. The temptation remains to move away from doing the thoroughly theological and christological work of contemplation and discernment to focus on the nature and agency of human beings. The temptation remains to have an understanding of mission that is expansionist and not participationist. The only remedy for such danger is to return to the original referent for “mission.” God is mission.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Heaney is Director of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies, Virginia Theological Seminary.

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