Mission Is… Good Question

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Mission Is… Good Question

by Thomas Fowler and Debbie James

We both like asking questions. In a world (and a church culture) that is often seeking to present the answers, we think there is room for asking questions that catalyse personal journeys of discovery. That is why at New Wine, Big Church Day Out, Greenbelt and other Christian festivals during summer 2017, Church Mission Society designed an exhibition stand, not to talk overtly about what CMS does, but rather, to ask a big question.

The people working at the stand asked as many people as possible what ‘mission is’ through a six-question survey. ‘Mission’ has become one of those words that is often bandied about, but really, what is it? We ended up asking over 2,000 people at festivals, events and online. The survey results and some candid video responses can be found on the CMS website. [1]

What you won’t necessarily see there however is the impact of asking the question. Nervous laughter, stunned silences, tears and stories of hurt, loss and failed dreams as well as tales of amazing encounters, wonderful leaders and beautiful human connections all surfaced at our stand. We were taken aback by people’s frequent acknowledgement of being called to God’s mission, but the dissatisfaction at being unable to put that call into action. Indeed, the results showed very positively that 91 per cent of the people surveyed believe everyone should be involved in mission, yet 45 per cent struggle to identify their call or to put it into action.

Reasons why many people aren’t living lives of mission are varied. Some don’t know what their specific call is; for others lives are so stuffed with work, family and church that there’s scarce time and resource to think about anything else. For some, stepping out and sharing their faith fills them with fear. Others are confused by what mission means for them in their community and the wider world – where does it fit with their church activity and what has been modelled to them? So many people had never been asked or asked themselves what mission is or considered the implications for their lives. All these things highlight to us that there is work to be done in helping people discover the breadth and depth of God’s mission call.

Busting myths about mission

As a result of people’s responses and as the Mission Is campaign continues, we have produced some online free resources to help people do just that and to bust some myths about mission. These include some videos where a range of people reflect on mission. CMS pioneer student Kerry McLeish reflects on how she has changed from seeing mission as going to Africa, running an Alpha course, putting on a church event or talking to a friend about her faith, to now understanding mission as being what God is doing in the world. She says: “He is at work in the world all the time throughout creation and in every aspect of life and it’s about us joining in with what he’s is already doing, not us going and doing something or organising to do something and praying that he’ll come along with us and bless it.” Luke Larner, self-described ragamuffin chaplain in Luton, similarly reflects that mission is “not so much about strategising, our clever ideas, our agendas; it’s really discovering what God is doing, finding the glimpses of glory, finding the places where God’s kingdom is out-breaking” and he offers practical tips – essentially focussing on the importance of listening, looking and waiting. [2] It’s so helpful to see that mission doesn’t belong to us, or even the church. Rather, God is already on a mission in every community and is simply asking us to join him in it. Perhaps taking time to notice God’s activity around us is the biggest step we can take towards living out a life of mission. In so doing, we are released from any mission myths or baggage that might suggest mission is about us – about us saving the world or fixing things.

Both Luke and Kerry reflect on how they’ve been surprised by God’s activity outside of the church. Luke describes how he found people on the Alcoholics Anonmyous 12-step programme were discovering Jesus through their recovery journey. In handing their life over to God they were encountering Jesus and having powerful encounters with the Holy Spirit, yet no paid missionary or minister had been sent to them. Says Luke: “It was just happening”. Tanas Alqassis, CMS regional manager for Europe, Middle East and North Africa shares how many Muslim-background believers experienced Jesus appearing in a dream, without anyone first preaching to them. He comments that God is not “taken” to other places, but is in fact “already at work” in those places, if only we will notice. In order to live a life of mission, we don’t have to carve out a specific hero-type call or develop a strategy or fit ‘another thing’ into our already busy lives – these are myths we can dispense with. Our challenge is to discover where God is working and how we can be part of it. We hope that this perspective of mission releases people to discover the breadth and depth of God’s call.

Also in the videos, Levi Santana, CMS mission partner in Brazil, challenges any idea that mission might primarily be a Western thing – a myth that the rapid growth of Christianity in the global South has exposed. He says: “If we are partakers in [God’s] mission then we all share a part in that mission, so then it has to be something that belongs to everyone. So it’s western, it’s Asian, it’s African, it’s Latin American.” Levi and his family are an example of multi-directional mission; sent by their church in Brazil to engage in mission in the UK, they have recently been sent back to Brazil by the UK church to continue in mission there. Harvey Kwiyani, lecturer in African Christianity and theology and director of Missio Africanus, is also featured in the resource and speaks of the importance of migration for mission. There is a big reversal of mission now happening as many Christians from other parts of the world that were once evangelised by Europeans are now migrating to Europe. He issues the challenge that “the West really has an opportunity to engage non-Western Christians living among them” which raises more questions about mission. What is God doing through the gift of the global church in Britain and how are we joining in?

Another question arises in the wake of economic austerity and increasing privatisation. How do churches engage in mission in local communities that feel increasingly marginalised? Is mission, in this instance, about doing stuff “for” people in need? Or is that also a myth that needs busting? Johnny Sertin, CMS pioneering mission adviser, presents an alternative view that shifts the emphasis from us doing things “to” and “for” others to being and doing things “with” them. He says: “It’s really important to work alongside people… it recognises that everybody in a very inclusive way has stuff to offer, share and give.” Johnny noticed the significance of this when he went to help at the “Jungle” refugee and migrant camp in Calais before it was shut down, where he met a group of Sudanese men. He had taken a number of items to distribute and was struck by the exchange of gifts that took place. Having received the gifts from him, the men invited Johnny and those he was with to sit down and share coffee with them, “treasure” that they had carried on their arduous journey from Sudan and which they prepared over a small fire in the squalor of the camp. What does mission look like if it is “being with” people? What does mission look like if we are the guest and not always the host?

Mission Is… more questions

As the Mission Is campaign continues, we still have plenty to do to liberate ourselves, our mission community and the church we are called to serve, to put our call in action: to join with God to see a world transformed by Christ. That’s why, whatever mission is, we’re not ready to stop asking the question.

About the authors

Thomas Fowler project managed the first stage of the Mission Is campaign. Debbie James is director of church and community mission at Church Mission Society.

More from this issue


[1] churchmissionsociety.org/mission-is
[2] churchmissionsociety.org/resources What is Mission? A Myth-busting Bible Study, session 1

Some content originally published in The Call, Issue 7, p22, used with permission.