What does “mission” really mean?
Colin Smith ponders the meanings that lie beneath a key word for the church today
“Mission” is a word we don’t find in the Bible. So when we talk about the “mission of God”, what exactly are we talking about?
by Colin Smith
I am walking through the streets of Oxford on a Sunday evening with a small group who are on forMission – CMS’s preparation and orientation for people in mission. It is dark and cold, and I am in deep conversation and oblivious to much beyond the person beside me and the pavement in front.
At some point the two of us notice we have lost the rest of the group. We trace our steps back to find them outside a ruined shop front, seriously damaged by a hit and run car accident the night before.
A Palestinian member of the group is chatting with the owner of the business, also a Palestinian. Our group member came to England as a refugee many years ago. She knows something of the pain of experiencing loss away from home. She offers words of encouragement before praying for him, outside on the pavement.
We walk on. Ten minutes later we are treating ourselves to fish and chips and talking with the owner of the shop, who happens to be from Iran. The crisis in Gaza comes into the conversation and he offers the observation that peace will not come until Jesus returns, a view held by Muslims. The conversation turns towards Jesus as the Prince of Peace as we wait for the food to be prepared.
We are not on a mission. This seems to be the everyday actions of scattered people being present and bearing witness to Jesus to others in the places of their dislocation.
The wrong word?
Three days later we are in the final leg of forMission, joining with other CMS people in mission at a conference in Northampton. One of our speakers is Ugandan Bishop Zac Niringiye, a former Africa director for CMS. He encourages us, for a variety of reasons, to consider abandoning the language of mission, a word absent from Scripture, in favour of witness, a word more evidently biblical. I think back to that Sunday evening.
Mission is a word that is pretty central to us at CMS. The clue is in the name! But it does have its problems. It is, as one writer put it, “not an innocent word”.
It has a mixed history and, in many minds, it is hard to separate from Western colonialism and the abusive power of empire.
Dangers of mission
Mission is always in danger of looking like a process dependent on human skill, energy, planning and endeavour.
For all our language about the mission of God, we seem overly occupied with what we sense depends on us. Our thoughts turn all too quickly to strategies and resources and so easily lose sight of the One who declares that he was served in/with those who were hungry, thirsty, homeless and in prison.
Mission, in spite of the words of Jesus, tends to look for the levers of power rather than embrace the place of vulnerability; to exercise power, rather than acknowledge weakness.
Embracing the challenge
The challenge is perhaps not to abandon mission, or strategies (much loved by churches, denominations and mission societies alike!). We need to be intentional, wise and accountable with the resources that are available to us (for they are not “our” resources). But we may need to recognise the limits of the language of mission.
Back to forMission (the word gets everywhere) and we are journeying through Acts. In Luke’s version of a so-called Great Commission, the disciples are told they will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
The question is left hanging as to how 11 Galilean men, with a less than impressive track record, will accomplish that.
Blown by the Spirit
For Luke the answer is, they won’t. The answer will come in chapter 2 and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Here, dispersed and scattered Jews, present in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, will encounter the transforming work of the Spirit in the lives of the first disciples and within their own lives too. They will carry the gospel beyond Jerusalem.
In Acts 8 it will be the persecuted and scattered church that will be witnesses to the Samaritans and Philip will be blown off course to a desert road for an unlikely, very unplanned and intimate encounter that will see the gospel of Jesus travel to Africa, carried in one of its own tongues, in its own flesh and blood.
It seems deeply unwise to try to speak of God’s mission strategy, singular or plural. God does what God does because he loves his creation.
But the story of Israel and the story of the beginnings of the church so often seems to centre on the lives of scattered people, called to be present and faithful away from home.
For those first Christians it was often a vocation to follow the leading of the Spirit and be witnesses to Jesus in the places of their dislocation.
In a world where millions are on the move, in a country where so many are away from home, at so many levels, perhaps that cold night on an Oxford road holds its own gift.
Being present to people and places, listening, seeing, hearing and feeling; being open to and responsive to the prompting of the Spirit (even if that leaves you feeling weak and foolish), being a witness to Jesus.
Not exactly a mission strategy, but perhaps God is not entirely dependent on that!