The ‘Mr. Rogers Initiative’ and Other Mission Visions

A Closing Editorial

Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso
Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso

What would an initiative look like that helped children become loving persons AND helped congregations gain a sense of themselves as mission centers—not just hospitals or even schools, but places of outreach and engagement? What about an education initiative to help fund more childcare, nursery, afterschool, and tutoring programs in our congregations? This would meet stressed families and single parents exactly where they need help, build relationships with neighbors, and strengthen neighborhoods. Frankly, it would also grow the church and probably make us more loving. It could even involve Young Adult Volunteers as well as our legions of active and smart retirees. And why not name it for a Presbyterian minister who exemplified and taught Christian values using electronic media with integrity and creativity? A Mr. Rogers’ Initiative would seem an excellent mission – or ‘missional’—program.

If nothing else, the idea of missional thinking that has been tested throughout this issue has tried to focus the church to realities and needs outside itself. How thin is the rationale for some mission projects? How serious are congregations about any projects—and are congregations the right starting point? Historically, Christian and certainly Presbyterian energy has been focused by national boards and agencies built to accomplish tasks, and to unite congregations and individuals across the country. How serious is any denomination about mission if it does not have any program capacity in its regional governing bodies? Whether they are conferences, presbyteries, synods, or something in between, they should not just be personnel offices.

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The key to mission that makes an impact is that it has a moral component.
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The key to mission that makes an impact is that it has a moral component. That moral component is a necessary part of leadership as well, particularly in the church. Without it, we can wave goodbye to the ‘nones’; they’re already heading right out the church doors (perhaps to join a different group of ‘nuns’ who have been traveling the country in a bus lifting up that very moral component we’re seeking?).

church entrance PDI don’t mean to reduce the Church to ethics alone. We ought respond with a loud, “Yes!” to worship as well, the vocabulary and spiritual practices that show the holy or sacred in life. But the believer’s heart needs exercise, and good ethical practice so often raises the questions of meaning and purpose that lie within any effort to ‘do good.’

The need to keep justice and mercy together is a theme in a number of the articles we have run. To be a ‘do-gooder’ in an unjust system—to think that even a wonderful local project will change the world—is still a limited picture of the church’s mission. While the word mission itself can be criticized as something of a catchall, the danger I’ve observed in the ‘missional’ is the temptation to measure mission by the size of the acting body rather than the scope of the need. Keeping the full mission disclosed by God’s Spirit in view, while also understanding the full calling of a congregation or body, is not simply a matter of balance; it is a matter of strategy.

Just as being nice or conflict-avoidant will not save any church, neither will re-structure—always touted as a way to serve some understanding of mission. In my earlier article on the “Suburban Archipelago,” I called for a new form of National Mission. I stand by much of that earlier analysis and urge the reader to look at that with your own mission commitments in view. Where would they fit?

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The need to keep justice and mercy together is a theme in a number of the articles we have run. To be a ‘do-gooder’ in an unjust system—to think that even a wonderful local project will change the world—is still a limited picture of the church’s mission.
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Two or three initiatives of our Presbyterian Mission Agency may illuminate some of the challenges before our particular part of Christ’s church—bear with me non-Presbys, or non-institutional people.

Photo: Public Domain
Photo: Public Domain

One is an Urban Roundtable, an idea for bringing together people engaged in urban ministry but with an eye to urban mission, the broader concept. This came out of a General Assembly report that used Detroit as a test case. How does a denomination based in that suburban archipelago of congregations reach out while maintaining and nurturing the toeholds it still has in even tough city places? And then, surprisingly perhaps, how do we come alive in places where newcomers, often young and educated, are pouring back in? Do we continue to abandon the poorer communities? Or is our job, as one author in this issue suggests, to be a catalyst between the two?

Some of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities are clearly trying to do this. But that program focuses on new, not re-developing existing congregations. And New Beginnings, the diagnostic program for congregations in trouble that can be quite effective, addresses its set of prescriptions to individual congregations rather than whole cities . So an urban mission strategy (as well as a suburban one!) is needed. Maybe even one that is ecumenical…

We also have an educational initiative that is being developed by World Mission internationally and Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministries the domestic side. This project focuses on the need for education to break the “School to Prison Pipeline” and is well worth examining. And no, it is not called the “Mr. Rogers initiative.” That name is probably taken. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of character if Rev. Rogers himself had forbidden such a potentially ‘brand-like’ approach.

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For any mission initiative to last its intended course, it is important to build on existing strengths, structures, and loyalties. Without these, what foundation is there for people to invest their dollars, much less their lives?
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For any mission initiative, project, or campaign to last its intended course, it is important to build on existing strengths, structures, and loyalties. Without these, what foundation is there for people to invest their dollars, much less their lives? And yet too much grounding may not get anything into fruition.

Tree - PDPope Francis, for many, is the sign that the church needs to have a prophetic edge, even though the Papal office is not traditionally a prophetic one. He combines mercy and justice and is focusing his church’s mission on being with the poor.

The Presbyterian study group on reforming drug policy recently heard this phrased in a slightly different way from a veteran drug and alcohol counselor from the West Virginia coalfields, full of economic, familial, and (not surprisingly) spiritual collapse. He spoke of “roots” churches, focusing on their faith and prayer and worship, but also of churches more like the tree that grows from a mustard seed in Jesus’ parable, where all kinds of living things find a place in its branches.

So yes to roots and shoots, and thinking out of the box that doesn’t just lead us into another box. Perhaps we’ve made our way out of the box of ‘mission’ only to stumble into the box of ‘missional’ – and we are still seeking a vision beyond boxes. We thank all those who contributed to this issue for helping us seek that bigger vision.

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Read more articles in this issue: What Mission is This Anyway?

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