Why Don’t We Just Call it Being the Church?

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12 mins read
Managing Editor Rev. Ginna Bairby
Managing Editor Rev. Ginna Bairby

I was sitting around a table with a group of colleagues in young adult ministries about a year and a half ago. We had been tasked with coming up with a name for a new initiative to the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly, an initiative that would eventually be known as “Living Missionally”.

One person had been sitting rather quietly during the conversation. After the rest of us had spent several minutes batting around different ideas, debating whether one suggestion was “just catchy buzzwords” or another was “Presbyterian jargon that won’t resonate with people in the pews”, my colleague spoke up:

“Why don’t we just call it ‘Being the Church’?”

Those who are familiar with the initiative know that my colleague’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion did not win the day. So do those who are preparing to participate in our biennial Big Tent conference at the end of July, the theme of which is ‘Live Missionally’. But that day, it did stop all of us sitting around that table in our tracks. It’s hard to argue with the truth.

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I wonder if we’re afraid to call it what it is because we are afraid to admit that that we often forget how to be the Church.
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I have something of a love-hate relationship with neologisms in general. To be sure, language is a living and evolving means of communication. We advance technologically and find ourselves using words like ‘cyberbullying’, ‘blog’, and ‘hacktivism’. We listen to people who do not self-identify on a gender binary, and we learn a whole new set of pronouns. New generations are born, and suddenly everyone in the business world is talking about ‘millennials’ and ‘digital natives’. New or previously unrecognized realities call for new words.

"Pentecost and Resurrection" by Meister des Schoppinger Altars Image: Public domain
“Pentecost and Resurrection” by Meister des Schoppinger Altars
Image: Public domain

But I’m just not convinced that this is the case for this word ‘missional’ that has worked its way into Christian vocabulary. As I said when inviting authors to contribute to this issue, there is plenty of debate as to what this missional church actually is, but whatever it is, it’s what everyone wants to be.

It seems to me that phrases like ‘missional living’ and ‘the missional church’ are new names for a very old concept.

When the Resurrected Christ appears to his disciples in John’s Gospel, he says to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The Latin translation of this commission (if you will) in John 20:21 uses a form of the word mittere – “to send” – from which we derive our English word mission – and all subsequent neologisms. The Church’s mission is, literally, its being-sent-ness. And the model, not surprisingly, is Jesus. Jesus sends the Church into the world to be and do the same things that he was sent to be and do.

If I understand the text, the Church’s mission is to allow itself to be the Body of Christ in the world. The Church is called to be the Church.

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It seems to me that phrases like ‘missional living’ and ‘the missional church’ are new names for a very old concept.
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I wonder if we’re afraid to call it what it is because we are afraid to admit that that we often forget how to be the Church. Theologically, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise us. We read in Paul’s letter to the Romans that “…All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Our Confessions remind us that we are “the church of pardoned sinners” (Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.17), possessing an “innate corruption” (Second Helvetic Confession, 5.037), such that we “become exploiters and despoilers of the world…losing [our] humanity in futile striving and are left in rebellion, despair, and isolation.” (Confession of 1967, 9.12)

Big-tent-logo1How’s that for a résumé?

We confess our sins and hear God’s assurance of forgiveness every time we gather for worship. But coming to terms with the reality that we can only ever be the Church imperfectly takes a deep humility that I, for one, cannot claim to possess every day. Admitting that we daily forget how to be the Church can, quite frankly, be rather embarrassing. Perhaps it softens the blow to come up with a new word, to tell ourselves it’s a novel idea, rather to confess that we get things wrong daily as we seek to live into our original commission.

There’s also the reality – sometimes the elephant in the room – that we don’t all agree on what it means to be the Church. Everyone and their cousin has a different idea of what ‘mission’ actually is. And in some ways, rightfully so. Certainly I would argue, as do the authors in this issue, that there is an essential and universal nature to God’s mission. But, just as all theology is contextual, so all missiology should be developed in conversation with and in response to individual context.

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Mission is not something that we do; it is something that God does through us, a transformation and redemption in which we are invited to participate.
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Calvary Presbyterian Church in Detroit
Calvary Presbyterian Church in Detroit

Given this contextual nature of mission, we at Unbound have done a little crowdsourcing, asking you the readers to speak from your own context and answer the question “What is the mission of the Church?” You have responded incredibly enthusiastically! So over the course of the next few weeks, we will hear from people of faith across our nation and across the world as they answer the question of what mission – of what being the Church – looks like in their own contexts.

I will readily admit that I am no expert in missiology. Many authors in this issue can and will discuss the Church’s participation in in God’s mission with much more wisdom and authority than I ever could. That said, as I’ve read through article submissions for this issue, several themes have been articulated time and time again that resonate deeply with my own understanding of the theological grounding of God’s mission for the Church. I offer up the following as a starting point for the conversation that will unfold in this issue:

  • Mission is not something that we do; it is something that God does through us, a transformation and redemption in which we are invited to participate.
  • Mission is not something that is done to others or even for Mission is something in which we participate with others.
  • Mission includes those activities often that we often call ‘ministry’, but it is in no way limited to religious endeavors.
  • Mission includes global missions, building relationships and partnerships with people around the world. It also includes building those same relationships and partnerships with the people in our neighborhoods.
  • Mission includes the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ – a Biblical aspect of mission that we have Anglicized as evangelism – but is not limited to evangelism in the commonly understood sense of the word.
  • Mission includes work for social justice and dignity for all people but is not limited to ‘do-good’ endeavors.
  • Mission involves being sent beyond the walls of our buildings and the confines of our internal communities. It also includes how the Church treats the people who call this community their home, how we conduct our own life and business.
  • The Church is called to participate in God’s mission, but God’s mission does not belong exclusively to people of faith. Authentic mission must be done in partnership, and we who call ourselves Christians or people of faith do well not write any partner off. God certainly does not.

Book of ConfessionsA little over a year ago, when the ‘Living Missionally’ initiative was about to come before the General Assembly for consideration, I asked a dear friend and mentor of mine, Dr. Dawn DeVries, to write an article for Unbound’s Pre-General Assembly Issue about the ‘missional’ church. More specifically, I asked her to discuss the idea of a missional church through the lens of our Book of Confessions, the collection of documents from different historical moments that together articulate the theology and identity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Dawn responded with this article, which is worth a second read. Perhaps most apropos to our discussion this month is the fact that Dawn frames this article on the missional church not in the theological discipline of missiology but rather in the discipline of ecclesiology – defined in her words as “our understanding of what it means to be the church.”

I think my colleague may have been on to something. Why don’t we just call it being the Church? And while we’re at it, let’s start anew every morning with this holy and terrifying task of being the church – imperfectly.

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

Register for Big Tent 2015!

Read the General Assembly Initiative “Living Missionally”.

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