Monday, June 27, 2011

On Mission

I made a sort of cameo appearance at the triennial Episcopal Youth Event this past week, spending about 24 hours on the campus of Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minnesota (suburban St Paul), about one-quarter of the entire length of the conference. We had two young people and an adult leader from the Diocese of Springfield there, and it was a not-to-be-passed-up opportunity for a bishop to be with them in such a setting and share some of their experience.

And what an experience it was: There were some 900 bodies in the Great Hall for the plenary sessions, with lots of rock concert ambience, an incessant tsunami of youthful energy, incredibly gifted adult leadership, and--if the two I heard are indicative--engaging speakers who are able to communicate effectively with teenagers. It's a good thing that we do this; it's a good thing that we sent kids from the diocese (I hope we send more next time); it's a good thing that I took the time to join them (perhaps I can stay longer next time). Kudos to EYE.

The theme was mission. Not a bad theme for a youth event. For most of us at that stage of life, it's all about activity and experience. We want to be doing stuff. It's also a little less difficult to inspire idealism than it is with those who've had more opportunity--just by living longer--to be jaded by the changes and chances of this life. I can remember being that age, and I can remember being inspired to mission by youth leaders, especially at times when we were gathered with our peers away from home--with lots of singing, lots of socializing, and lots of teaching. It's powerful stuff.

In the Christian tradition that I was raised in, mission pretty much meant one thing and one thing only: evangelism. Bringing others to Christ. That's what missionaries do. If what weighs on your mind is the thought that anyone who dies without having made a conscious "decision for Christ" will immediately be consigned to endless sensory and mental torment, that's a pretty potent reason to sublimate any other missional concern. And when one's understanding of God's redemptive activity becomes more--shall we say--generous in scope, the range of mission begins to broaden.

And broaden. And broaden still more.

So I hope I'm not being just cranky here. My intent is to reflect critically ("critically" in the best sense, not with animus) on how I'm hearing mission characterized these days, including in the two addresses, and some of the songs, that I heard at EYE.

In couterpoint to the restrictive mission-equals-evangelism notion that we get from--appropriately enough, perhaps--those who would call themselves evangelicals, here are the bullet points of what seems to be the regnant narrative among contemporary Episcopalians:
  • Creation is pervasively wounded. The sign of this woundedness is the degradation of our physical environment in such phenomena as climate change. The social dimension of creation's woundedness is seen in poverty, racism, discrimination, and the structures of injustice, greed, and fear that abet such conditions.
  • God has a dream of a world that is restored both physically and socially. God's mission, therefore, is to bring about wholeness through the elimination of social injustice and environmental irresponsibility.
  • In his life and death, Jesus shows us both the infinite extent of God's love, and how to be truly human, to live authenically in the way God intends us to live--justly, humbly, lovingly, and responsibly.
  • Inspired by our faith in Jesus, we are called as Christians to join God's mission (it is indeed "God's mission", not "the Church's mission") of healing creation. 
  • As a concrete activity, "mission" entails serving the needs of others, advocating and working for the reformation of unjust social structures, and generally living in ways that support these endeavors.
I've seriously tried not to present a caricature here, so do let me know if you think I haven't succeeded.

I find this narrative ... well, the best word I can think of is "impoverished" ... as an account of Christian mission. There are two major reasons for this assessment, and then some lesser ones.

First, it lacks an evident and coherent connection with the Paschal Mystery. I use this expression (Paschal Mystery) as a shorthand for an event-word-symbol complex that includes the incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, glorification, ongoing high-priestly ministry, and anticipated return of Jesus the Word of God; i.e. that which underlies our celebration of the Eucharist, that which underlies our salvation. This is the core of the Good News. Mission, if it is to be understood as Christian mission, is rooted in the gospel, and there is no account of the gospel that is not anchored in and intertwined with the Paschal Mystery. We have nothing to say and nothing to do that cannot be pretty directly connected to "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."

Second, it lacks an eschatlogical dimension. That's not exactly a household word (eschatological), so let's briefly unpack it. Literally, the term denotes the study of "last things" (in Christian tradition: death, judgment, heaven, hell), the "end times." But itconnotes someting a bit more expansive and nuanced than it denotes; namely, that the fruition of God's redemptive purposes in the world, in human history, is accomplished by God's sovereign action, and that this fruition is not the summit of a gradual linear path, but, rather, something that follows on divine intervention of a sort that can, from a human perspective, only be described as cataclysmic. (See II Peter 3:10 for a graphic example of what I'm talking about.) 

From these (in my opinion) major flaws flow some lesser ones. One hears with increasing frequency the notion of "God's dream" for the world. It causes me to wonder how those who use this expression understand either God's sovereignty (one could say, one of God's very defining characteristics) and God's providence (i.e. God's sovereignty put into action). I can understand the intuitive visceral appeal of "God's dream," which makes it all the more problematic, because it is theologically incoherent. It is meaningless to speak of God having a "dream" because God does not operate in the realm of a conditioned or qualified future. Our eschatological hope as Christians is simply this: God wins. We know how the story ends, and there's not a darn thing any of us can do, either individually or corporately, no matter how many mission trips we might send our youth groups on, to either hasten or retard the day, or affect it in any way. Personally, I find that a word of hope and comfort.

For similar reasons, I am troubled by language that speaks of Christian mission as joining in an effort to "heal God's world." It's nothing new. William Blake's celebrated poem, set to stirring music by Charles H. H. Parry, a song that puts a lump in the throat of every patriotic subject of the British Crown (and other anglophiles, including the Bishop of Springfield), speaks of "Jerusalem" (as a metaphor for God's Kingdom of perfect justice, peace, and love) being "builded here," and the singers promise to not "cease from mental fight" etc. etc. until that happens. Well, that song is wonderful poetry and horrible theology. The same can be said for songs that say "God has no hands but ours," and the like (even JFK's line, "God's work must truly be our own"). It's not up to us to usher in the kingdom of God. God is perfectly capable of ushering in his own kingdom with or without our help. 

So ... here is a tentative proposed counter-narrative to the one that seems to be so pervasive:
  • The whole created order is under the thrall of sin and death. As a result, human beings are radically alienated from God and from one another.
  • God, in the person of Jesus, defeated the power of sin and death by his own death and resurrection. In so doing, he set in motion the inexorable process of redemption and renewal, making all things new.
  • Through faith in Christ, and participation in the life of Christ through word and sacrament, disciples of Christ form the community of God's "called out ones"--i.e. the ekklesia, the Church.
  • The mission of the Church is to announce to the world what God is doing, and in so doing to call all people everywhere to repentance, faith, baptism, and discipleship in the communion of the Church.
  • In service of this mission, the Church is called to order her interior life in such a manner as models to the world what the Kingdom of God looks like, to serve as a glimpse and foretaste of life in the Kingdom.
  • The pursuit of the Church's mission will necessarily include both works of compassion and kindness toward those who suffer or are in extreme need, ministering to the whole person. It will also include advocacy for social structures that are just and that are in accord with God's righteousness. 
As you can see (I hope), the concrete results of the currently ascendant narrative and the counter-narrative I have proposed will overlap in many ways. Both are consistent with mission trips to rebuild housing in the wake of natural disasters. Both are capable, I believe, of inspiring selflessness and dedication on the part of idealistic young people. One of them, at any rate, lets God be God, and takes account of the broad sweep of gospel witness and Christian tradition.

Maybe I'll be invited to be a plenary speaker at the next EYE. (Or maybe not.)


Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Here's another articulation of mission that I believe is consonant with mine, from John Ortberg:
:Who is your competition?

It's not other churches. Every church is our partner and ally. Thank God for Lutherans and Episcopalians and Methodists and Quakers and Congregationalists and Non-denominationalists. Jesus, our Founder and Leader, defined the competition: "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:16ff)

In other words, our competition is hell. Hell is at work wherever the will of God is defied.

Every time a little child is left unloved, unwanted, uneducated, unnoticed. Every time a marriage ends. Every time racial differences divide a street or a city or a church. Every time money gets worshipped or hoarded. Every time a lie gets told. Every time generations get separated. Every time a workplace becomes de-humanizing. When families get broken up. When virtue gets torn down. When sinful habits create a lives of shame or a culture of shamelessness. When faith gets undermined and hope gets lost and people get trashed. That's when hell is prevailing.

It is not acceptable to Jesus that hell prevail. Your job is not to meet a budget, run a program, fill a building, or maintain the status quo. Your job is to put hell out of business.

That's what it means for your church to do well."

Anonymous said...

Or...maybe you should host your own conference? These are all excellent points. I too have often flinched at the trite language of God's 'dream'; it makes me think of certain evangelical praise songs that ask if God is thinking about us (like a forlorn teenage boyfriend or girlfriend). The Greek Fathers, in particular, had a robust language concerning God's impassibility, infinity, and thus - for us humans - God's incomprehensibility. The 'mission' language and narrative you point to is one that is devoid of the capacity for apophasis, for mysticism, and thus for worship. Genuine mission, it seems to me, has a paschal element articulated liturgically, not just on a weekly basis, but in the Triduum and the process of Christian initiation-cum-discipleship. The silly language of God's dream (as if the infinite were impassible!) does not lead us back into worship, and thus into participating with the heavenly choir.

Which is to say that if you have your own conference, I'll be there, too!

Bruce Robison said...

+Dan -- after reading this I skipped over to the Episcopal Cafe to see what he had posted over the weekend, and I ran across the story of the appointment of the Rev. Carol Wade as the next Dean of the Cathedral in Lexington. Her comment connected to your post:

Wade: "God has a dream to heal the world. Cathedrals are meant to give us a glimpse of that dream, and in so doing, to fortify and inspire us for that holy work and mission."


BrianInDioSpfd said...

Your articulation of the prevailing idea of mission in TEC reminds me of a song they sang at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. "We Are Building the Kingdom of God." That one always bothered me for all the reasons you articulate.

Well said, Bishop Daniel!

revrhino said...

Thanks +Dan for articulating what appears to be lacking in mission and perhaps even in much of our leadership in the Church. I have always been bothered by the absence of the Paschal Mystery as the source of all we do in nearly every conversation going on in the Church today. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Ok, so you've got your groupies. Trouble is that you seem to presume to know the mind of God, and nobody really does. Read the Bible, humbly, and please learn that that there are more important things than being right and pointing out others' flaws. Love, the overarching description of what God is, doesn't jibe with that practice, in my opinion. It's never too late to wake up (repent), and change (live in the Kingdom of God that is "at hand" - here now).

I love you, brother.



Dale Matson said...

the "Paschal Mystery"- Ah yes, I remember you incorporating that phrase into a writing assignment. I agree with your assessment but find what you are opposing is a trickle down from the language of KJS. I recently finished "Worship" by Evelyn Underhill and realize more than ever how much we have drifted from the centering power of the Eucharist both as individuals and as a church.

Fr. J said...

I was not able to be at EYE myself, but a contingent of youth from my parish went, including two adult guides, and so I've gotten a pretty full report. I've also watched some of the videos that have been put online. It's clear that the kids had a good time, and I'm glad they went, but something has been bothering me ever since they came back and I haven't been able to put my finger on it. But reading your post here, I now see what it is that has been nagging at me, and it's exactly the schema of mission that you describe.

The problem isn't that the folks at EYE were promoting a false gospel or denying core tenets of the Christian faith--I haven't seen any signs of that. But as you point out, the kind of mission narrative that has been emphasized lacks the context of the gospel. Jesus is window dressing for a social justice pitch that assumes our own power to make change while ignoring God's power to bring about His Kingdom. We cannot be the Church with so small a narrative that is so unwittingly rooted in the self.

I second Guyer's call. You should host your own conference on these themes, not to compete with EYE but as a gift to the Church. I would sign up and bring a contingent with me!