Monday, November 28, 2011

Missionary Arts & Crafts

There's an increasing amount of church chatter lately about the need to become more mission-driven, for Christians to get out out of the comfort zone defined by the familiar worship and program space of church buildings, and mix it up with ordinary people in their ordinary lives. Leaving aside the problem of wildly divergent understandings of "mission" (which is a whole topic unto itself), I happily add my Amen to this chorus. 

So the question of the day is, How do we do that? So far, most of what I read on the subject is hortatory. Preachers and teachers and conference speakers and retreat leaders ... and bloggers ... regularly harangue their audiences, captive and otherwise, on the need to "get out of the pews" and get "out in the world" and do something. But ... what, exactly?

It may be helpful here to remind ourselves of the important distinction between art and craft. Art is the product of inspiration, and is by its nature original. It springs mysteriously from a dynamic interplay between the artist's inner vision and his or her technical training, in varying proportions. A work of art--be it a novel, a painting, a musical composition, or whatever--is unique and unrepeatable. It is often brought forth laboriously, with veritable birth pangs on the part of the artist. 

Craft, by contrast, is the product of perspiration, and is by nature derivative. The scarf or the Christmas ornament or the ceramic turtle you bought at the last craft fair you walked through is no doubt a thing of beauty, perhaps even exquisite beauty, but it's not a work of art, if for no other reason than that there are a couple of dozen more just like it available at the same place. Craft is the application of acquired technical skill toward the production of an item or an experience (is "event planning" a craft?--I think it probably is) that is, at least in theory, infinitely repeatable. Quantities may be "limited," but a work of craft is always available in some quantity.

So, is Christian mission an art or a craft? As you might guess, I'm going to suggest that it's both,   that it indeed needs both aspects to be effective, but what we need to emphasize more, at this point, I think, is the craft of mission.

Inasmuch as mission is art, the primary artist is, arguably, the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who carries what the theologians call "prevenient grace" ("We love him because he first loved us." I John 4:19), working in the hearts and minds of individuals to convict them of their hopeless condition apart from God and "melt the hearts of sinners" with the "resistless energy of love" (from a prayer said twice daily in the chapel at Nashotah House). It is the Holy Spirit who inspires the church with a collective "heart" for mission, and galvanizes the church's energy toward the effective prosecution of mission. Every quantum leap forward in Christian mission--from the journeys of St Paul, to the evangelization of peoples outside the borders of the Roman Empire, to work of the Jesuits in South America and the Franciscans in California, to the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, to the current resurgence of Christianity under persecution in China--is evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Without the relentless original and ever re-creative artistry of the Holy Spirit, no mission (however one defines it) would be possible.

The practitioner of a craft takes the inspired fruit of the artist's labor (recognizing that the artist and the craftsman are sometimes one and the same person) and replicates it. In that work, the original vision of the artist becomes much more widely available and much more easily accessible than it would otherwise have been. This does not happen by accident. It does not happen casually, or without focused intention. It is a matter of thought and planning followed by trial and error followed by refinement and more thought and planning, eventually yielding a process that can be broken down into a succession of discrete actions, any one of which is actually quite simple, fairly easily taught and fairly easily learned. I have a very low mechanical aptitude, but I recently assembled two large metal shelving units (admittedly, not a work of art even in original conception, but my point still holds) in my basement, because all the tools and materials I needed were provided for me, and there were clear (I may speak somewhat generously!) step by step instructions for me to follow. The second unit took about half as much time to put together as the first one did, and had there been a third one, the assembly time would have been cut further still. Moreover, I would have been qualified to teach somebody else how to do it, saving them from some of the mistakes I initially made.

For some reason, we are stuck at the stage of "We need some shelves in the basement. Get out of your recliner and do something." I have no doubt that we have a critical mass of Christians, even among those who share my Episcopalian brand name, who are more than ready to get out of the recliner and get to work in the basement. I believe this because I believe in the sovereign and profligate artistry of the Holy Spirit. And I also have no doubt that we have a serious lack of materials, tools, and instructions. We're like military commanders sending troops into the field of battle without first securing their logistical supply lines, and often without proper training or ammunition. We expect them to be artists in the field, which most of them are not called and gifted to be. What they are capable of being, if we would properly equip them, is craftsmen

In a mission-driven church, leaders, beginning with bishops, will be doubling down on the work of "equipping the saints for the work of ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). I am not suggesting that there has been lack of attention in recent years to this need. What I am suggesting is that perhaps, in our formation and education and catechetical work, we have been trying to produce more artists when the need is for more craftsmen. We have been teaching people the faith. We have been showing them how to pray and worship. We have encouraged them to be good stewards of their time, talent, and treasure, and some have even responded positively to those efforts. We have talked about mission, sometimes endlessly. What we have not done so well is to take the art of mission and break it down into a craft, a process with well-defined component steps that can be easily taught and easily learned--"Here, do this. Just this.  ... Great! Well done. Now do this"--etc. etc. 

Even as we renew our trust in the missional artistry of the Holy Spirit, the work of the hour is to equip the troops in the field, to form and deploy technicians of Christian mission, people whose knowledge of any grand strategic plan may be limited, but who, with joyful hearts motivated by a love for Jesus, are willing to learn to do one thing, to do it well, and to do it over and over again. The work of the hour among leaders is to secure robust supply lines that keep these troops fed, trained, motivated, and proficient at what they do. 

In short, we need to get organized for mission. Somebody (several somebodies, actually) needs to know the strategy, how it all fits together and works together. Leaders in the field need to be able to make tactical decisions, implementing the strategy at a local level. Only with this sort of leadership can those who are being led pursue the craft of mission confidently and competently. The good news is, we can do it. We have all the resources we need.

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