Church, What Is Your Mission? – Today?

By Johannes Aagaard

Mission is tending to become an empty term

The Latin term mission has a history in Trinitarian theology, in Canon Law and from the 16th century in connection with the Jesuit “Constituiones circa missiones”. Missions came to mean expeditions from the Western churches into “the non-Christian world”. They became parallel phenomena to colonial enterprises.

Similar expeditions were created and sent into the large European cities in the middle of the 19th century, making the term “Innere Mission” or “home mission” necessary. Similarly terms such as “Aussere Mission” or “foreign mission” came into existence. In general missions were taken to be specific arrangements to expand the influence of Christianity. The ideology behind them was the ideology of the Christian world, i.e. the Christian West, the Christian nations. And the content of mission was easily defined. Mission was simply the sort of action undertaken by missionary societies.

Attempts have been made in the last generations to reinterpret mission as the mission of the church. Mission as the responsibility of specific circles was to become the responsibility of the whole church. But what kind of mission? The content did not change much as a result. Mission as a whole was still defined from those things labelled as mission.

A lot of hard theological work has been done in the period after the second world war in order to renew the theology of mission. “Mission in six continents”, “mission as two-way traffic”, etc. expresses this line of thought.

In the same period, however, mission more and more tended to become identical with inter-church aid and transfer of money and (mainly Western) personnel to weak churches from the supposedly stronger churches. But parallel to this development the attempt was made to renew mission from the concept of Missio Dei. As a whole this attempt seems to have resulted in a very formalistic missiology. Mission tends more and more to become an empty term, which can be filled out by anything. “Missionary” is now often used as a synonym for “responsible” without further indications as to content. And mission very often is just a synonym for “church”. Everyone speaks about mission, but no one seems to know much about the contents of that mission.

We are all in the situation that our wordy missiologies can become another escape from the concreteness of our missions To speak about mission and missions without expressing the concrete urgency and the clear priorities implied is waste of time. Missiology by its nature is task-orientated and has to do with a specific praxis. The biblical notion of sending is always loaded with content, never abstract and formal. The sending takes place in specific and dramatic situations with very pointed goals. I remember a journalist who once reacted against one of our famous missiologists who had been saying again and again that the church is sent. “Sent”, he said, “sent”: That word has no meaning alone. Sent to whom and for what?” That is why it is right to ask very specifically: Church, what is your mission today? What are the contents of your actual mission? What are your Priorities? What is your vision? here and now …?

We have got the right answers, but the wrong questions

Our problem is not that we do not have a missionary theology, for we do. Our problem is not that we do not agree on missiological questions, for we do. We have the right – and the same – opinions about nearly everything. Dogmatic discussions have become very tedious, for the disagreements are minor and lack real seriousness. It makes no difference if you have this or that opinion. The real problem is that none of the opinions seem to work. Or at any rate they do not seem to work very well.

The churches have no doubt got the right answers. The problem, however, is that the churches have not got the right questions, the right problems. This is not due to lack of information or knowledge, but seemingly to a lack of capacity to get contact with the right problems. They do not get on the agenda. It is as simple as that.

There was a great stir when in Uppsala it was proposed that the world should write the agenda of the church. It was most certainly never allowed to happen. But then one cannot afterwards ask why the churches have not got the right questions and problems. The aggiornamento of the churches which started in Uppsala 1968 and in Evian was effectively stopped, and nearly all churches are safely back in their routines.

Certainly the local congregations are eager to learn about the stirrings from the world. They call in speakers to tell them about it. But the stirring is very rarely heard in the pews. The churches have succeeded in separating themselves from the world, the factual and horrible world of human suffering.

Everywhere in the church at large one finds individuals who know that something is seriously wrong in the churches. These persons know what the real issues are, but they still go along with their churches. They sit through endless meetings during which time is used, energy is wasted and money voted to tasks which are – at best – of secondary interest. The really urgent matters are rarely dealt with and then only in haste and without seriousness.

The persons are deeply frustrated. They are often cynical. They have lost faith in their own work. They can use the whole vocabulary, but they do not believe in it any longer. I had a conversation in Rome some time ago with a very high official of the curia. I suddenly heard myself saying: “It is too bad that the church, which should be our foundation and rock has become a burden on our shoulders”. Having said this, I thought it too provocative. But the dignitary quietly answered: “Yes, the church has become a burden as heavy as concrete on my shoulders. Could I cast it away, then I could fly like a bird”.

This is the real crisis of our churches and our missions. Our own leaders have lost faith – not in Christ and His Spirit, but in our own activities and organisations and institutions. They are fed up with them, first of all because they are not concerned with the important issues. They do not care for today’s mission.

They hear themselves speak about the unfinished task or even about the regions beyond. They hear themselves speak of the urgency of our mission – and still – the real issues are evaded.

Church, what is your mission? Church, what is your mission? Church, what is your mission today?

What is Christian in the Christian Institutions?

I do not expect an answer to such a question from “the churches as such”, nor do I expect an answer from “the Christian organisations, as such”, nor from the missionary societies. By definition these institutions cannot answer such relevant questions. They can tell us, what their mandate was, what they were made for. Institutions are embodiments of former mandates and intentions. They may still be relevant and in operation, but they are not – in the very nature of things – expressions of the mission today.

The question “Church, what is your mission today” can only be put to persons and can only be answered by persons, who are able – individually or in groups – to respond to the present situation.

All situations have a steady inertia, which directly or indirectly prevents them from responding to the present situation. More than most people I have been on the long march through the institutions, and this has freed me from all sorts of institutional idealism. Institutions are bound by their past, by their specific mandate, by their tradition, by their money, by their friends – and by their enemies. In short they are human institutions. And that most certainly includes our institutional churches. They are very human institutions, living more out of fear than out of hope.

The best we can expect from Christian institutions and from Church institutions is that they recognize this dilemma honestly and act accordingly, i.e. acknowledge the fact that mission today has to take place outside the camp… outside any camp.

If they do not recognize this dilemma, if they do not have this selfrecognition then the people who respond to the question: church, what is your mission today? will have to leave the churches and certainly go outside the camp. Church institutions which have the humility to recognize their own humanity will, however, be able to accept that the people of God operate outside their camp, outside their institutions in freedom and in confidence.

This humility however is very rare in the life of the churches. The opposite so often happens. The churches or the Christian organisations believe that they as “Christian institutions” are less human than other organisations, more under divine guidance and inspiration and therefore more able to respond to the challenge. Such human hybris is often disguised as piety and faithfulness. But the result is disastrous: for no suppression is worse than the one done in the name of God. No idolatry is worse than the self-idolatry of religious institutions.

A very important passage is found in the report of the policy and reference committee from Dar Es Salaam (LWF Assembly) under the heading “Dimensions of the Church’s mission”, “Inclusive structures”. The passage runs like this: “that in order to be self-critically involved, the churches be urged to develop structures and provide resources which allow creative minorities to participate fully in the struggle of the church of Christ, to speak out and live up to the good will of God for the whole creation”. (cf. Seminar II Report, Section B and para 135).

Institutions with some sort of inbuilt counter institutional structures… that is a dream one could hopefully engage in, if reality were not so different that this dream is quickly shattered by hard facts. Where in the world could such a thing happen? Or rather where in the church could it happen?

Still there are some hopeful signs here and there, the reason being that there are individuals and groups who press forward and do not take no for an answer.

These individuals and groups represent the real nature – to those who are outside – of the Biblical sent. This is the real nature of the Jesus-mission. This mission is always a mission to the lost sheep, the outcasts, the foreigners, the outsiders, the sinners.

To be a sinner is now a very respectable thing. It is now necessary to be a sinner in order to be saved. But this means that “sinner” has changed its content totally. In the NT sinner is one who does not belong.

The outsiders as signbearing persons

The outsiders in the New Testament are not just the objects of the Christian mission. They are the signs of the kingdom, they are the signbearing persons.

The Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Syro-Phenician, the prostitute, the publican, the blind, the leper… are not simply the receivers of the Gospel, they are Gospel-signs, signs of the coming kingdom. They are part of the revelation itself.

The church is not the deposit of the revelation, it is not the rich heir of the Gospel, more or less ready to distribute its richness to the poor. The church is only Christ’s church in as far as it communicates, is in communion with the poor, the destitute, the foreigners, the non-believers, the atheists, the homosexuals, the mad, the a-social, the misfits… Only if the church is their home, is the church the family of God, the people of God, the body of Christ, the community of the Spirit.

This is the folly of Christ which keeps the church from becoming too wise, too well-integrated, too much a part of the world and its religions and systems.

This is the real meaning of the justification of sinners. And therefore it is also the real meaning of justification by faith without works. If the sinners are not the sign of our community in Christ it is not Christ’s community, for he is with the sinners.

We may have doubts and difficulties with the presence of Christ in the sacraments, his real presence and all that. But we know for sure that his real presence is where the lost sheep is. If we want to be sure of Christ’s presence we just have to stick with the lost sheep, for there he is.

He is not with the flock, where we try to define his presence. For he is sent to rescue the lost ones.

That was, is and remains our mission – nothing more, nothing less.

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