We are coming to the end of our time of getting “back to basics”—the beliefs we hold in common with all Christians and what sets us apart as United Methodists. We’ve reflected on the Apostles’ Creed, God’s grace, the New Birth, and the nature of the Church. Today we look at the Mission and Service, and I have a confession to make. When I went to seminary, there was one class I dreaded taking. It was “Mission of the Church.” I had already done plenty of volunteer work, both in the church and in other community organizations, and I had been doing it since I was a teenager. So, I thought a class on Mission would kind of be preaching to the choir—a whole semester devoted to a topic I thought I was already pretty well-versed in.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was one of the most eye-opening classes I took. That class completely changed my understanding of what the word “mission” means for the Church. It turned out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Oh, I had plenty of experience with projects and volunteering—what I thought of as mission. But I learned that, for the Church, the word “Mission” means something much bigger.
The Advertising Educational Foundation, or AEF, has defined “Mission” as a very big, long-term end result or achievement, the biggest and most important thing to be accomplished. For the Church, the biggest and most important thing to be accomplished is the Mission of God. And what is God’s Mission? What is that biggest and most important thing? Paul summed it up this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10).
He expands on that a little in Colossians: “through Jesus God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” And, of course, we have Jesus’ own description of God’s Mission, which we find in John: that God sent the Son into the world “in order that the world might be saved through him.” This is God’s Mission: to restore all things to their rightful place in the kingdom, under the Lordship of Christ.
So, then, if that’s God’s Mission, what is the mission of the Church? The mission of the Church Universal, and the mission of any individual congregation, must be grounded in God’s Mission. You probably know the Zion mission statement by heart: “To bring souls to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and cultivate spiritual growth.” The United Methodist Church has a mission statement, too: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Both of these grow out of God’s Mission as Paul described it—”to save the world through Jesus Christ.”
As the people of a God with a Mission, we are God’s missionaries. We are a “sent” people—sent by God, as Jesus was sent, into a broken world to carry out activities aimed at accomplishing God’s Mission. We call this work “missions.” It might be helpful at this point to think of God’s Mission as Mission with a capital “M,” and our work as missions with a lower-case “m.” We can also think of it in military terms. When the Department of Defense writes a “mission statement,” they describe their essential purpose—Mission with a capital “M.” Duties and tasks assigned to individuals or units are missions with a lower-case “m.” Or, going back to the AEF’s definitions, what we call “missions” are our “tactics”—actions taken to achieve a larger purpose. In church language, we call these activities “practices.”
But whatever we call our work in the world, we need to remember a couple of things. First, our missions should always support the Mission, God’s Mission—the biggest and most important thing to be accomplished. We need to keep in mind the difference between God’s Mission and our missions. Finally, we need to always have before us God’s overarching goal—God’s Mission—as we work toward achieving that goal through our own missions.
Jesus knew the importance of this work. He travelled throughout Judea and Galilee, teaching and preaching the good news which he alone, as the Son of God, could announce: that the kingdom of God had come near, that forgiveness and restoration were at hand. But when his opponents confronted him and demanded to know who he was, he didn’t point them to his words. He pointed them to his works.
He challenged them to identify whose work he was doing. Jesus said, “If I’m not doing the works of my Father, then don’t believe me. But if I do, believe because of them, even if you don’t believe what I say. What I do will tell you who I am—that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Our works—our missions with a little “m”—serve the same purpose. They are the visible sign of who we are—God’s children, dedicated to God’s Mission of redeeming the world. We can tell people that we are Christians. We can quote them Scripture, chapter and verse, but for most people, the most convincing evidence of our faith will be the service we offer through our missions.
As United Methodists, we have a particular understanding of Mission and service which is somewhat distinctive. For us, grounded in the Wesleyan way of living out our faith, personal piety and service in the world are inseparably linked to evangelism. Our Book of Discipline says that “piety . . . is the ground of social conscience and the impetus for social action and global interaction, always in the empowering context of the reign of God.”
This reminds us that our missional work always begins with our own faith and worship. The theologian and missionary Lesslie Newbigin calls this “Faith in Action.” He said that we demonstrate “faith in action” when the church “acts out by proclamation and by endurance [its] faith that the kingdom of God has drawn near.” We grow in our personal holiness by engaging in prayer and fasting, worshipping together, hearing the Word read and preached, studying God’s word, and taking Communion.
But we believe that personal holiness must always be linked with social holiness. John Wesley said, “There is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness.” Out of our growing love for God and God’s Mission comes a growing love for neighbor. Out of the fertile soil of our faith comes the desire to live as Micah calls us to: by doing justice and loving kindness. As we live in the sure knowledge of Jesus’ living presence here and now, we share that life with others through acts of compassion for the poor and in seeking justice for the downtrodden. This is what Newbigin calls “Love in Action.”
But, in everything we undertake, we realize that it is the power of the Holy Spirit that undergirds and strengthens our every effort. We recognize that we as the Church can do nothing out of our own power. Instead, the power of the Holy Spirit that changes the world changes the Church itself. In other words, as Micah says, we are to walk humbly with our God. Newbigin calls this “Hope in Action.” Faith in action, love in action, and hope in action are all necessary parts of our participation in God’s Mission.
So, if we begin to think of Mission, not as the projects we do but as God’s biggest and most important thing to be accomplished, how does that affect the way we “do” church right here at Zion? First of all, I think we should start thinking about the entire church as the Mission Committee. That doesn’t mean we get rid of what we now call our Mission Committee—more on that in a minute. But it does mean that we begin to think of everything we do as being part of our missionary responsibilities.
Maybe we should start affirming our own congregation’s mission statement at the beginning of every meeting and gathering, just as we do at the start of every worship service. Bringing souls to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and cultivating spiritual growth are certainly necessary parts of God’s Mission. Our mission statement doesn’t cover everything God has in mind. God’s Mission includes all of creation, and our mission statement doesn’t touch on things like the environment or economic systems. But that’s OK. Because each congregation is called to determine, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what part of God’s Mission it is being led to address.
The theologian Karin Heller says that every congregation is called to ask the question, “Where does the triune God want us to be, with and for what kind of people?” We rely on the help of the Holy Spirit to answer that question. Then, before we undertake any activity, we should ask “Does this project support God’s Mission of reconciling the world to God’s self, and does it fit with the part of the mission the Holy Spirit has led us to?”
As we begin to think of the whole church as the Mission Committee, aimed at accomplishing God’s Mission, then each of our smaller committees become Mission sub-committees. They focus on particular aspects of our missionary work. Our Worship Leaders, Education Committee, and teachers help us deepen our faith and enliven our worship. They help us grow in personal piety—that “Faith in Action” which is the foundation for everything else that we do. These groups help us cultivate spiritual growth—the personal piety which is the essential starting point of our missions work.
Our Missions Committee and CHAT are the sub-committees that guide our work in the world—our love in action. They make the plans that help us reach out to others in social holiness, both to serve and to invite into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus pointed to his works as reliable identifying marks of who he was, these committees choose the works that will show the world who we are. These works of social holiness are often our best tools for evangelism—what the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones defined as “sharing with others what has been shared with us.”
Denise has been making announcements recently about Operation Christmas Child. God’s Mission is to gather all people to God’s self. Many children and their families throughout the world have never heard of the saving love of God. But through these boxes—our love in action—those children and their families are invited into a relationship with Jesus. This is a good example of how one of our lower-case missions supports God’s capital-letter Mission.
But, what about those committees that take care of all the administrative and building issues we have to deal with? How do light bulbs and balance sheets and personnel matters connect with God’s Mission? As United Methodists, we recognize the need for order. We need a place and resources to help us grow in our personal holiness and serve out of our social holiness. Just as Jesus had a treasurer among the disciples and the early church appointed deacons to organize its work, the church needs people who create and maintain a launching pad for its missionary work. Administrative committees, just like the others, support God’s Mission as they make our works of mission possible.
Our Book of Discipline says this about mission: “The Mission of God is best expressed in the prayer that Jesus taught his first disciples: Thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven. All Christians are to live in active expectancy: faithful in the service of God and neighbor, faithful in waiting for the fulfillment of God’s universal love, justice, and peace on earth as in heaven.” As we go forward as God’s Mission Committee, may our works be both a sign of who we are and an invitation into God’s kingdom, where the biggest and most important thing to be accomplished is nothing less than the gathering of all things under salvation of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young