Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Gospel Mission

I. Introduction: What we wean by Gospel and Mission
The mission of the church is the vehicle through which the gospel is presented to the world. Mission is not simply a “thing the church does” or one program amongst many. Mission is the very heartbeat of the church, without which the Body of Christ would die. Mission is likewise neither a vague and abstract “warm fuzzy” notion, however. Christians (lay and ordained) have many responsibilities to one another, but also they must also heed the command of Jesus to proclaim His words to those outside of the believing community (John 17:18-21). In the truly active and healthy church, mission has two clearly distinct manifestations: interior and exterior ministry.
Gospel is the heart that creates the heartbeat. The gospel, grounded in the good news of the incarnational Jesus Christ, should be the center of all that is done (the mission) in the name of the Church (the institution of the mystical body of Christ) and the people (both the local congregation and the entire catholic church) that make up the Church. The great purpose of the Church is to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to a world that does not know or has known but rejected a relationship with God and also to minister to one another in love.
What do we mean by Church?
The most common idea or misconception of what “Church” is, and by corollary the Church's mission, is often interwoven (and often improperly or mistakenly lumped) into the idea of the physical incarnation of “church.” The common notion of church usually has its locus within the most publicly physical manifestation of the term: the actually church building.1 People, most Christians included, hear “Church” and think “church” with all its traditional trappings: the minister, service(s) on Sunday, Sunday School, hymns, and the like.
This is mostly perfectly encapsulated in the question, “Where do you go to church?” To which the modern (and postmodern) Christian is programmed to respond, “Well, I go to St. Gomer's Episcobyterianist Church on Elm Street in Mayberry.” Granted, this is the expected and appropriate answer for such a benign question, for answering in the form of “Well, I am a member of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church which makes up the mystical body of Christ's incarnation on Earth” will at the least get the speaker an odd look and at worst get the speaker labeled as fanatical or insane. The point of this example is that people, both Christian and otherwise, have an basic definition of Church as essentially a civic group that meets on Sunday and has a dignified little service and that is that. But in this is confused the Church (big C) with notion of church (little c), and therein lies the problem.
As discussed at length in Gospel Mission I, most people still equate Church
on the model of old Christendom, where the Church, the body of Christ, and the church, the physical institution, were one and the same. With the break up of Christendom via the Protestant Reformation and later humanist secularism and multicultural pluralism, Christianity, in light of the Gospel and Mission, in its various forms (if they are to survive), is having to reinvent itself by going back to the foot of the cross and clearly hear again the Great Commission. Christianity no longer has the monopoly on religion or pastoral offices, and as such to be healthy and vibrant and growing, must focus on the two major points of Christian Mission: interior and exterior mission.
Interior Mission
The interior ministry of the Church refers to ministries to and from the congregation on the basic, local church level. Interior ministry is often synonymous with what people typically associate with “church” but also fulfills the mission of the church of loving and ministering to Christians and the Christian community within the congregation. These types of ministries include such things as would typically fall under pastoral care, teaching, Sunday worship, or ministry to congregants. Also congregants to other congregants ministries are also included in such ministries as fellowship and hospitality, etc.
The crucial element in effective interior mission (that is, within the church itself) is to understand and appreciate members and their backgrounds and to minister to them where they are in life. Incorporating these two elements will create a cohesive Christian community that can then move to exterior ministry. For example the two churches that I evaluated in this class, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Bellevue, Nebraska, and Trinity UCC on the South Side of Chicago, are good examples of different ways to conduct interior ministry by meeting congregants where they are but also, with that knowledge, creating a stable and vibrant worshiping community.
The Church of the Holy Spirit is unique in that the congregation that makes it up, being located very near an Air Force base, is not static in congregational makeup. There is a constant turnover of parishioners who arrive as military personnel and then after a year or two, are transferred away. With this demographic there is great need for structure and for ministries for whole families, children included. The clergy, likewise, must be much more open to unique needs of military personnel (and spouses when the soldier is overseas) and be open to functioning in terms of chaplaincy instead of a more traditional parish priest function.
Understanding the local congregation and its needs is crucial to creating effective ministry. Trinity UCC is likewise unique in its needs. Founded specifically on an identity as an uniquely African (in the true sense of the word African) American church, virtually the entire church fits (or conversely is pigeon-holed into) a specific racial consciousness. Also as a mega-church, clergy must act more like administrators or CEOs of Corporations than pastors and facilitate smaller group dynamics to avoid letting people fall through the proverbial cracks.
Both Trinity UCC and Holy Spirit are effective in their forms of ministry because they plan their internal ministries specifically to the needs of the worshiping community. Whereas Holy Spirit has much more of a bent toward individual ministry to military and elderly personnel, Trinity UCC focuses more on making certain that everyone in the church from the moment they join has some sort of ministry to fulfill, whether it be security or singing/choir or driving people to vote at the polls.
Both parishes likewise illustrate the potential danger of being too specific in targeting ministries to the, dare I say “desired,” congregation. Holy Spirit perhaps becomes a little exclusive in ministering in forms suitable to traditional white, blue collar to middle class or military-type persons, at the expense of liturgical experimentation or ministering to persons not really comfortable with military attitudes of conformity. On the other end of the spectrum, Trinity UCC, while in its exuberance to minister to the needs of the African American community, also tends to be, from my personal experience, a little exclusive and unwelcoming to people who do not fit the ideal of the “black work ethic” or who do not agree with their overtly political message(s).2
Regardless of what the target congregation is, the crucial aspects for any church in terms of Gospel and Mission is love and community. For the church to become functional on an exterior level of mission, these two elements of interior ministry must first be grounded in the mission of the Church on a local level. Exterior mission will seem pointless, and will be in fact, if love and community have not been firmly established at the base level of the church.
Exterior Ministry
An issue that many churches wrestle with when trying to form their idea of exterior ministry is the issue of politics or an over exuberance of social ministries at the expense of interior ministry. A discussion of this must ensue before proceeding into what constitutes exterior ministry of the Church. Christian exterior ministries can become political lightning rods or at the least controversial from the interior. But, as we are also called to not be mere hearers of the Word but doers also (James 1:21-25), the Church must likewise be mindful of the fact that Christ transcends politics. While contemporary issues have their place, the call of Christ goes beyond the external needs of society. The Christian gospel is a message which reaches to the very heart of humanity. The Church is one in which the people of God are morally, mentally, and spiritually edified by means of the Word of God.
So far as exterior ministry is concerned, local churches are called upon to preach and teach the Scriptures so that God's people are adequately prepared to share Jesus Christ with those outside of the church building but likewise to set an example by actions. At least in this writer's opinion, the Church must walk a fine line between being active for the good of the community and yet not turning the church into a political action committee where the Gospel becomes the hobby-horse politics of the day and not the Gospel of the loving Christ. When this happens, the true message of Christ is lost and is replaced at the altar by a crucifix whereon not the body of Jesus hangs but merely the body of a political martyr that bears an odd resemblance to the priest-in-charge, with the words “social justice” painted over the acronym “INRI.”
The flip side of that coin is the danger of becoming too secluded. Such churches are content to “cut and run” on Sunday immediately after the services are over. Their idea of exterior ministry is the Founder's day potluck where “everyone” was invited. They simply do not want to get involved with community. They do not have the time or the money. “We don't want to be pushy!” they say. This type of church is mentioned only as an example of what not to be, for clearly such a church does not have a good understanding of interior mission much less exterior mission. They no doubt see the word mission as another church program, something with which they would rather not bother.
Upon this basis, the exterior ministry of the Church takes place on the outside of the so-called church building and community of believers. Healthy exterior ministry is both an act as example and a statement of hope in Christ. This element of ministry is crucial in several ways. First and foremost of which is the fulfilling of the Great Commission that Jesus commanded, to show God's love and witness to the world. This is the reason why Christianity exists, both to serve as witnesses of God and witnesses from God. Exterior ministry is how Christianity is viewed by the world and subsequently judged. We set an example of Christ's love by ministering to the needy, but these are not solely charitable acts just for the sake of doing what is right. These acts are both charity and proclamation. We practice Jesus' teachings as an example and preach Jesus' resurrection as hope and invitation to all to take up a relationship with God.
Exterior ministry leads to church growth, which has long term and short term positives. Exterior ministry is likewise important for practical reasons of renewal. A church that is not renewing itself is a church that will die when the generation ends. Christianity has seen many manifestations of sects, for instance the Shakers, that put all their stock in creating community but did not attempt to renew themselves after that community had been established and, thus, withered away into history. Likewise, the most unhealthy churches are churches that have had the same 20 people for 30 years and have become completely stagnant. Keeping the Church fresh with new ideas for ministry as with enthusiasm is incredibly important in having a flourishing Christianity.
There are also many programs the do not fit cleanly into interior or exterior ministry, of course. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous, which both Trinity UCC and Holy Spirit had, were not clearly targeted at people outside the worshiping community. Members from within the congregation attended. They can either grow to include the people not officially members of the church, or if originally targeted for exterior ministry, may find heretofore unrecognized needs of the community and become open to both interior members and exterior non-members. These types of versatile interior and exterior programs, however, are grounded in the love that is established in the interior of the church.
There are often more fields and potential programs for truly exterior ministry than the church has money to fund or people to run them. Trinity UCC was an exemplar of external ministries, with programs ranging from Cancer survivor ministries to high school counseling to prison ministries. On a much smaller scale, Holy Spirit also had outreach programs through the base chaplain, food pantries, habitat for humanity workdays, and the like though not nearly to the massive extent that Trinity UCC could do. Both took their position in local society seriously and saw the golden opportunity to share the Gospel of out Jesus Christ by serving and proclaiming via the vehicle of exterior ministry.
Conclusion: Gospel Mission: The Paradoxical Endeavor
There is a quote attributed to Alister McGrath, “We do not need to make the gospel attractive by dressing it up in modern clothes. The gospel already is attractive. It is up to us to bring out this attraction as clearly as possible, grounded in the situation of the people we talk to." Never where truer words spoken, but therein lies the paradox of the mission of the Gospel. On the one hand it sounds so simple: go out, proclaim, and baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And yet defining that message and carrying it out effectively is no small or simple matter.
The mission of the Church is twofold. We must both minister to one another, both on a local congregational level and to one another in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but also to the wider world that does not know the Gospel of Peace and Grace. We must be effective in communicating that message of Divine Love to society, both by words and actions. If we fail to purvey that knowledge of the truth, our witness, our very gospel mission, will become stagnant. If the Church relies to heavily on interior ministry and ignore the trends and tendencies of our modern and postmodern world, our words are but a mumbling against the great roar of civilization.
When humbled by this behemoth, we then realize we have Christ on our side. We gain strength from the internal ministries of the church, and take the Church to world through external ministries, always remembering it is not our Church, it is Christ's Church. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we are not part of the body of Christ, to the world, we are the body of Christ himself.
1To avoid confusion, I will capitalize “Church” when referring to the whole Church as the body of Christ. When referring to the actual building or physical manifestation, I will use the lower cased “church.”
2This brings up the idea of politics in the role of Gospel Mission, which will be discussed in the next section, as politics often has more to do with external than internal mission.

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