REGARDED AS ONE:

Why the movement from maintenance to mission is not enough.

 

by Mark Harris, D. Min. markharris@gemn.org

Executive Director, The Global Episcopal Mission Network

 

From Article X of the Constitution of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, as established in 1821, and amended in 1823, 1829, 1832, and 1835.  “For the guidance of the committees, it is declared that the Missionary field is always to be regarded as one – THE WORLD; the terms Domestic and Foreign, being understood as terms of locality, adopted for convenience.”

 

The Temptations of Convenience:

We in the Episcopal Church sometimes modify the meaning of words for convenience’s sake. In the recent past we have adapted for convenience some of the modalities and methods of modern American evangelists as our own.  In that mode “evangelism,” modified and divorced from its essentially global dimensions, becomes equated with the conversion of people one by one in their location and its success is measured by growth in church numbers.  But in our better moments we know that the evangelical enterprise is not about a long series of individual conversions alone. Rather it is about the Good News that the Creation is made new in Jesus Christ, preached “to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) 

 

For “convenience sake” we have distinguished the conversion of individuals from the salvation of the world. For even greater convenience sake (read temptation’s sake) we have mostly taken conversion to be what the whole of evangelism is about.   Yet both the individual and the world are of one whole – the outcomes of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ.  It is to our own detriment to forget the global dimensions of evangelism. 

 

The decade of evangelism was viewed a roaring success in parts of Africa where the Anglican Churches there could claim remarkable membership growth, and something of a failure in the United States where numbers of Episcopalians have declined or stayed level. And what then would we make of the evangelical enterprise in Palestine where the numbers of Christians is falling off drastically?  Do we really want to say that the effectiveness of the evangelical enterprise is about numbers alone, particularly the numbers of Episcopalians? I think not. Evangelism is about the declaration of the Good News of God’s whole-making presence in Jesus Christ. It is true and sure and not a matter of numbers.

 

The number of the saved is not ours to know. The statistics of the church are useful measures of our energy, enthusiasm, sales abilities or willingness to be open to new members. They are useful for that purpose, but not for the purpose of determining our evangelical and missionary successes. We do what the Gospel requires of us, and God will give the increase.

 

Evangelism concerns one thing: the proclamation of the fact that in Jesus Christ God is in the world, reconciling the world to God’s self. It is true even if no one is converted and the world does not see. For those who do see and are turned around, of course, the news of this truth is Good News indeed.

Yet here we are, given to judging success and failure on the basis of numbers of new Christians or new Episcopalians. As a matter of convenience and temptation we have distinguished between the fields of evangelism, and have ignored the cosmos and even the world, and certainly the nations, in preference for individuals who contribute to church growth.

 

Convenience in Matters of Mission:

 

In regard to mission we see the same dynamic afoot.  The Constitution of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary society was clear to state that “the Missionary field is always to be regarded as one – THE WORLD; the terms Domestic and Foreign, being understood as terms of locality, adopted for convenience.” 

 

But in the Episcopal Church we too often have adapted for convenience only part of that sense of mission as our own.  In ways not unlike our adaptation of evangelism we have come to the conclusion that what matters about mission is how many people belong to the church - the Episcopal Church explicitly - when our task is completed.

 

There is very little, by the way, to suggest that the charge to mission is about numbers at all. We are to preach to the whole creation and make disciples of all nations, but it is not clear at all that all who hear will follow or how they will follow, or that we are commanded to make every person in all the nations disciples, or that our reward for having done so will be measured by numbers.

 

There is a great deal to suggest that mission is about the Word carried forward into the future and into the world. The writers of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society Constitution got it right, “The missionary field is one – the world.” It is the world to which the message and the message carrier are sent.

 

As a matter of more proximate convenience, however, the Episcopal Church has taken up the call to move from “maintenance to mission” as a call specifically about going out into the world to bring people into our churches, and there to make the church grow.  This is a laudable effort, one that will require of us hospitality and forbearance, openness and a new sense of joy and energy. But all indications are that the efforts of this movement are indeed about church growth. As such, I find the movement “from maintenance to mission” falls far short of that call to mission to which Jesus summons us to respond.

 

The use of the phrase, “maintenance to mission” in the Episcopal Church has become more and more a shorthand way of talking about parish based evangelism whose targeted groups are also potential congregants.  Yet the movement from maintenance to mission has much wider consequences.  Those in the wider evangelism circles of our church warn us clearly that the simple equation of evangelism and the missionary enterprise with local church growth is simply myopic.

 

The Mission and Evangelism Report II of the Anglican Consultative Council, meeting in Panama in 1996, observed “all the reports (to the mid-point review of the Decade of Evangelism in 1995) viewed mission and evangelism as an integrally connected ‘seamless robe.’ All the reports agreed that evangelism…was the cutting edge, the sharpest point, of the broader task of mission.  Any Church not seriously engaged in mission was a disobedient Church and stood the risk of extinction and of becoming a mission field for other religions.” (Being Anglican in the Third Millennium, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, p. 95)  That serious engagement is not clearly presented in the call for the movement from maintenance to mission.

 

Wayne Schwab in his article, “From Maintenance to Mission: Not a Journey but a Migration” says “ To move from maintenance to mission … is not an easy task…Recovering mission is not the new ‘gimmick’ for renewal. Rather it is a call to a new and special kind of journey, to a migration… The church will face a migration if it plans to move from maintenance to mission.”  And later in that article he says, “…the mission of the church is worldwide as well as local and national. Migration challenges migrants to develop breadth of vision…” (http://www.ang-md.org/evangelism/articles/mintmission) 

 

Dr. Schwab’s observation that “Recovering mission is not a new ‘gimmick’ for renewal” is precisely the issue.  It is too often the case that we in the Episcopal Church use mission as a shorthand way of talking about renewal through church growth.  And it is easy to go along with that shorthand, for who would fault the hope to grown in numbers, except perhaps when that hope becomes a lust for numbers?  The laudable call to invite others into our churches, knowing that by doing so we will be changed deserves the full encouragement of us all.  That is why the 20/20 Vision and the work of groups supporting new mission initiatives to invite in the un-churched, the pre-churched and the post-churched deserve our attention.

 

But this is not mission in the sense of being sent out.  It is invitation, it is being open or pleasant towards others, inviting in.  What is really being suggested when “mission” is used in most Episcopal Church contexts these days is a sort of extremely short term “sending” activity that ends by bringing those we encounter back in to our parishes or into new parishes much like ours.  We are not really prepared to have those invited from the highways and byways actually change us from being the Episcopal Church to being something radically new.  The parable of the invitation to the Feast (Luke 14:16-24) ends, “I tell you, none of those men who were (first) invited shall taste my banquet.”(RSV)  But our invitation is that “the Episcopal Church welcomes you” to join us in what we do. The first invited still set the table and determine the manners and menu.

 

While risk taking is part of the movement from maintenance to mission, it is mostly the risk of having a larger goal for growth than can be reached, it is not the risk that the Feast will cease to be an Episcopal Church occasion.  It not the risk that we might go out and find Jesus Christ there, rather than in our churches, and stay out there.

 

Evangelism and mission goals concern the Good News and its transmission; at their best they face out, just as the biblical mandates require. What we have done when we measure evangelism by local conversions and mission by new churches and larger numbers where we are, is essentially face in.  We concerned ourselves with breathing new life into our churches. Heavens know we need this!  But inviting in does not exhaust the work evangelism or mission.

 

What is missing in this is what has been called GLOBAL mission and evangelism, which concerns how the Spirit of God draws us out of our own homes, locales, and churches and into the life of the world. The question for Global Mission is not how to bring people into our churches, but how to bring ourselves as ambassadors for Christ into the world.  Those we encounter there will not in all likelihood return to our locale, home or church. They will do what they will with what we carry as Good News, and will find their own ways to breath in God’s Spirit and be evangelized, finding God’s reconciling grace in their own locales.

 

 

Listening and Suffering as the Context of Global Mission.

 

Bishop Rustin Kimsey gave the Kellogg Lectures at the Episcopal Divinity School in 2000.  His subject was “Building a Missionary Spirituality or Becoming a More Compassionate Church.”  This lecture is brilliant – that is to say it is a strong and bright light in the obscured vision of the Episcopal Church these days as regards mission. It deserves a good read. In no way is a brief mention here of its conclusion a substitute for the real thing.

 

Bishop Kimsey suggests that the beginning place of mission is listening – listening to God and to God in the other, and that that listening means a willingness to know the suffering of others, ourselves, and thus of God present with us in our suffering. Mission becomes proclamation and preaching and Good News as it finds its incarnation, its ‘meatiness’ in what we hear from others and what we encounter with others concerning suffering. That is, mission begins in compassion.

 

Kimsey talks of the “colonial rather than missionary” institutional structures of the church – a juxtaposition somewhat different than that of “maintenance rather than mission.”  Kimsey is interested in the church being a missionary institution open to God in the world, particularly in the world’s suffering, rather than a colonial institution, interested in replicating its own vision of God on the world. The “maintenance to mission” folk seem much more to be talking about moving from parishes that are content to be closed to parishes that open their doors and invite in.

 

What Kimsey does is remind us that mission is not alone about bringing others in, but about the Church going out with and as Jesus Christ into the world, and having the joys and sufferings of the world anneal its compassion into an always renewed Good News.

 

He says, on a hopeful note, “Perhaps the ferment and the foment which seems to be brewing all around us in the Episcopal Church these days are good signs of birth pains of a new missionary Church.”  If these are the pains, then Mission includes listening to them as well. Who knows what new ways there will be to proclaim Good News, after listening to such pains.  But the listening comes first.

 

Global Mission is not an afterthought; it is the preliminary to any reason for Church Growth, Renewal or individual Evangelism.

 

When the writers of the Constitution for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society said that “the mission field is to be regarded as one – the World,” they were on the right track. It is the World entire that is the ‘field’, “the whole creation (that) has been groaning in travail together until now.” (Romans 8:22) It is the compassionate listening to, and response to that suffering that provides the primary character to the news that we will best call Good News, and the proclamation of that is evangelism at its best.

 

We forget that suffering to our peril, for without it moving from maintenance to mission loses its soul.  It is always good to see the signs that say, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” But that is not enough. Too easily we can fall into trying to sell ourselves as the place to be, rather than being where people are in their struggles. 

 

The question is will there be signs that will say, “Episcopalians welcome here.”  That will only happen as we move from being a colonial to a missionary institution, as we move to listen and experience with others their lives and loves and losses, when we move from mission measured by church growth to mission as genuine engagement, with growth in compassion and faith that God will give the increase.

 

Global Mission (that is mission that both sends out and invites in) is central to the movement from maintenance to mission and from colonial institutions to missionary institutions. If the laudable efforts of the “movement from maintenance to mission” are to be true to the evangelical and missionary call the movement must clearly be concerned with goals larger than (but including) Episcopal Church growth in domestic locations.  It must include the mission of compassionate presence with the world’s people in their suffering and joy.

 

(This essay is also posted on the Global Episcopal Mission Network pages, http://gemn.org where you are invited to find out more about GEM Network and the dioceses that participate and about our Annual Meeting and Educational Institute. Responses to this article can be made on the list on which you found this, or by personal note to the author at markharris@gemn.org)

 

 

 

 

 


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