Ministry in Context

Director's Word: On Mission

On the church’s to-do list, mission is often the focus of one committee, a pull-down tab on the church website. Often, mission is understood as something some of “us” take up as a way to help “others”—those in need far away from our home and church.  This is a traditional understanding of mission, one that arose during a time when the assumption was that everyone nearby is already Christian. While it is a view of mission motivating untold acts of kindness and hours of committed labor and love, it is also a view of mission ill-fitted to our increasingly post-Christian culture.

What if we understand mission as less about what we do and more about what God is doing?  God is loving and reconciling the world, and God, we claim, catches us up into that work -- all of us, all the time.  That is a pretty exciting vision for being church, and it just might change what we think mission means. 

Often, mission is understood as something some of “us” take up as a way to help “others”—those in need far away from our home and church.  This is a traditional understanding of mission, one that arose during a time when the assumption was that everyone nearby is already Christian. While it is a view of mission motivating untold acts of kindness and hours of committed labor and love, it is also a view of mission ill-fitted to our increasingly post-Christian culture.

As many of you know, at Luther we are re-framing mission for the sake of living into what might be called “a new apostolic era.” The phrase is an intentional recovery of the term “apostle” from the early church. The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” The apostolic imperative derives from, among other places, John’s Gospel (20:21) where Jesus says “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” It is an understanding of the whole church being sent as “body of Christ” to the world, caught up in God’s mission.

We might, it turns out, find God is doing something nearby, not just far away. We might be caught up in what God is doing in our own neighborhood, among those we thought were already in on the God-thing. But it turns out in North America today, more and more people (and especially young adults) are disconnected from religious organizations like the Lutheran church. Not that the world (and particular people within it) are experiencing any less brokenness, suffering, injustice, doubt or despair. But people do not so readily see the church as a place ready to respond to their pain and hope.

I’ve said this year I want to lift up places where our students and partner congregations and organizations are caught up in what God is doing in the world. You might even call it “participating in God” if you take the sense of God as a verb (love, for instance). Along with our team in Contextual Learning, I’m currently teaching the Internship Orientation course for the next year’s interns. Each session ends with a section I call “missional imagination.” I want to share a story from our last class (February 20).  

Liz Cheney is serving her internship at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Virginia, MN. Bob Simensen is the pastor, and serves as Liz’s internship supervisor. Virginia is a small town on the Iron Range, about  an hour north of Duluth.  The church is a vibrant small town church, with active ministries inside and outside the church.

As Liz thought about her internship project, she developed a plan to embody this new apostolic vision of the church in mission to those right down the street. Liz is beginning The Bridge Ministry, a new initiative seeking to connect ministry outreach to the students at Mesabi Range Community College in town. This local community college doesn’t have a campus ministry, and in order to make the “bridge” Liz is converting part of the church to be a hang-out “bridge” space-complete with comfortable couches, coffee makings, and other creature comforts. Students need ‘third spaces’ between their work and their home, and The Bridge Ministry create a way for relationships to be built in-between the church services and the secular community college experience. 

Liz writes: 

With any great "vision" or project, when God is involved we may not end up in the same place we thought we might when we started and that has certainly been the case for my project.  The Iron Range is a hard place to “break” into and that has been the case with college students.  I think if I had another year our church would be hopping with college students!

What I have discovered through this process is that God works in spite of our goals and visions and is always up to things even when we don't realize it or see it right away.  The Bridge Ministry has served people that I never set out for it to and it has been a really wonderful "space" in the church!

The "space" in the church has served children, Wednesday worship services, AA, grief support and spiritual direction groups as well as so many others that can come and find respite, quiet or meeting space that has the feel and comfort of your own living room.  God has indeed been up to something here at Our Savior's!

What a wonderful testimony!  I’m grateful for Liz’s story, and for her agreeing to share it here. As we go forward in 2014, I want to continue to ask—with Liz and Bob in Virginia, MN, “what is God doing loving your part of the world?” When we can ask this question afresh, I believe, we’ll see how can the church and its leaders become caught up in participating with God.

I hope others of you are willing to take me up on this task: to ask yourselves how your lives, your ministries, your communities, are getting involved with what God is doing. How are you, as those who belong to Jesus, empower by the Holy Spirit, sent into the world to shine with God’s love? In the face of grinding poverty, of the degradation of creation, of intolerance, of great hurt and illness, of deep shame and brokenness.  Then write me a note and share your story!

Peace,

Chris

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