On the Church’s Mission

Before Jesus ascended, he spoke to the gathered disciples (Matthew 28:18-20):

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Many images are used for the church in the New Testament. It is a spiritual or holy temple (1 Peter 2:5; Ephesians 2:19-21); it is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). But in Matthew 28 it is a group of disciples who are sent.

Of the Gospel writers, John most uses the language of sending. It is fundamental to his understanding of the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, not only did the Father send His Son (1 John 4:14; John 3:17), but the Father also sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name (John 14:26)–and John can also say Jesus himself sends the Spirit (John 15:26). The Spirit does not speak about himself, but testifies of Jesus (John 16:13-14).

In the 20th century, the term missio Dei was coined to reflect the idea that mission is not just one activity that the church does, but rather, mission is inherent in God’s very identity. The church’s mission, then, derives from its participating in the inner life of the Trinity.

In the past fifteen years the term “missional” has been used with greater frequency to describe a particular way of being the church–as being sent into the world, as Christ was sent into the world (example one; example two).

What this means for the local congregation is that “mission” is not just a matter of sending missionaries overseas, or taking up an offering for missions. It isn’t even about supporting urban missions. It is about the church itself  seeing that it is called to represent Christ in the life of the community. It has been called and sent to be the presence of Christ to these people, at this time, and to do the things that Jesus himself did.

In my own denomination, we’ve stressed evangelism, but have understood it as a particular activity. For a week or two (or more) every year (or so), a series of meetings is held (a model derived from the “protracted meetings” of C. G. Finney’s “new measures”) with the purpose of either introducing the church’s teachings to a community or to bring “interests” to “decision” (a “reaping” meeting).

The theme of these meetings has been pretty well set since the early days of Adventism. William Miller assumed that his audience were Christians who had a relationship with Jesus and who simply needed additional information about Bible prophecy.  Seventh-day Adventists, following his lead, have started with Daniel 2, and moved to Daniel 7, and then into Daniel 8 and 9, and from there to Revelation. They’ve spoken about Bible prophecy, and about Adventist distinctives such as conditional immortality, the Sabbath, and healthful living.

These seminars are marketed through billboards and mass mailings, with brochures illustrating prophetic themes. A professional evangelist is often brought to town. The meetings are often held in hotel meeting rooms or theaters, and are often not advertised as being sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church (which has for many decades resulted in the charge of deception). The meetings culminate with (hopefully) multiple baptisms, and the visiting evangelist leaves town, leaving the local church the task of integrating new members into the life of the congregation.

There are lots of problems with this approach. How can Christians justify deception in the name of Truth? We would do better to follow the example of the Mormons and do massive public campaigns on TV to acquaint people with our name and give them a positive image of it.

But a more fundamental problem is the assumption that people understand the symbols used in our advertising–that they know what these beasts are, and care. Are we mainly interested in getting Christians who are interested in prophecy to accept our interpretation? Or are we interested in reaching out to unbelievers to invite them to faith in Jesus Christ?

I developed a model for a different kind of public evangelism a few years ago. I took the theme from the TV show, “Lost,” and zeroed in on the interest in unchurched young adults in spirituality. I started with basic themes: Who is Jesus? What is the Bible? How do we read it? What is prayer? How do we pray? Following the example of the 19th century Catholic evangelist Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, I sought to give answers to the “aspirations of the heart,” and “questions of the soul,” and to jump to Adventist distinctives as answers to the hungers of today’s young adults. The format included a presentation, and then discussion. I was also influenced by Mike Tucker’s HeartQuest series.

That, I think, was a start. But it still assumes that evangelism is an event to which we invite people.

When we look at the question from the angle of mission, we see that we must focus not on programs we do to which we invite people to come, but on our need to go outside of our building, outside of our community of faith, into the community around us.

Some folks are big into demographics these days. They want to understand the racial and economic makeup of the community, to come up with “felt need” programs to market to the community. Again, they miss the boat. We aren’t a business. We aren’t marketing a product. We are the church, and we are sent to be the church, to be the living presence of Jesus Christ in the world. It isn’t about market analysis. It is about stepping outside the door, and going into the community, and building relationships, and living the grace and mercy of Christ.

This vision of ministry is not unknown to Seventh-day Adventists. Ellen White, in The Ministry of Healing, shows how it was the method of Jesus. In chapter 9, she wrote,

Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.”

There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort. If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit.

She spoke of the need for “medical missionary work,” which meant ministering to those in need as Jesus did–going to the sick, the hurting, those hungry for grace, building relationships, ministering to their needs, building trust.

Jesus did not build a church and invite people to come to it. Jesus did not rent the hippodrome or amphitheater in Jerusalem, and invite people to come to a series of meetings. He did not market programs, or even himself. He went to the people. He went out to the dock, and mingled with men, and called them to follow him, and to do as he did. He sent out the 12 (Luke 9), and then the 72 (Luke 10). He sent them out in pairs and said, “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you.  Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

How might we do this kind of “missional” ministry today? Ellen White provided an example that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has yet to take to heart–ministry on the secular college campus. She cited the example of the Waldenses as a precedent:

These who have the Spirit of God, who have the truth wrought into their very being, prudent men, wise in their methods of reaching others, should be encouraged to enter colleges, as students live the truth, as did Joseph in Egypt, and Daniel, and Paul. Each one should study the situation and see what is the best way to represent the truth in the school, that the light may shine forth. Let them show that they respect all the rules and regulations of the schools. The leaven will begin to work; for we can depend much more upon the power of God manifested in the lives of His children than upon any words that can be spoken. But they should also tell inquirers, in as simple language as they can, of the Bible doctrines.

There are those who, after becoming established, rooted, and grounded in the truth, should enter these institutions of learning as students. They can keep the living principles of the truth, and observe the Sabbath, and yet they will have opportunity to work for the Master by dropping seeds of truth in minds and hearts. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, those seeds will spring up to bear fruit for the glory of God, and will result in the saving of souls. The students need not go to these institutions of learning in order to become enlightened upon theological subjects; for, the teachers of the school need themselves to become Bible students. No open controversies should be entered into, but opportunity given for questions upon Bible doctrines, and light will be flashed into many minds, and a spirit of investigation will be aroused.

But I scarcely dare present this method of labor; for there is danger that those who have no decided connection with God will place themselves in these schools, and instead of correcting error and diffusing light, will themselves be led astray. But this work must be done; and it will be done by those who are led and taught of God.

The ministry I do as a military chaplain is very much in line with these principles. I live with my soldiers, building relationships with them. I care for them in times of crisis, and when they are in the hospital. I go with them to the battlefield. I do individual counseling, I do Seventh-day Adventist services, I cooperate with other Protestant chaplains for General Protestant services. I build relationships with soldiers, veterans, community members, and leaders of other faiths. And the Adventist medics, doctors, dentists, physician assistants, and chaplain assistants do the same thing–having entered this field specifically to minister within the context of this culture to the hope of the Gospel.

The institutional church still seems to prefer the old ways of public evangelism to the new methods of missional living. But as I’ve shown, these “new methods” are not new at all. They are putting into practice principles that derive from our understanding of the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and from the ministry of Jesus and his sending of the church into the world to do as he did. These principles are present in the writings of Ellen White–they are the basis for her vision of medical missionary work, and of ministry to the secular college campus.

Think of your neighborhood. What are the needs across the street? Down the block? Are you near a public university? What are you doing to engage that campus? Are you near a military installation? How are you involved in the lives of service members and their families? Your mission is not far off. You don’t need to raise thousands of dollars to send your youth on mission tourism. Your mission is outside your doors–if you dare to open them, and go out, vulnerable, to meet your neighbors in the name of Christ.