Editorial: Spring 2014
"If mission is to determine the existence of the church in the world, then the church cannot leave the world or keep the gospel to itself." —Jeppe Bach Nikolajsen
Years ago I heard a missionary to the Soviet Union say that he didn't go there with the assumption that he was taking God to the Soviets. He assumed God was already there; it was his task to discover what God was already doing there and cooperate with it.
That thought was provocative for me at the time. Wasn't the Soviet Union a "godless" communist nation? Isn't it the job of a missionary to take God and the gospel to another context? It was an enlightening moment for me, which helped me think differently about the mission of the church. Wherever we go, wherever we are, God is already there. We don't need to transport God.
What struck you when you first looked at this issue of Leader? What does "externally focused congregation" suggest to you? The externally focused congregation has to come to the conclusion that "it's not about us" (with apologies to Rick Warren). The idea of an externally focused congregation raises these questions from missiologist Alan Roxborough: Where in our neighborhood and community is God at work? What is God doing there? How can we join in God's mission in our context?
This issue of Leader implicitly raises the question of the fundamental reason for the church's existence. Is the church an end in itself ? Does the church exist for some other end besides itself ? Or does the church exist as both an end in itself (a covenant people of God) and as a larger end (witnessing to and embodying God's kingdom breaking into the world)?
To find out what God is doing in our communities means that we need to function like anthropologists or sociologists. We should learn what kind of people dwell there, what their particular interests and needs are, what the unmet needs of the community are, and how the gifts of our congregations can be deployed to help meet those unmet needs. Just as important, there needs to be spiritual discernment about where God's kingdom is already breaking into our communities and how we can support that movement of God's Spirit.
Mennonites during the last century were commendably very missionary minded. We have good news. How can we keep that to ourselves? We are blessed. Shouldn't we share those blessings with others? There is much darknesss in the world. Shouldn't we shine the light of Christ into that darkness? The answers are yes, yes, and yes.
However, our missionary impulses sometimes lacked adequate self-critical awareness and solid theological grounding. Often we made the mistake of assuming that we know what the world needs, without sufficiently listening to the world itself.
Case in point: One congregation I was part of decided to start an after-school program for children in the neighborhood. Two women in particular felt a calling to this ministry, and the congregation threw its support behind them. A task force was formed to design a program. Partway into the brainstorming stage a member of the congregation, who himself was head of a social service agency, was brought in for consultation. Hold on, he said. Instead of designing a program and then promoting it in the neighborhood, why not go to the local elementary schools and ask them what they need. How can we serve you? became the operative question.
This brought about a very appropriate and momentous shift. The church happened to be close to the boundaries of three elementary schools in the district. We asked each school what their needs are and how we could serve them. Their unanimous response: We need a tutoring program to help marginal students. The after-school program became a tutoring program. The schools recommended students to us, they even bussed the children to the church, and then their parents picked them up afterward.
Critical self-awareness is also important so that we're not motivated in our missionary efforts, at least subconsciously, by a desire to make more people Mennonite—to make more people like ourselves. This serves too often as a means of self-validation. If we can convince more people that we have The Way, then that confirms Our Way. Remember, it's not about us. It's about God's kingdom. Neither the church as a whole nor the Mennonite church is synonymous with the kingdom. We are a mere sign pointing to that kingdom. Through proclamation of the gospel and acts of charity, community building, peace, and justice-making we embody that kingdom.
An externally focused congregation carries on the work of Christ in the world. God is still at work in the world, with us or without us. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: What is God doing? Will we join in? How will we join God's work in the world?
—Richard A. Kauffman