If you were asked for your three key issues for equipping the church for mission in contemporary Britain, what would you say? I would be interested to hear your views on what you consider to be three key ones.
Here is a short reflection on what I think; not necessarily the three most key ones (up to date research would need to be done) but ones that occur to me at this time.
I don’t propose to critique the contemporary meaning of some of the key words in this title; equipping, church, mission. Of course, the concepts of church and mission are in flux – dealing with that will not be my priority here. Rather, I simply wish to reflect briefly on a few key thoughts that seek to challenge the core of what being a disciple of Jesus means for us living in Britain today, so that the community of believers may be better equipped to engage in meaningful and authentic mission practice.
A contemporary snapshot…
We live in a world of insecurity, despair and hopelessness – that is the picture for a major part of humanity as we lurch through economic crisis, displacement of identity, war, conflict and a loss of confidence in truth and meaningful existence…this presents a significant opportunity for the global church to reflect the love of God in its mission. In the West, and in the Britain in particular, fresh challenges meet us – an angry constituency demands effective political leadership and greater economic justice, as food banks dole out provisions to more and more in need each week. Distrust in authority, the erosion of purpose and tiredness of existing brittle structures, leaves the community of Christ-followers standing on the threshold of an opportunity that has, perhaps, been rarely available in the recent past – people are looking for signs of hope amid the rubble of despair and lostness, as Leslie Newbiggin once discerned and articulated. Generous dialogue with ‘the other’ is imperative in our cultural milieu.
So, I wish to raise three key dimensions as to how the church might be better equipped to engage effectively in reaching 21st Century Britain. These three dimensions touch on; where we are (the contextual dimension), who we are (the empathic dimension) and where we are going (the hope dimension. These dimensions are to be understood within an overarching framework which is the biblical vision of shalom – or in other words, being sign-bearers of God’s reign ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.
Firstly…where we are
I suggest there are 3 key issues we need to fully engage with in contemporary Britain. Firstly, our community must be inclusive and welcoming. In Hebrew life the alien was given certain protections and the Old Testament is full of provisions which sought to include the outsider and welcome the alien amongst God’s people. Contemporary migration gives the church opportunity to show loving acceptance and warm welcome, as well as change cold and oppressive attitudes. Secondly, economic inequality is rampant and a recipe for social dislocation and conflict. Challenging unjust economic and financial structures, and promoting simpler and more creative life-affirming lifestyles is part of the churches’ prophetic function. Being bold, courageous and true disciples points the way that others may follow – becoming missional communities affords that possibility. Thirdly, the Gospel of love and truth needs new forms of expression within a plethora of ideologies and worldviews. We stand at the crossroads where our legitimacy and message is questioned and critiqued as never before. Postmodernity asserts that we no longer hold to a meta-narrative of the Truth, but that we must mutually tolerate each and everyone’s truths. Secularism, consumerism, pluralism and multiculturalism make for a lively context in which to live and breathe – our voice is one of many, but our actions can be unique. So, a long hard look at our context and awareness of these three key issues which face our nation today, is a good starting point for taking a reality-check and beginning the process of equipping the church for mission.
This is the first dimension for equipping the church for mission – contextual awareness
Secondly…who we are
Our brokenness and weakness make us ideal vessels to carry the love of God; a counter-cultural message which perhaps is foolishness to the ‘Greeks’, yet carries the only power to really change things. God’s enormous love for the whole of His cosmos, somehow is enabled and manifest in each and every one of us – a love to be shared out and poured out with kenotic extravagance. This is being the missional people of God; in love with God also means being in love with His world, a world which He declared to be good. This love requires us to share the pains as well as the joys of each other.
Do we live what we proclaim? Are we pretending to care when really our love has gone cold? Do we prefer ‘the other’ when we are told ‘the other’ has come to take our jobs and suck our welfare system dry? Do we really understand what incarnational living is, when this may require downward-mobility, the relinquishing of selfish individualism and other privileges we have enjoyed? These are tough questions that cut to the core of our identity. Perhaps the world judged the people of God for who they thought they were, rather than who they really were. We need to be authentic disciples of Christ, and by acknowledging our broken reality, and our utter dependence on God’s loving grace and each other, we may be on the path to fulfilling this second dimension for becoming an equipped community.
Acknowledging our weaknesses and failures gives us hope that we may be lights in the darkness, so I suggest a missing ingredient to be unearthed again in our contemporary society, is empathy; we must rediscover our empathic nature. This is the ability to see ‘the other’s needs, feel the other’s pain and be moved to respond lovingly and appropriately. Jesus was our prime example – moved to compassion, he acted. Loveless and cold duty ultimately serves no one; if it is not done in love we are merely clanging gongs, as 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us.
See this highly watchable video on the Empathic civilisation. In it bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society. See also Krznaric’s recent book, Empathy, for more on this subject.
This is the second dimension for equipping the church in mission – becoming an empathic people, who are moved with compassion to love the unloved.
Thirdly…where we are going
The journey of life leads to certain death, and yet the resurrection narrative gives us hope to share with our ‘broken Britain’. Whilst many of our leaders are trying to steer us to ‘business as usual’, we have a significant opportunity as a missional community to model another way. Our eschatology may require re-interpretation. Our future home is a new heavens and a new earth – this world of need and brokenness, destruction and decay, of which contemporary Britain serves as a microcosmic example, is going to be refined and made good. We have a hope that is promised in Scripture, glimpsed in the books of Isaiah and Revelation, and we have been entrusted to be co-participants with God in the working out of that. And yet our hope is not just in the ‘yet to come’, but also in the ‘now’ – this is the reality of God’s kingdom which has been ushered in, and is active today. Working for the common good of His creation is demonstrated through provocatively and pro-actively calling into being this new reality; that is a very hopeful place in which to be.
This is the third dimension for equipping the church for mission – walking the hope journey, founded on an integrated eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God.
The details of this, of course, have to be unpacked – that is for another time! For now these three dimensions of equipping the church for God’s mission, the missio dei, are framed within a vision of shalom – the biblical flourishing of all aspects of life. Our God is an imminent God, intimately in love with His creation, and desiring of our worship and connection, for His glory; that is the essence of being a missional community, and the three dimensions for equipping the church are part of the process of becoming that missional community. I finish with a quote from the book Carnival Kingdom:
‘…the Kingdom is described as an ‘upside down Kingdom’ – radically different to the status quo of earthly kingdoms where power and privilege coalesce in the hands of a few, often at the expense of the majority. At the heart of the vision of the reign of God is the belief that this reign will result in shalom; the delightful and convivial energy of a community at one and at peace with itself, in purposeful service to God and the greater good of the rest of creation’
In summary, we have considered context, empathy and hope. Today we stand only a few months away from the General Election; we need to vote intelligently and courageously…not just what we’ve always voted, nor playing tactical voting ‘games’, but voting for real policies and then holding our political leaders to account to see those promises delivered.
If we have the above dimensions in mind, and the issues raised within them, then our part in helping to equip the church for mission may just help see ‘broken Britain’ become ‘flourishing Britain’.