A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN:
DIGGING INTO OUR CALLING
This Sunday, we’re continuing both our Adult Education series at 10 a.m. and our sermon series on themes out of the book, Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission.
This week, the sermon will focus on the idea of how buildings and space relate to the mission of the church. But as I have been preparing that sermon, it occurred to me that the word “mission” is always a tricky one when it comes to church life and ministry. Last June I even preached a whole sermon on that word as part of our “Good Word” sermon series, because several of you had suggested it as a word for consideration in Scripture.
In that sermon, I talked about how the word mission was popularized by the Jesuit order within Roman Catholicism to describe their work expanding and defending the Christian faith across the world. They chose that word because it comes from a Latin word that means, “to send,” because they understood themselves to be sent by Christ to do this work.
I also talk about how the church eventually began using the word “mission” in some problematic ways as a result of that. Specifically, “mission” work within the church became entangled in the 17th-20th centuries with Western colonialism in what we might now call the “developing world” or “the Global South,” particularly South America, Africa, and Asia.
Christian individuals who were considered to have an exemplary faith and a zeal for spreading the Christian gospel were sent to those colonies to evangelize the local population in parallel or even partnership with the larger colonial projects of European powers.
But even though most Christian churches have repented of such practices and now conduct international mission through a framework of mutual partnership rather than colonial power dynamics, the legacy of “mission” as something that we “ordinary” Christians send “elite” Christians to do and support them in doing it has persisted in unconscious and unhelpful ways, even here in local and national “mission work.”
That is why it’s important to return to the original understanding of mission as something that we are sent to do, not something that we send others to do. Mission, in this sense, is a very helpful and important concept in the Christian church because it reminds us that, in our Baptism, we are each not only claimed as a child of God but also commissioned and sent as a servant of God to help proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and promote the building up of Christ’s kingdom in the world.
That means that we all have a mission, individually and as a congregation. Life in Christ is about following Christ into the world to love and serve others as Christ did, not withdrawing from the world so that we can receive and hold onto Christ’s love for ourselves.
This congregation has a long and rich tradition of mission in this helpful and even holy sense, from international partnerships to our work right here in the Lehigh Valley; from our generosity with funding for others who are doing God’s work to our own service in feeding programs to help people who are enmeshed in poverty or experiencing homelessness, to our tutoring work at Donegan Elementary School, to the produce of our church garden literally helping to feed those who are hungry in our community, and so much more.
It is this kind of intentional, generous, outward-focused mission that is at the heart of the Neighborhood Church book and our own congregational mission statement:
As a diverse and joyful community of Christ’s followers, we explore how God’s gracious love gives meaning to our lives and faith and inspires us to address the needs of our world. Through our worship, learning, and service, God fills us with purpose, compassion, courage, and hope.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to be in partnership with all of you in this mission; I hope that you’ll be able to dig into this calling and opportunity more deeply as we continue our exploration of it in worship and education offerings!
Grace and Peace,