Missional Christianity, Pt. 1 - God is On a Mission

Note: This is the first of a series of lessons I'm writing for some of our small groups to work through the idea of "missional Christianity."
The other day, I visited a historic cathedral in New York City. It was a beautiful building, but walking through it I couldn’t help but feel the tension. Sure, part of it was the hundred or so tourists snapping selfies. Yet is was deeper as well. Donation boxes were everywhere. Three gaudy penny-press machines flanked the main aisle. A few people were gathering for mass, but they kept their heads down and were ushered through gates by security while the other visitors walked by. Here was this glorious church, and yet somehow it had ceased to be a beacon of light shining in the dark world and had become instead a tourist trap. It was trying to continue as an institution while having lost all sense of its mission. This isn't just a problem for this one church - it is an affliction of the church in the West as a whole. We have lost our sense of mission. 

Where does this come from? Like all problems, our failure as the church to be on mission rests on a theological error. We misunderstand something about God, and consequently we misunderstand how we are to live.

Many people have a passive view of God. Whether they treat him as a cosmic force, a judge in the sky or a kindly grandfather figure, they imagine that His involvement in the world is minimal. He sits in heaven, and the primary movement of history is one of human beings towards Him. This can take different forms – both conservative moralism and liberal dreams of progress end up being stories about humanity moving upward.

In Scripture, however, God is viewed as active. From the point in Genesis 3 where we rebelled onward, we see God moving toward His fallen creation in a work to preserve and redeem it.

Some of those actions are preservative. God holds back the effects of our evil. He protects the world from the full consequences of our excesses. He also patiently postpones final judgement while bringing moments of judgment into history in order to restrain our sin. He continues to send rain, to grow food, to make bodies heal and to allow many of the blessings of creation to endure. In all of these ways we see God’s “common grace.” The key thing to recognize here is that common grace is an active work of grace by God to build up and protect the world.

In addition, God also acts in ways that are redemptive. He is not just holding back the kingdom of darkness; He is actually invading it with the kingdom of light. This work begins with the seed promise, spoken as a curse against Satan in Genesis 3: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) It builds into the calling of Israel. God promises Abram that “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3) Notice that it is the salvation (blessing) of all peoples on the earth that is the foundation for Abraham’s special place in the story.

Over and over throughout Scripture we see the pattern: God enters into history with His great acts, He reveals Himself to lost humanity, He moves towards us seeking to save us and restore us to right relationship with Himself. God exercises not just “common grace” but also “saving grace.” Indeed, the Bible itself is a witness to the fact that we have an active God, as its every page is a product of His self-revelation.

God’s redemptive activity culminates in Jesus. His incarnation and life and death and resurrection are the pivotal acts of God’s missionary movement toward us. He descended from heaven to earth, and from earth even to the grave, so that we might be saved. Even more, this is still His active mission: through the witness of the church and the working of the Holy Spirit, God is seeking out lost people and restoring them to right relationship and to resurrection life.

There are two things we should notice about this activity of God. One is that it is holistic. It includes both caring for creation in its broken state (preservation) and calling people to become new creations (redemption). This is why we as Christians should always care about both things. There are those who would abandon the redemptive part of God’s mission in favor only of doing good works of social justice; there are others who would abandon the preservation part, seeking to save souls while letting bodies perish in poverty or disease. God feels no such tension. Both are a part of His mission.

Secondly, and this is the point I want us to focus on: God’s mission always involves movement toward the world. It is not about God sitting still and people coming to Him but rather God going out to make Himself known.

For much of the last thousand years, the church has tended to operate on what some have called the model of “Christendom.” It assumed that the state and the broader culture were both relatively friendly to Christianity and that the vast majority of people assumed that Christianity was true. As a result, the church tended to expect people to come to it. Not everyone might be living out their faith, it was acknowledged, but when hard times came they would come to the church for answers.

It is often remarked that the Christendom model no longer works because of states and cultures that are increasingly hostile to historic Christianity. What is often missed, however, is that this model never worked particularly well. The point when the church became Christendom was the point where much of its missionary zeal was lost and where true spiritual life often began to disappear.

The reason for this failure is that Christendom is based on the wrong picture of God. It embraces a passive deity and therefore becomes a passive church. The idea that we will just huddle together, gathered in our sanctuaries, and the world will come to us tend to correlate with the idea that God sits idly by, expecting the lost to come to Him.

Yet God is an active God, a God with a mission. Because that is true, the only way the church can truly be God’s church is by following His example and going into the world with that mission.

This is where the language of “missional Christianity” comes in. The term has been used in various ways, not all helpful. However, in its best sense, being “missional” simply means that we recognize that God is on a mission and treat every part of our lives as an extension of that mission. God is working to preserve and redeem creation and lost human beings. Each aspect of our lives, from our work to our rest to our families to our life as neighbors is meant to be an avenue through which that mission becomes our own.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be talking about this idea of missional Christianity. For now, though, here’s what I’d invite you to do. There is a moment in the gospel of John when Jesus seeks to change His disciples’ perspective on their lives. He has just shared the gospel with a Samaritan woman, a cultural outsider and enemy of Israel, and the woman’s neighbors are gathering to hear the good news. The disciples, meanwhile, are trying to convince Jesus to take a break, ignore the oncoming crowd, and instead have dinner. Jesus’s response is first that He has greater food – meaning a greater source of purpose – that simply physical bread. He then tries to open the disciples eyes by saying this: “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” (John 4:35) Presumably he is pointing at this gathering crowd of Samaritans when he says it. The point is clear: “Look around you. You think the harvest (another way of talking about the results of God’s mission) is distant, but I am saying instead that it is right in front of you!”

So here is the invitation for this week. Stop as you go about your daily activities, look around, and say to yourself, “This is my mission field. This is where I am called to do the work of Jesus.” And then ask what it looks like to be a force both for preservation and for redemption in this place at this moment. The more we open our eyes, the more we realize that the harvest is ready if we would only see it.