Monday, June 04, 2007

Where I am Now: 1. Mission

For a while now I have been writing an account of my own personal journey. These blogs haven’t been planned except in a general way, and I have been following my thoughts as I have gone along. Thank you to all who have stayed with it. I have paused somewhat in recent blogs to examine some of the challenges I see in ministering here at Christ Church. While I have written from a personal point of view, they are, nevertheless, challenges I think anyone would face ministering here.

Perhaps now I ought to resume the account of my journey by asking where I am personally. So, in the next few blogs in this series, I am going to ask myself where I am now in my journey. Today I want to think a little about mission.

Where I am Now: 1. Mission

I came to Hong Kong via Jerusalem believing going to Hong Kong a particularly significant move. That turned out to be an understatement. (I have written in a previous blog about the changes in my personal circumstances early on in my time here.) I came via Jerusalem as I saw this as a symbolic way of making a commitment to mission in the next stage of my ministry. This was were it all began.

One thing that has not changed during my time here, though, is the commitment I feel to mission. At Banchory, I was sure that it had to be at the heart of our life as Church. It was also why I had got as involved as I had in Mission 21, a Scottish Episcopal initiative in mission. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I was also sure that it should be at the heart of my ministry here. I think that when I came, I believed the biggest challenge would be engaging in mission in a different culture. And yes, there are cultural differences. And yes all that has been written about being sensitive to people in a different culture are true. However globalisation has ensured that many of the issues facing the Church are the same the world over, certainly in the developed world.

The issue for me personally increasingly has become what it is we mean by ‘mission’. One of the reasons I am interested in the emerging church movement, while having reservations about aspects of it, is that I believe those in the movement are asking the right questions, and are putting mission at the centre of the debate about what it means to be the Church in a post-modern world.

Mission, however, must be about more than getting seats filled. This seems to be so obvious as not to need stating, and yet I wonder how many of us clergy especially are unconsciously working with a numbers based model of church growth. Whenever I talk to people who think their Church is growing, the first thing they tell me is that there are more people attending services. And I want people to attend services as much as anyone. But is this really the most important sign of church growth?

I would go further. Mission and church growth need to be about more than people becoming Christians. At every baptism service, I read the passage from Matthew 28, Jesus’ words to the eleven disciples before he left them. They are well-known, but I think we sometimes miss their message:

‘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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The making of disciples involves baptizing people of all nations, which I take to mean convincing them that Jesus is Lord and that they should make a personal commitment to him. It also involves teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded his disciples. In other words, being a disciple, today as then, means more than just believing in Jesus, it means a day by day, moment by moment, life of obedience.

‘Trust and obey
for there’s no other way,
to be happy in Jesus,
but to trust and obey.’

This, however, requires us to develop a Christian lifestyle and worldview: something that will often mean going against the prevailing worldview and its values and beliefs. It may even make us unpopular.

This is where I feel more and more concerned in my own ministry. In the Church, we are simply failing to resist the values of the world in which we live. It is not that our members aren’t sincere or don’t believe. They do. It’s just that all too often it doesn’t make any practical difference. Our values and lifestyles are not significantly different to those of the culture around us. We educate our kids at the same schools, with the same goals and ideals as the kids of parents with no Christian faith. We pursue careers, buy houses, have families, watch TV programmes, read books and magazines, surf the internet, consume material goods, relax and play all in essentially the same way and with the same attitudes as the rest of society.

When I ask myself what difference being a Christian makes, I am disturbed by the answer the evidence suggests I should give. When recently I said to leading member of my own church that the Christian faith called into question making money as the key factor in making decisions in life, they told me not to be silly and that was something that only Vicars believed. Of course, we had to say that in church, but it was only an ideal that no-one took seriously outside.

I do not want a return to where I have come from; where things were rejected as worldly simply because people in the world enjoyed them. Nor do I want a withdrawal from the world and for Christians to be different for the sake of it. But if we are to teach people to obey everything that Jesus taught, surely that will mean, as Jesus himself suggested, a certain sort of difference?

Another aspect of this is the way the entertainment culture has penetrated the Church. We expect to be entertained when we come to Church, not challenged. We want to be given things to enjoy, not called upon to sacrifice them in obedience to Christ. In our desire to get numbers, to have people listen to us, and to take us seriously, we have rewritten the Gospel to leave out the parts that we think people will find unattractive.

The Church community needs to engage faithfully in mission, but that means speaking the truth as it is. If that attracts some, while driving others away, then that is something, albeit with sadness, we may have to accept. Jesus certainly had to. Clearly, it is not what we want, and we should strive to avoid putting any obstacle in people’s way. But we need to ask whether rather than engaging in mission, what we are unwittingly doing is developing the Church as place of spiritual entertainment where success is measured by the criteria of the box office.

Perhaps we have to accept smaller numbers and less worldly success in favour of communities which take the challenge to obey Jesus’ teaching seriously and which are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to do that. Mission remains a priority for me, but more and more I find myself forced to define what it is I mean by it.

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