Missio Dei in the Local Context

My third and final paper for my UDTS online class, Theology of Mission and Evangelism. “Evaluate your own congregation, assessing the historical, cultural, and missiological paradigms that have shaped it. Given this congregation’s context, describe the missiological challenges to becoming a missional church and what you would do to help it to become one.” There were definitely areas in my paper where I discussed how my church could become more connected to the missio Dei. However, I couldn’t write at least a few of those paragraphs without looking at my own practices as well. So, as long as we’re willing to concede that our own status of journeying toward missional faith but not quite there yet as well, we can lovingly point out tough things about our churches. So, here it is:

Theological and academic exploration of the missio Dei is an important undertaking for any seminarian or pastor. However, if missio Dei remains as an airplane in a theological or intellectual holding pattern, whose wheels never touch the ground, the time studying it would have been better spent in prayer or meditation. It does God no justice to speak of his character as a missionary God without actually obeying the marching orders He gives to his people. Where this “rubber meets the road” is where the missional church exists. While the mission efforts of First Presbyterian Church of Durango embody a smattering of the principles of the missional church, this congregation also has ample opportunities to grow into a more robust engagement of the missio Dei.

First Presbyterian Church’s understanding of its missional identity primarily manifests itself in an array of commitments to provide financial and material aid to local and global initiatives. The church’s Board of Deacons and Stewardship and Mission Committee hold chief responsibility for disbursing these resources. The Deacons tend to focus on local projects, such as nonmember assistance, donations to food banks, and funding for independent ministries around Durango. A project funded by the Deacons that this author coordinates is a weekly lunch-time program for senior high students, called Food For Thought. Since the students may leave campus for their lunch hour, the church delivers a large meal to the county fairgrounds next to the high school, and students can come for a free meal. Youth ministry staff and volunteers engage the students in meaningful but non-proselytizing conversation and build trust with them. Food For Thought is a gateway program for introducing unchurched or nonChristian students to the church in a nonthreatening environment. The Stewardship and Mission Committee primarily addresses national and international projects. They distribute funds to foreign missionaries across the globe and facilitate mission trips for congregation members to serve in other parts of the country, as well as in foreign countries. An annual project of the committee is the Mission Dinner and Auction, in which they solicit valuable items and services to be donated for inclusion in silent and live auctions. Proceeds benefit a selected missionary or organization. The 2008 event brought in over $11,000 for medical missionaries running a small village hospital in The Congo. The 2007 dinner benefited PC (USA)-sponsored missionaries operating a school and orphanage for children living in the Guatemala City Dump. Interest in this project sparked momentum for the committee to organize a crew to travel to Guatemala and help with facility construction and maintenance. Most recently, the committee took a key role in organizing a presbytery delegation to travel to New Orleans and aid in the reconstruction of the Lower Ninth Ward.

Without a doubt, the activities coordinated by the Board of Deacons and the Stewardship and Mission Committee comprise the majority of First Presbyterian Church’s mission work. Darrell Guder highlights an opportunity for missional growth relevant to this scenario, though: Missional churches move beyond seeing mission as one of several programmatic arms of the church. The presently functioning norm, or the negative of Guder’s missional principle, is this: “Indeed, the main business of many mission committees is to determine how to spend the mission budget rather than view the entire congregational budget as an exercise in mission.” (Guder, Missional, p. 6) Not all hope is lost though, as the congregation is moving to a more missional model in other areas under its new leadership.

While writing checks and distributing resources is a noble task for any church, First Presbyterian Church has been pursuing a deeper understanding of its missional identity by placing an increased value on conversation. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. William Mangrum, has pushed the congregation in this direction, and they have responded enthusiastically. Pastor Bill understands and affirms Lesslie Newbigin’s insistence on the business of ministry leadership as the growth of a priesthood of believers, which can only be cultivated by “a ministerial priesthood which serves, nourishes, sustains, and guides this priestly work.” (Newbigin, Gospel, p. 235) Under Pastor Bill’s guidance, an assortment of members from First Presbyterian Church have dove into large conversations addressing the roles of the children’s and youth ministries in the church. For example, Pastor Bill has exercised this enfolding model of missional leadership by pushing the stakeholders in the congregation to engage Rev. Mark DeVries’ book, Family-Based Youth Ministry. Also, the discussion group’s completion of the formal gatherings has coincided with the resignation of the church’s youth director. Now, these stakeholders stand poised to participate in yet another conversation that Pastor Bill has initiated: the shaping of the vacated position to align it more closely with a family-based youth ministry paradigm. The congregation functions as a community where men and women engage their role as members of a royal priesthood. (Newbigin, Gospel, pp. 227-228) The missio Dei is alive and well in these conversations.

Another facet of First Presbyterian Church’s missional identity is its affinity for engaging in holistic mission work. Samuel Escobar makes a strong case for this balanced approach in his citation of Daniel Fountain, an American Baptist medical missionary to Zaire: “if the sick person is to be made whole, we must involve in the restoration process the center of the personality where the quest for meaning and purpose exist.” (Escobar, New Global, p. 155) For Escobar, reciprocal relationships in mission work prevent the dehumanization both of the servant and the served. First Presbyterian Church’s engagement in certain mission endeavors reflects this principle. The congregation maintains a weekly commitment to send volunteers to help at a local soup kitchen. An aside on the fruit borne by the adoption of Newbigin’s “priesthood of all believers” aspect of congregations: While there is one person from the congregation who coordinates the fulfillment of these obligations, individual church members take ownership of this commitment to the soup kitchen. However, let us return to Escobar’s insistence of humanity being recognized in mission work. In their service at the kitchen, volunteers spend half their time preparing and serving the meal, and they spend the other half dispersed throughout the dining room, having conversations with the “clients”, learning their stories, praying for them, and generally treating them as fellow humans. In this reciprocal relationship, the volunteers open themselves up to be challenged by the clients, and often walk away more changed than those they served. The missio Dei is alive and well in the soup kitchen.

First Presbyterian Church’s growth toward a fuller embodiment of missional Christian community deserves commendation. However, Asian Christianity offers a few lessons for First Presbyterian Church in its journey to become more missional. Scott W. Sunquist explores three themes from the experience of the Body of Christ in Asia, and these ideas bear significant importance for First Presbyterian Church. A critical and honest analysis of the church’s surrounding context quickly reveals its setting in a distinctly post-Christendom town. Many Durango residents pursue some form of spirituality, but their paths do not lead to Jesus Christ. They have a cautious desire to dialogue and explore other faiths, but trite “Sunday School” answers offered by Christians will put an abrupt end to any Jesus-centered conversation. In short, the church’s setting in Durango requires an acceptance of its status as a minority group within the larger community. As such, the Durango church can deepen its missional identity not by increased proselytizing to an already unreceptive town, but instead by exploring and embracing the implications of its status as a community under the sole lordship of Christ. (Sunquist, Asian, p. 4)

As a minority community existing in post-Christendom, First Presbyterian Church does not have the necessary leverage to engage in wide-scale proselytizing. Echoing this fact, church members of all ages voice feelings of confusion, intimidation, and helplessness as barriers to engaging in proselytizing conversations with friends and peers. To remove these barriers, and to add depth its missional nature, a re-imagining of evangelism is in order. William Abraham offers an alternative definition: evangelism as “primary initiation into the kingdom of God.” (Abraham, Logic, p. 14) Inclusion of the kingdom of God into the conversation about evangelism makes for a more theologically robust approach than rote memorization of the Four Spiritual Laws. A key weakness in the proclamation-centered definition of evangelism fails to draw the whole Body to engage into evangelism. Instead, just those who feel especially gifted as “evangelists” take up the responsibility, and those who feel trapped behind barriers live their lives only by the old adage “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Much like Guder’s approach to mission, Abraham would urge the First Presbyterian Church to adopt an approach to evangelism that relocates it to the center of congregational life. If evangelism is defined as an initiation into the kingdom of God, and if God’s kingdom is where the law is the set of two inseparable commandments articulated by Jesus, evangelism becomes a process that everyone in the congregation can engage, regardless of age (chronological or theological!). Though Abraham outlines six key components of this widened definition of evangelism, First Presbyterian Church needs to perceive what they are already doing as part of this new evangelism, and improve on a few other aspects of the definition. For example, the congregation approaches baptism with great reverence, and takes the same attitude toward the intellectual tradition of the church as expressed in creeds. (Abraham, Logic, p. 145) However, the first component of the definition, a call to conversion, does not take great prominence, neither from the pulpit nor in the everyday conversations (to the best of this author’s knowledge). Likewise, a serious invocation of the Holy Spirit to guide the people’s initiation into the kingdom could be given more effort (Abraham, Logic, p. 152). Many committee meetings begin with the reading and brief study of scripture, and this is a prime opportunity for such an intentional invitation for the Holy Spirit’s work in the congregation.

A final initiative for the members First Presbyterian Church to undertake in an effort to become a more missio Dei-driven congregation covers common ground between William Abraham’s discussion of evangelism and Brian D. McLaren’s exploration of postmodern spirituality. Abraham insists that evangelism as initiation into the kingdom of God is solidified by the adoption of spiritual disciplines that allow the kingdom-citizen to sustain the difficult commitment he or she has made to the kingdom (Abraham, Logic, pp. 159-160). For McLaren, missional faith is roughly synonymous with emergent faith. As part of this new kind of Christianity, McLaren advocates a reconnection with the deep and historic disciplines of Christianity. Whether through labyrinths or fasting or journaling or icons, the spiritual practices and disciplines of the missional/emergent church are those that remove the insulation that man has erected (McLaren, New Kind, p. 119). The practices of an emerging church are those that create space for God to move. The corporate spiritual disciplines of First Presbyterian Church do not capitalize on the wide range of possibilities reflected across the centuries of Christian tradition. The majority of members in the church would probably agree that many disciplines, such as prayer (Matthew 6:5-9, NRSV), study (Ezekiel 3:1-3), service (Matthew 20:26), confession (James 5:16), and worship (John 4:20-24), are required of us and useful for our development; however, the church as a whole does little to explore these practices together and exhort each other toward widespread and consistent adoption of such disciplines. Almost completely absent from the congregation’s conversation are disciplines of solitude (Luke 5:16), meditation (Psalm 1:2), simplicity (Hebrews 12:1-3), fasting (I Samuel 7:6), and submission (Hebrews 13:17). Although discussion of these disciplines seems to be absent from the life of the congregation, this author concedes three important facts. He cannot comment on the private disciplines of the majority of the members and friends of First Presbyterian Church. He also acknowledges that a congregational program is not the solution for any lack of spiritual discipline, whether real or perceived. And finally, he is one among those who need to increase the personal practice of the aforementioned spiritual disciplines. Those three caveats conceded though, a wider adoption of spiritual disciplines creates space for the Triune Missionary God to move among his people and set them in motion with the missio Dei in the local context of Durango, Colorado.

Works Cited

Abraham, William J. The Logic of Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.

Escobar, Samuel. The New Global Mission: The Gospel Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Guder, Darrell, ed. Missional Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

McLaren, Brian D. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.

Sunquist, Scott. “Asian Perspectives on Theological Pluralism.” Theology Matters Vol. 5 No 5. (Sep/Oct 1999) 1-7.

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One response to “Missio Dei in the Local Context

  1. Um. you need to write more. Also I am stealing some of your stuff for something. I’ll let you know.

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