Mission Afresh

Mission Afresh:

A Call to ‘Redress Mission’ in the Perspective of the Theology of Reconstruction

A picture of Valentin Dedji

Rev Dr Valentin Dedji is from Benin in West Africa and since 2000 has been a circuit minister in Tottenham, North London, where he sees himself as a missionary. His address was based on a paper celebrating the centenary of the Missionary Conference of Edinburgh in 1910. What follows is an edited version.

This centenary celebration gives churches and mission societies a huge opportunity to appreciate the story of God’s mission worldwide over the past century, to assess present challenges in our crisis-ridden times and to discern new strategies through which we may participate more efficiently in God’s future mission. Taking roots in a creative reading of the book of Nehemiah, chapters 2-5, I propose a number of theses to stimulate an all-inclusive reformation of mission within and from the British churches.

1. Any attempt to Re-shape or to Rediscover a new Vision of Mission will do well by Re-affirming that God – not the Church – has always been the Initiator of His Mission.

We are talking here about ‘Missio Dei’. It is God’s mission, not ours. The primary agent of mission is the Holy Spirit; churches and mission agencies are only the secondary agents. Our mission history in the British Protestant churches may make it difficult for us to accept the full implications of this. In Africa, the most significant beginning of Protestant churches was not the coming of a handful of western missionaries, but the arrival in Sierra Leone in January 1792 of 1200 Black Christians, freed slaves, from Nova Scotia, whose pastors led them ashore, singing songs of freedom as they returned from the captivity of American slavery to the promised land of their birth.

If we turn the missionary movement upside down, we will find stamped on its bottom, not ‘made in Britain’ but ‘made in heaven’. Even if it remains the case that God in the past chose the British churches to play a particular role in the fulfilment of the divine missionary purpose, the indications are that churches in other parts of the world have now taken their place, and will do so increasingly. If this is so, it is for the Church in Britain to accept the substitution with humility. There is no valid reason why the Church in the west should expect to exercise continuing leadership in world mission.

2. There is an urgent challenge to stimulate the full participation of all women, men and young people from every socio-cultural background within the life of the Church.

The book of Nehemiah reveals the all-inclusive mission strategy used by the prophet in a crucial crisis-ridden period in the life of his people: hope was at its lowest level and resources were scarce. All the concepts, plans and strategies tried by religious and political leaders had failed. After some prayerful reflections, Nehemiah had the wisdom and the vision to transcend the then prevailing selective mission specialist’s model in order to appeal to people and organisations from a wide range of multi-disciplinary skills and expertise, beyond age, gender and socio-cultural barriers. The result was amazingly staggering: ‘Let us start rebuilding!’ they replied (Nehemiah 2:18).

Clearly, the ‘Mission afresh’ initiative will be an all-inclusive and integrative enterprise that will be profoundly grounded in a well-balanced partnership (based on respectful listening and reciprocal learning) with mission agencies and churches (partners), not only within the UK, but also across the world Church.

3. Every attempt to think of, or ‘do mission afresh’ must take seriously into account, the rediscovery of the meaning of corporate-discipleship: fraternal-belonging.

The late Anglican scholar, Canon David Watson, said nearly thirty years ago: ‘Christians in the West have largely neglected what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ…If we were willing to learn the meaning of real discipleship and actually become disciples, the Church in the West would be transformed, and the resultant impact on society would be staggering.’

The scandal of the Church is that the Christ-event is no longer life-changing, it has become life-enhancing. We’ve lost the power and joy that makes real disciples, and we’ve become consumers of religion and not disciples of Jesus Christ.

4. Rescuing the language of mission.

The German theologian Karl Barth emphasised the importance of the relationship between grace and gratitude by insisting that grace should be the central principle of our theology of mission and gratitude the driving force of our ethics. Churches are therefore not communities of law or discipline, but rather communities of celebration and rejoicing, joy and hope. (Here we were told a story of a man denied access to a church but welcomed in the pub across the road. Ed.) Churches that fulfil God’s mission should enable the manifestation of God’s grace and gratitude, together with His glory.

5. We can be contemporary without compromising the truth.

We must be willing to live with the tension of ambivalence. On the one hand we have the challenge to remain faithful to the unchanging word of God; but on the other hand we must minister in an ever changing world. Sadly, many Christians, unwilling to live with this tension, retreat to one of two extremes: they either retreat into isolation fearing infection, or fearing being irrelevant, they imitate the latest fashion or trend and compromise the message. The solution is to follow the example of Jesus, who never lowered his standards, but always started where the people were.

6. The Church in the West cannot opt out of the Global Missionary Responsibility of the World-wide Church.

There is one body of Christ, and one mission to which it is called. That mission will be weakened and impoverished if one part of the body turns its back on the world beyond its own shores. The Church is committed to mission or it is committed to extinction. Precisely how the British churches are to reconcile acceptance of their role as recipients rather than initiators of mission with continuing to share in the mission of the Church in other lands is the nub of the issue.

7. Rediscovering the Vision of the Church may lead to the Revival of its Mission.

A church without purpose eventually becomes a museum-piece of yesterday’s traditions. We wouldn’t dare get on a bus without first knowing where it’s going, so neither should we expect people to join the church without knowing its destination. This raises the issue of efficiency and effectiveness. Peter Drucker says, ‘Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.’ Many local churches are efficient in that they are well organised and maintain a full slate of programmes. But while they generate a lot of activity, there is little productivity. It is not enough for the church to be well organised; it must be well organised to do the right things.

8. The only missionary vision worth having is a God-centred one.

If we attempt to drum up a vision for mission on the basis of artificially manufactured goals or deadlines, or cheap portrayals of other peoples which accentuate their ‘otherness’ and lack respect and integrity, the result will ultimately be cynicism and disillusionment, not to speak of massive damage to the churches which receive those we send. The only solution to the crisis of missionary identity in the British churches lies in a recovery of an authentic Christian spirituality which is focused on the glorious triune God, who is ceaselessly at work throughout history through His people to reconcile the world to Himself in Christ.

9. The Recovery of a God-centred Missionary Vision must initiate the Reform of missionary structures.

Missionary structures in the British churches have already changed, and will need to change further and more radically still. But let us not begin with the revision of structures. Let’s concentrate on the renewal of the vision of a servant church passionately committed to mission, and the renewed vision will throw up new structures, just as it did at the end of the 18th century.

10. Ecumenism: The unavoidable round-about in Churches’ missionary journey.

Last but not least, churches have no choice but to commit themselves seriously to ecumenism as the integral configuration through which God’s future mission has to take place. The basic theological reason for this is clearly expressed in Christ’s passionate calling of the Church to mission and to unity ‘that the world may believe’ (John 17: 21). It is inconceivable to divorce the obligation of the Church to take the gospel to the whole world from its obligation to draw all Christ’s people together; both are as essential to the being of the Church and the fulfilment of its mission as the Body of Christ.

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