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I've been thinking a lot about "Mission" in recent weeks. For many years the way I thought about it was based on what I had been taught and noted around me from my schooldays onwards. There were wonderful mission societies like SPCK who trained people to go to faraway places and convert the heathen. Inevitably it was a white man going to the dark countries of Africa or perhaps the Far East or South America to share the Christian gospel and to convert people to our way of thinking and acting. It was something you did "over there" and my contribution, like that of many, was merely to dip a hand into my pocket to respond to appeals for financial support.
I'm now starting to see why the Mission module is left till last on my ministry course. It draws together so many of the threads of Church History, Doctrine, the Pauline Epistles, Old Testament traditions and Ethics that we have previously studied as separate modules. Without doubt, looking back over 2,000 years of history to see how those who have gone before have understood mission has been very helpful. There have been some very different examples; some of which are totally inappropriate for the twenty-first century! It started back with the first example coming from Jewish Christianity between 40 - 100AD. That was very much an apostolic mission - trying to fill the Ark if you like - since the second coming of Christ was expected imminently. Then, as a result of Paul and his missionary journeys, there was the spread of Christianity within Greek world - the missionary task was to radiate the eternal truth - and we still see that in the Taizé movement today.
One of the most influential models was the Medieval Catholic Mission that started and continued through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. This was the age of establishing Christendom by conquest and enforced conversion. It was mission with a sword, supported by law and order and efficient church structures. This was superseded during the Reformation and Renaissance by a move to see mission as simply the conversion of souls. Mission was based on justification by faith. The Methodists were a good example. Today we can see the same understanding of mission in the Pentecostal churches.
The next major change in the way people thought about mission was in the eighteenth century as a result of the Enlightenment. There was an end to the religious authority of the middle ages and a radical change towards reason and liberty of the individual even in religious thought. Mission became the process of building the Kingdom on Earth and we can see examples today in the liberation theology of South America and within the Church of England with such initiatives as "Faith in the City".
I haven't got room to say anything about the Celtic understanding of mission; with its emphasis on community and the sharing of finding God in his creation all around us it has certain appeal. There also has to be room within any understanding of mission to know that it is wrong to believe that a Christian can never learn anything from an unbeliever and that conversion is paramount. One of the books I am reading at the moment is about a Roman Catholic priest's work with the Masai tribe in Africa. It is an incredibly thought provoking book and not without cause is its title "Christianity Rediscovered".
Looking back at all this has taught me one important fact. There is not one right way of carrying out mission. Is it social action? Is Christian mission about assisting with what God is doing in the world? Is mission then human development? How can we do that without a thriving active church? Is mission then about growing the church? Is the church the fruit of God's mission? Should we then be seeking to express God's kingdom in every geographical and cultural context? Or is perhaps mission just about proclaiming Christ to the world? Do our churches need to follow Jesus' example and be bold and adventurous in gearing their activities to spreading the news about Jesus throughout the whole of our parishes?
The word "mission", it seems to me, has been used in so many different ways in the past that the church today is not sure anymore what it really is all about. It is clear that all the churches today need to explore and think about the right way to reach out to our surrounding communities. That means asking ourselves some basic theological questions about the nature of mission. Is our mission just about doing something to enable our church memberships to grow, or is it joining with a wider struggle for a better world through social action or is the proclamation of the gospel in public places the overriding calling?
Without doubt mission is based on the doctrine of the Trinity. We also have the example of Jesus' own mission in Galilee from our Scriptures. I am still in process of thinking through and working out my own answer to the question "What is Christian mission today?" That is something we all could usefully think about; our answers and resulting actions will influence the shape and future of our churches in the years to come.

Peter Muir


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