One of our Regional Ministers (a kind of Baptist ‘Bishop’ if you like) was meeting with the leadership team of a reasonably large Baptist Church in his area that was in a time of ‘Pastoral Vacancy’. During the preamble to the meeting proper the casual conversation had covered some of the enquiries fielded by the church in recent days: a woman who had wanted her baby ‘done’ and who had been told bluntly that ‘Baptists don’t do babies’ and that she needed the C of E for that kind of thing’; a man whose fiancée had been divorced and who wondered if they could get married at the Baptist Church, and who was told in no uncertain terms that this particular church ‘didn’t marry divorced people’ and that he should either try the ‘liberal’ Methodist Church down the road or, even better, just go to the Registry Office; the rather tearful elderly lady, who lived down the road from the church and whose husband had died that week, wondering if it would be possible to hold the funeral service at the church, who was told that since neither of them had attended the church she should look elsewhere. The Regional Minister made no response to this sad sequence of events until later in the proper meeting when he was told that one of the difficulties facing this church (and any prospective Minister going there) was a ‘lack of opportunities to reach out missionally to the local community’? At this point the Regional Minister ‘exploded’. ‘Lack of missional opportunity!’ he queried. ‘A young mother wanting to give thanks to God for the birth of her child, and asking for a ‘blessing’? A man wanting to get married in church, albeit to someone who had had a previous broken marriage? An elderly lady wanting to hold her late husband’s funeral in your church even though she has never visited you before? Were these not all ‘missional opportunities’? The very least you could have done is to have met these needy people and talked with them?’
In my previous ‘blog’ (in this series) I explained that when Julia and I moved to Knaphill in 2015 our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any preconceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ In that blog I outlined some of the conclusions we had come to as a church. In our second year in Knaphill we moved on to prayerfully consider a second important question – a natural follow-up to the first question really – ‘What kind of church?’ and ‘So what?’ In that blog I tried to unpack some of our thinking and the way in which we sough to start to ‘do church’ somewhat differently as a result. In our third year in Knaphill we took the next obvious step in this journey of discovery and considered a third important question: ‘What kind of mission?’ and ‘So what?’
For some years now, the Baptist Union of Great Britain has been rightly urging member churches to ‘move from maintenance to mission’. To some degree this was born out of a sense of desperation given the steady rate of numerical decline amongst the ‘historic’ churches in the UK (including many Baptist Churches), but hopefully there was a ‘higher’ (more Biblical and theological) reason for this. The missio dei (mission of God) is a prominent theme in Scripture – indeed some Christian scholars such as Christopher J H Wright suggest that to unlock the Bible’s grand narrative we need a ‘missional hermeneutic’ i.e. we need to read the Bible from a missional perspective rather than simply get our ideas about mission from the Bible. For Wright, the whole Bible is all about ‘the mission of God’ and how we need to see the ‘big picture’ of God’s mission and how again and again the familiar stories and teachings confirm and clarify that the missio dei is the major theme of the Bible.
Quite rightly the mission of God has, for a good number of years now, been understood in broad terms as being holistic in nature covering our physical, mental, social, emotional and environmental needs as well as our spiritual needs. In recent years years, however, their has been a renewed emphasis on the spiritual needs in recognition that the bottom line is that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23) – sinners by nature as well as action – who need saving, and that the only way to change society is to change the hearts of individual men and women. Thus, we tend to speak of integral mission these days rather than holistic mission – a term coined in Spanish as misión integral in the 1970s by members of the evangelical group Latin American Theological Fellowship to describe an understanding of Christian mission which embraces both social responsibility and evangelism. The word ‘integral’ is used in Spanish to describe wholeness (as in wholemeal bread or whole wheat). The concept of integral mission is nothing new – rather, it is rooted in Scripture and wonderfully exemplified in Jesus’ own ministry.
Right from the very beginning – God searching for Adam and Eve when they were hiding from God among the trees in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8,9) – God has been seeking to draw sinful men and women back to himself and to a way of living that glorifies God and makes us a blessing to others around us. It is important for us to understand that the missio dei is God’s mission – not something that we ‘do’ for God – and that God graciously invites us to share in his mission with him! Because this mission to reconcile men and women to God, and in turn for them to be used by God to fulfil his plans and purposes, is fundamentally God’s mission it cannot fail. Our involvement in the missio dei is a privilege not a chore. ‘Mission’ only becomes a chore when we wrongly see it as ‘something we are obliged to do for God’ rather than ‘something God is already doing’ and in which we are invited to share.
At the heart of the mission of God is the centrality of the Cross. As the Apostle John tells us in the Fourth Gospel: ‘God loved the world so much that he gave us his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3:16,17). Biblically, ‘salvation’ is rather a broad term covering material as well as spiritual needs, and is applied corporately as well as personally at times. Hence, the emphasis on the different facets of holistic or integral mission: physical, mental, social, emotional, environmental and spiritual. For me, Mary Bowler Peters (1813-56) sums it up poignantly in a line from one of her hymns: ‘Ours is such a full salvation’!
My conviction, therefore, is that we need to deliberately change our priorities both as individual Christians and as local churches. We need to move from maintenance to mission, from being self-preservation societies to missional communities, from seeing mission simply in terms of leaving the church doors open during Sunday Worship hoping outsiders will somehow wander in to being community hub churches ministering to the holistic needs of our community 24/7.
In recent years Julia and I have investigated various examples of community hub church but the model that impressed us most, and the one that became our pattern, was quite local. The Lighthouse Project (http://www.lighthousewoking.org) is a vibrant community hub church serving the community of Woking incorporating a food-bank, a social enterprise cafe, a job club, addiction recovery support, children’s clothing and equipment, debt advice, cooking training, creative workshops, clothing and confidence for women, youth work, live music, bread making, spiritual support, community meals, and much more. Most importantly, it provides a place of authentic welcome where people experience dignity, acceptance, restoration, and hope. The Lighthouse is all about community: local people responding to local need. It continues to operate on the generosity and engagement of local individuals, groups, and businesses. Most projects are run by volunteers, and it’s all resourced by donations. At the heart of it all is a lively, committed, Christian church – a church which is growing both numerically and spiritually as a result of a church engaging authentically with the missio dei.