(an article originally published in Life and Times, September 1978)
Jesus commissioned his disciples with these words. “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).
Set in the context of the ultimate Lordship of Christ and his promised presence, their task was the making of disciples. This task was to have two very closely related aspects, baptising and teaching — the bringing of people to Christian faith and their nurture within that faith.
In the Basis of Union of our Church, the key importance of evangelism is clearly acknowledged. “The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. To God in Christ men are called to respond in faith. To this end God has sent forth his Spirit that men may trust him as their Father, and acknowledge Jesus as Lord.” (Basis, para. 3), “Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command men’s attention and awaken their faith…” (para. 4).
Mission and Structure
It is important that we have thus acknowledged the place of evangelism in the Church’s task. The question we need to be asking, however, is whether, at parish and congregational level, our Church’s life is structured to fulfil our Lord’s commission.
Too often, evangelism is seen as an extra, something we must do periodically, but which is aside from and additional to our regular programme. So, from time to time, we engage in some special programme, often importing some visiting “expert” or engaging in some local outreach programme.
Yet something has been wrong, because everything about the life of the Church seems to suggest that this is an “unusual” activity. And when we count heads and observe that our “drive” has had little response among the unchurched, we console ourselves with the thought that our regulars really needed the boost along anyway!
Part of the problem is that our churches have tended to develop an inward, self-maintenance mentality. We are programmed to maintain the status quo. Our basic call is for people to come and be part of the system. Our structures have failed to heed the command to go.
This is not to say that we don’t have many worthy activities, for each of which we can give good justification. But this is not the point. Nor is it the point to add good “spiritual” reasons for doing this or that when we know they are not the real reasons!
Let us all study our “program” at parish and congregational levels and ask, “Is our Church life structured to fulfil our Lord’s commission to make disciples?” Now is the time in the life of the Uniting Church to be asking that question.
This problem, of course, is not just a local one. Very often the “wider life” of the Church has been defensively structured, with evangelistic outreach as something that is added from time to time for conscience’ sake. In this the wider Church is simply reflecting our failure at local level to perceive our mission. Synod structures are developed to support the life of the Church as we see it. They may also, therefore, tend to “set” us in our present priorities.
Where do we begin in seeking to be structured for mission?
A Change of Thinking
Clearly, the first stage must be a change of thinking at congregational level – and this sort of change doesn’t come easily!
Dr James Kennedy in Evangelism Explosion suggested that the greatest heresy in the life of the Church is “Let clerical George do it” – a heresy which he dates back to the time of Constantine in the fourth century when Christianity became the officially-accepted religion. Let it be said that the heresy has a corollary, “Clerical George here. Leave it to me!”
Consider this – It is a sunny day and I am sitting at the end of a jetty fishing. Suddenly I hear steps of someone running out along the jetty. I turn just in time to see him trip and fall headlong into the water. What is my response to be? I could turn around and continue fishing, pretending not to have seen him (non-involvement). I could call down to him, “You silly fool! Why didn’t you watch where you were going?” (judgment). I could race back to my car, jump in, head off to the closest phone box and ring the nearest rescue organisation (referral to the experts). I could jump in, at the risk of my own life, to rescue him (personal help).
This simple story raises issues that need to be pondered deeply throughout the life of the Church. How do we respond to the various levels of human need? Certainly, whatever else we do, we live in the age of experts, and the only positive responses we take are often by proxy.
The recognition and exercise of spiritual gifts by all members of the Church is essential if we are to become structured for the task we are here to fulfil. When Paul speaks of spiritual gifts in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4, he sees that each gift must be recognised and used if the body is to function in completeness. What we sometimes forget is that the purpose of building up the body is not for the body’s self-interest or self-image, but so that the body can more completely fulfil the will of the head.
Our view of the Church and its life can all be internal, related to the needs of those who are members. It is, however, crucial, not just that the members be fed, but that the body be built up through the inter-relatedness and interdependence of the members so that the “mission beyond” can be fulfilled.
“The Church is the Body of Christ,” we say, meaning, “We are a privileged people.” That is so true! But think again! How is Christ going to fulfil his mission if not through us? It is now only in his people that he is bodily present in this world.
Or… we think of the words of Jesus to Peter (Mt 16:18) about how “the gates of hell will not prevail against” the Church, and picture ourselves as a fortress with the drawbridge up! Secure! In times of widespread unbelief, such as today, such a concept has brought us some comfort. But, I ask, are the gates of hell (or hades) a weapon against the Church, or is the Church striking out, unable to be held back by any opposition?
We need to grasp, then, that the Church is “on mission.” To fulfil this mission each member must be enabled to see and use his particular gift within the life of the Body. As long as the prevailing attitude to Church life is internal, with all the gifts centred in the full-time ministry, then both ministry and Church will be severely handicapped in fulfilling the mission in any real sense.