New: Developing a Missional Approach: Being Sent into the World as Jesus was Sent

Originally published in Tui Motu InterIslands, Independent Catholic Magazine, New Zealand, September 2017, 26, 27.

            About a decade ago, several leaders of a parish in a mid-sized New Zealand city were deeply concerned about the cold houses in their suburb. They banded together with other churches in their suburb to provide help to families who needed more insulation.

            As they discussed insulation and heating, a lovely back-and-forth relationship developed between church members and others who live in the suburb. After the insulation project ended, the churches continued to be involved in their local community by helping to establish a community garden and cooking classes.

            These church members are engaging in God’s mission in the world by building relationships and providing help to people in their suburb.

            Does it surprise you that I’m using the word “mission” to describe these local projects and relationships? Our word “mission” comes from the Latin missio, which means sent.

            Twice Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them into the world as he was sent. The first time occurs in Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for his disciplines. He mentions that he is also praying for those who will believe because of the disciples, so Christians today are included in his prayer. In verse 18, Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” He uses almost identical words after the resurrection as he gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples (John 20:21).

            In the twentieth century, many Christians had a particular view of mission that related to missionaries, who were set apart to be sent into the world. After all, most Western cultures were predominantly Christian, so the real mission work needed to occur overseas.

            Now, of course, Western cultures have become predominantly secular, and we know very well that we can look around and see plenty of mission work to be done right in our own neighbourhoods.Rediscovering this sense of being sent into the world, based in Jesus’ model, can help us think about what we’re called to do and be as Christians in our daily lives.

The Missional Church

            About twenty years ago, a few writers began using the word “missional” to describe our response to this call of Jesus to be sent into the world, and now dozens of books have been written and conferences offered. Many Christians in New Zealand and elsewhere are asking what it looks to be missional today. These books and conferences focus on the mission of God, what God is up to in the world and our invitation to be part of it.

            One helpful way to think about this question is to ask yourself what you consider to be the heart of Jesus’ ministry as described in the Gospels. Do you see Jesus primarily as a healer? As a gentle, compassionate person who interacted with the marginalized and helped them feel welcomed and loved? When you read the Gospels, do you resonate with Jesus as the wise teacher who trained his disciples? The one who proclaimed the Gospel? The one who confronted powerful people?

            I have noticed that the way Christians view Jesus influences what they perceive to be God’s missional call in the world. Indeed, Jesus’ life on earth is our model, and the missional church writers emphasise that.

            Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, in their book The Missional Leader, write:

 “Missional leaders take the incarnation of Jesus with utmost seriousness. More than just a doctrine to be confessed, it is the key to understanding all God’s activities with, through, in, and among us. It points toward an answer to the question of where God is to be found. In the Incarnation we discern that God is always found in what appears to be the most godforsaken of places – the most inauspicious of locations, people and situations.”

           So the first step in understanding the mission of God is to ponder Jesus: what he did, who he interacted with, and what his priorities are.

Looking around the Neighbourhood and the World

            The second step in being missional is to look around. What needs do you see? The churches in one suburb saw a lot of cold houses, and they tried to help meet that need. Another New Zealand church looked around and saw artists who felt disconnected and unappreciated. They turn their church building into an art gallery for one week each year, and they build relationships with artists in their community.

            Maybe you’ll look around and see refugees who need families to connect with. Maybe you’ll see kids who need adult mentors. In our hyper-connected world, maybe you’ll see a need in the Indonesia or Guatemala. To be sent into the world as Jesus was sent means to pay attention to where God is calling you, and others in your parish, to make a difference, whether close by or far away.

            My husband is an artist, and last year I created a calendar using his paintings. We sold the calendar at our church to benefit a ministry with sex workers in the Philippines. We were so happy to be able to send $6,000 from the proceeds from the calendar. Helping vulnerable families in your suburb with insulation and raising money for vulnerable women in the Philippines are equally missional in God’s eyes.

Obstacles

            What are the obstacles to missional caring by Christians in New Zealand? I can see two major obstacles. The first relates to the discomfort of many Christians when the topic of God comes up in a conversation. Jesus moved seamlessly between topics related to daily life and truths about God and God’s kingdom.

            One parish trains people in “three stories evangelism.” When we talk with people, we need to be comfortable talking about our personal faith story, what our faith means to us. That’s the first story. The second story is the Gospel story, and this parish helps people learn to talk about the Gospel story briefly and clearly. The third story is the other person’s story, and learning to ask appropriate questions helps steer a conversation there. Those questions might include:

  • “What do you care about most in this situation?”
  • “What values are involved?”
  • “Are you praying in any particular way for this?”

            Asking those kinds of questions requires a commitment to listen carefully to the answer, and many Christians in New Zealand feel uncomfortable listening deeply. Lack of listening skills is a second obstacle to missional engagement that I often see. The “to-do” list crowds our minds. We feel on edge when topics move to issues of faith. We get tired of long stories, and we tune out without asking what the incident meant to the person describing it. Growing in listening skills helps equip us for missional ministry.

            We are sent into the world as Jesus was sent, and his model in the gospels provides us with the challenge to grow in caring for marginalised people in every way. We need to learn to ask questions about values and faith. We need to listen carefully and comfortably to answers to our questions. Jesus promised to be with us always through the power of the Holy Spirit, who gives us love and equips us to serve (John 14:18-26).