Here is God at work
Like many Australians, I am an immigrant, having moved to Australia to live at the age of 12.
Unlike many immigrants to Australia, I have been registered as an Australian citizen since my birth. The reason for this state of affairs is that my parents, who were both Australian, were missionaries in Japan, so both my brother and I were born and lived in Japan for the first years of our lives.
For many people in the church, this story is what the word “mission” calls up. “Mission” is when Christians from Western countries go to other places around the world to bring good news through preaching, planting churches or, as in the case of my parents, distributing Christian literature.
Mission is what happens in other countries, not our own.
But of course that’s only one part of the story. Most thoughtful Christians and parts of the Christian tradition have always recognised that the “mission field” includes our own backyard and this has only increased with the breaking down of “Christendom” and the illusion that we live in “Christian societies”.
Clearly these days a vast number of Australians (for example) do not consider themselves Christians and have little or no knowledge of Christian beliefs, values or practices.
One of the exciting developments in thinking about mission, which has been most clearly articulated in David Bosch’s ground-breaking book Transforming Mission, is that mission is not primarily something we do, but something God is doing.
According to this understanding, we do not go as missionaries “taking God” to others but rather we are invited to join God where God is already at work in God’s world.
How might this transform the way in which we think about being missionally engaged?
One way is that we might be less convinced that the church must always be the starting point for some endeavour to bring justice, show mercy or live out love. Instead, we might spend more time finding the places where such good work is already being done and then join in alongside those already doing what we would see as the work of God in our community.
I am convinced that an important task for the church in coming times is to act as God’s cheerleader — pointing to the ways in which the world is being transformed Godward, no matter by whom, and speaking out our belief that here is God at work, this activity is “God stuff”.
A second important aspect of mission, which has gained more prominence of late, is the idea that mission is modelled on God’s approach to the world and hence is “incarnational”.
Just as we believe that in Jesus we see God in human form, committing Godself to identification with humanity in all our frailty, limitation and mortality, so we are to be at mission with those among whom we dwell.
Rather than focusing on “going to”, we focus on “being with”. This has major implications for churches that often have tended to shape their mission thinking around attracting people to church services or events.
How do we change our thinking about being the church at mission from the idea of getting “them” to come to “us”, to instead focus on how we can be with all those for whom Christ died?
I remember one time when I was driving somewhere with my mother and we passed a pub, which was displaying the sign, “Sunday Family Lunches — Kids Eat Free”. My mother said, “There’s the competition.”
I didn’t respond to this innocent and offhanded remark at the time because any thoughts I had were incoherent but that sign and the comment have niggled at me since. Because I suspect that, as long as the church frames the pub’s family lunch as “the competition”, it’s a competition we will lose.
Somehow, and I have no easy answers, the church must not be the competition to that family meal but instead we have to be adding value to that family and their desire to have a pleasant lunch together.
Instead of trying to draw them away from the pub, we need to be the church in the pub.
How does that work? Again, I have no easy answers but I know the power of incarnational mission.
I remember reading a book written by a gentleman who had been one of the Japanese workers with the mission (Christian Literature Crusade) that sent my parents to Japan. I found myself reading one particular passage, which actually described my family returning by boat to Australia for the final time.
With tears streaming down my face, I read the author’s description of his thoughts, “Goodbye Cullen-San, you gave us the best years of your life.”
Only God knows how many lives may have been touched by the literature distributed by my parents and their mission. But I know for a fact that my parents’ decision to go and live in Japan, only years after the war in which that country had been Australia’s enemy — the decision to give the best years of their lives to serving the Japanese people that they believed God loved; that incarnational choice to go and be with others in mission — changed people’s lives.
And that’s a model for my life and my mission.