Mission is a word that evokes a wide variety of responses in people I know. In some contexts it’s primarily connected to spies, the military and movies about both. For others it carries baggage from past ways Western Christians spread the gospel — ways that need to be repented of and changed.
Even for some most involved in church circles, hearing the word can elicit groans, especially when it’s turned into an adjective or adverb.
But at the end of the day, there isn’t a better word for this aspect of the life of discipleship and the work we do together.
I’m reading a book written in 1970 about the church where I grew up, the Community of Christ in Washington, D.C.
“The Community seeks to be mission, not merely to engage in mission work,” write the authors of Dance in Steps of Change. “But the only way the church becomes mission is to maintain the tension between the life of reflection and contemplation and the life of action and involvement. . . . Too often the tension between worship and mission has been seen as an either/or choice.”
Today one example I see of this separation between worship and mission is setting aside a section of the budget as the mission budget. There has been a persistent strain in the Mennonite churches I’ve been part of to make a distinction between giving seen as internal vs. external. This often leads to a debate about a minimum of money given away instead of what is seen as spending on ourselves.
I’ve started to wonder why we associate mission primarily with activities outside our buildings and money donated to organizations beyond the church. I’m pondering how a congregation can be mission.
Congregations and related organizations receive the largest share of total charitable donations, according to the Giving USA report, produced annually by Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the Giving USA Foundation and others. Giving to religious groups (excluding social services or religious schools) declined in 2018 in overall dollars and went down to 29 percent of total donations of any kind. But that may change.
As I look at that data and ponder observations I’ve heard from people in faith-based fundraising, a question springs to mind. I wonder whether people want to give more to congregations, but need for it to be presented in a different way.
Are Christians today called to a new way of thinking, in which everything is mission?
The Anabaptist community where I’ve been a member the past 12 years is in a neighborhood that has seen decades of disinvestment by the city and civic institutions. Our Mennonite congregation chooses to be part of a building with a long history there, to be renters who help sustain a nearly century-long presence. Could paying rent be mission?
Mission can be all of the activities we do together, including our worship life, pastoral care and celebrations within the church. When we see prayer and social action as one, mission is not only serving at the food pantry on Saturdays but also mingling our voices in song on Sundays. Could buying new hymnals be mission?
At an interfaith event I attended in December, a local rabbi highlighted that the Hebrew word avodah means work, worship and service. Similarly, the Greek word latreia means both the service of a laborer and worshiping God.
Likewise, mission can mean the uniting of our work and our worship, gathered together and sent out into our communities and the world.
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.