The Church Catholic in Mission

Alston Kirk

Editorial Note: Pr. Alston Kirk is a retired naval chaplain who here reflects on the opportunity to welcome all of Christ’s people to the mission of the church. Not only does this refer to lay people around us but it also includes those from different Christian traditions. From 1966 to 1994 Captain Al Kirk served on active duty as a Navy chaplain. While attached to the Chief of Chaplain’s Office, he represented the chief in the areas of policy, manpower, community management and military construction. Subsequent to retirement from the Navy, he served as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Corpus Christi, Texas, until his retirement in 2004. Back in harness, he followed Don Muchow as interim senior pastor of Saint Mark Lutheran Church in Houston for eleven months.


As we were struggling to compose the wording of a Department of Defense directive, one of the naval line captains leaned over and whispered, “There are 587 Naval Instructions which read ‘The Commanding Officer shall….’” I would suppose that the number (like 87 percent of all statistics) was made up on the spot, but his point was well taken. The Commanding Officer of a naval organization is held responsible for far more than he has the skills and knowledge for or could possibly accomplish in a lifetime. After all, his position may require the expertise of a manager, an engineer, a navigator, a weapons expert, an accountant, a lawyer, a medical officer and yes, even a chaplain. Since he cannot personally perform all of the requirements of his position, he or she is surrounded by a staff with the requisite abilities, experience and training. Yet it is the Commanding Officer who must always be held ultimately responsible.

The Commanding Officer is responsible for the accomplishment of the assigned mission of his/her command. Which, if we translate the discussion into the church’s context, requires that we define precisely the mission of the church. Whether we read the mission as the “go … make disciples … baptize … teach” of Matthew 28:19–20 or “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” of Acts 1:8, the Lord’s directive appears clear: The responsibility of the church is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

To whom were the words addressed as the Lord prepared to take his physical departure from the earth? Were they addressed to the eleven disciples as the future apostles, and therefore the responsibility would lie primarily with them and their successors? Or were the words addressed to the eleven as the assembled representatives of the nascent church? If the latter was the case, then the accomplishment of the mission, under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, is the responsibility of the whole church.

The execution of the mission of the church requires a number of discrete actions and the requisite skills and abilities. In addition to evangelization, it requires teaching, proclamation, worship, community building, management and even skills in logistics, as I discovered in serving as the coordinator for a district convention. It requires theological capability to sharpen and apply the message to a variety of contexts, language skills both to interpret the ancient texts and to communicate the gospel across a wide variety of tongues and a historical sense to understand the development of doctrine and to avoid the pitfalls and booby traps the church has discovered during the course of its two millennia existence. It also requires communication skills across a broad range of media and technology to reach the intended audience of God’s grace.

No human has the vast range of skills, abilities, education or experience required to carry out alone the mission to which God has called his church. Therefore it is necessary for the church to organize itself to utilize the vast range of resources that God has placed into its hands. Through the years the church has certainly availed itself of the physical resources that have been made available to it. In the days of Saint Paul the Roman road network, constructed to facilitate the movement of legions from one portion of the empire to another, served both for enhancement of commerce and the spread of the Gospel. The invention of moveable type led rapidly to the production of the Gutenberg Bible and its successors, which provided for popular access to the Scriptures. Sunday School leaflets and Arch Books served as a channel for the education of children. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod rapidly saw the advantages of radio, and the Lutheran Hour was born. Some creative uses of television were attempted and well received. And with the advent of the World Wide Web even the local congregation has the ability to convey the Gospel of Jesus Christ worldwide. The latter can be rather startling when the congregation I served received an e-mail from an African chief who said that he was using my sermons to instruct his people.

As a church body we have made good use of the physical resources that God has given us. Have we done as well with the human resources? Have we found an appropriate means to utilize all of the resources that God has given us in service to the Gospel, and thus to our Lord? One of the passages that has always intrigued me, particularly in conjunction with the utilization of human resources, is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians [3:27–28]. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek [ethnicity], there is no longer slave or free [social status], there is no longer male and female [gender]; for all of you are one in Christ” [from NRSV]. Thus it would seem to open up utilization of all human resources, depending on gifts and skills, in service of the Gospel.

Certainly the Scriptures demonstrate God’s utilization of an incredible variety of people in the furtherance of his movement of grace through history. He used a con man like Jacob, several known prostitutes, more than one reluctant prophet, a Persian ruler, as well as a humble girl from Nazareth, a handful of fishermen, a Roman politician and a vicious and vocal critic all to accomplish reconciliation of human beings to God through Christ Jesus. That women played a role in the New Testament is obvious. They are found among the followers and supporters of Christ. They accompanied the disciples. They provided friendship to Jesus. Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospel of John, was the first to see the risen Christ and became the bearer of the news of the resurrection to the disciples. Lydia, a merchant, appears to have been the organizer of the worshippers at Philippi. Phoebe is listed as a “deacon” at Cenchreae. When the initial introduction was made, it was Aquila and his wife Priscilla, but when it speaks of instruction of Apollos, it is Priscilla and Aquila. Which raises the question, which is more important, gender distinction or accomplishment of the mission?

Certainly on the level of the local parish I discovered that there were extremely talented women who contributed a great deal to the daily life of the church. The highly experienced church secretary simply took care of a number of things like the weekly service bulletin and notes, the monthly newsletter, as well as managing the office and fielding inquiries, which freed me to concentrate on my own primary tasks. The organist, also a woman, built the service and music around the worship themes I selected. Weekly she sat me down to ensure that we were prepared for the up-coming Sunday, as well as insisting that I plan for three months out so that service and choir music could be selected. Women, as well as men, served as lectors and on one occasion delivered the bulk of the sermon. I invited a young doctor of osteopathy who from the time she was in kindergarten until she was a junior in high school had served with her parents on the mission field of central Africa to share her experiences with the congregation during the sermon. She was my show and tell, and the congregation had no problem with her participation. Teenagers, both male and female, participated periodically in the worship service, including leading the prayers or providing the bids for a bidding prayer. I was surprised to learn from a fellow pastor that those of the female persuasion were not to be permitted within the altar rail. Are they not children of God also?

The primacy of the mission and my experience of the contributions of women throughout the history of the church has caused me to question whether or not we in the Missouri Synod have considered all of the passages of Scripture that address the role played by gender in the overall plan of God’s salvation, or whether we have been guided by a sense of tradition.

While serving as the sole chaplain of the Naval Facility, Argentia, Newfoundland, a group of women approached me after the worship service and complained that my approach to worship did not meet their needs. They were Pentecostal in background, and I could well understand that my structure of the service and even my words were not part of their experience. I offered to provide a space for them to meet and to purchase materials that would assist in their worship. They asked that I meet with them. I rapidly discovered a tremendous amount of pressure that I, too, speak in tongues and share in their spiritual gifts. I took it to the Lord in prayer, and it became very clear to me that I was not charismatic in their sense of the term but rather a quasi-intellectual Christian, and that was acceptable to the Lord.

Not all Christians are alike. Yet we seem to feel the need to have all people fit the same mold. Not all Christians approach worship in the same way. I discovered that we needed to offer both a traditional liturgical worship service and a contemporary service to meet the needs of members of the congregation. Not all Christians like the same kind of music. Some are more comfortable with Bach and some with “Shine, Jesus, shine.” As a Navy chaplain, I discovered that I simply didn’t reach some people because I didn’t use the right words. “Washed in the blood of the Lamb” was not part of my normal sermon delivery. But as a senior chaplain, I could utilize the services of a young Assembly of God chaplain who could proclaim the Gospel in the words and with the flair that touched their hearts.

There are 587 Naval Instructions (more or less) that read “a Commanding Officer shall …,” and the responsibility remains his or hers for the accomplishment of all of those requirements, but the execution may be delegated in order to accomplish the mission. A congregation calls a pastor and charges him (or her for that matter) to lead them in carrying out that portion of the mission to which God has called this small segment of his church. For the sake of the church and for the sake of the Gospel it is incumbent on the pastor and the church at large to utilize all of the resources, all of the talents, skills and abilities, that are available without regard to the ethnicity, social standing or gender of those who are in Christ.

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