The Whole Church Is Christ’s Mission
Daystar Mission Conference, January 2004
The Mission Affirmations of 1965, what happened to them? Why didn’t they get off the ground? They were solidly Biblical, drawn on the experiences of missionaries all over the world, attuned to both the church and the world. What happened to them?
Some might blame those folks who found them too liberal, too open to misunderstanding, not really fitting in with Missouri Synod traditions and culture. In 1974 the Commission on Theology and Church Relations wrote a Review of the Mission Affirmations and warned of their ambiguities and misuse. But others pointed to the times. It was the middle sixties and the nation was wrestling with civil rights, the Vietnam War, uproar on college campuses and the death of John F. Kennedy. People’s minds were on other matters.
It is not at all evident, however, that these were the real reasons why pastors and parishes ignored them. The Affirmations were just too much. Pastors were already struggling with the guilt of not doing all the things they felt the ministry required of them. Now they were being told the church needed to be concerned with the whole world, the whole church, the whole society and the whole man. “Who were those folks kidding?” the pastor said to himself, “I don’t even have time to play with my kids, visit the sick and prepare a good sermon. Those aren’t Mission Affirmations; those are just loads of mission guilt. Now then, let’s talk about reality. How are we going to find a replacement organist and see to it that the bathrooms don’t stink?”
Then there was the question of priorities. Which of the Affirmations was most important? What should we do first and second? Where should we put our money and time? Aren’t there other agencies and institutions of the church and society working on some of those matters? The marks of the church are the Word of God taught in its truth and purity and the sacraments rightly administered. Since those are the marks of the church that means they are also the mission of the church. Well, we are preaching the word and administering the sacraments. That’s our priority; the rest is just distraction.
In his presentation of the Mission Affirmations to the 1965 Detroit convention of the Missouri Synod, Martin Kretzmann put this Affirmation in second place: “The Whole Church Is Christ’s Mission.” This was the operative Affirmation; this was the priority. However, when the Affirmations were voted upon, this resolution was put last. It was almost seen as an add-on, an “oh, by the way, everyone should get working on this stuff.” “Well,” the tired pastor said, “I can’t even get the janitor to clean those stinky bathrooms. Now my people are supposed to change the world?”
What happened to the Mission Affirmations? They were put on the shelf together with a lot of other good ideas for mission and church health and pastoral care. They were seen as things to be believed and done rather than God’s aid and help in a tough ministry. In short, they were seen as law rather than gospel. As we revisit the Affirmations almost forty years later, what if we saw them through the eyes of the Gospel rather than the law? What if we stood back for a moment and looked at those Affirmations not as propositions to assert and tasks to be done, but as in awe we see what God has done and is doing in our church and in our world?
Yes, the Church is God’s Mission. God is doing it and God is doing it through the whole Church. Furthermore, God is doing it everywhere, The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole World, often outside our frame of reference. During the Nigerian Civil War when most of the missionaries left and travel for pastors was difficult, the elders of the congregations took responsibility for worship services. Before the war there were about 33,000 members; after the missionaries came back a few years later their were over 80,000 members. In India Dayanand Bharati, a Christ Bhakta, is a representative of a huge growing number of caste Indians that believe that Christ is the only way to salvation. According to the research of my colleague, Herb Hoefer, up to five percent more Indians are such Christ Bhaktas, raising the number of Indian believers from the estimated 20 million to an additional 50 million Christians on the subcontinent. A local congregation in Guilin, China, was taking in some fifty new Christians each month, and the pastor and his wife were swamped. When he rediscovered the mission methods of St. Paul, he trained some twenty members to help him instruct the newcomers, and at last report the church continues to grow. In a lecture on lay ministry at the conservative seminary of the self-supporting Lutheran Church in Oberursel outside of Frankfort, Germany, the students and professors applauded by knocking on their desks. Later a professor said to me that a few years back that would not have happened. However, after seeing the wonderful faith of the German Lutherans in Russia who had maintained their churches and their faith through the ministry of lay people for several hundred years, they were convinced that this was the way God was doing ministry in many parts of the world.
And the Whole Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Church. Much of the CTCR’s Review of the Mission Affirmations in 1973 was prompted by what was going on in the World Council of Churches and “mainline churches” in general. Regardless of what people think of those institutions now, much of the interchurch action has not come from ecumenical organizations as much as it has come at the congregational level, even more at the office and dorm room level. Bible studies and prayer groups happen from the halls of Congress to soldiers in Afghanistan to humanitarian relief workers at the edge of disasters around the world.
And the Whole Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Society. Permit me to tell a story from Africa. The first story comes from Paul Volz, long-time missionary to Nigeria and other parts of Africa and the older brother of Walt Volz. It was nearing the end of the Nigerian Civil War. That war had killed more than a million Nigerians. Paul had briefly stopped in Lagos and was in his hotel room when soldiers came to his room and requested that he come with them. They took him to the mansion of the then president of Nigeria, General Gowon. Paul was taken to the president’s quarters where he was introduced to General Gowon. Gowon asked Paul to come to a map. Then Gowon described to Paul how the war would be finished in two or three weeks.
Then Gowon told Paul that he wanted to tell another Christian what he was going to do. “I am not going to kill anyone in retaliation. Instead I will declare a general amnesty for all. As a Christian I wish to set this nation on a path to peace and reconciliation. I just needed to tell this to another Christian.” That was the end of their meeting. Later on, as this move was celebrated and praised around the world, it became known that Gowon was significantly influenced by the American Friends Service Committee, a group inspired by the Quakers. Nigeria still has many tensions and problems, but Gowon’s dream of peace and reconciliation has lived on. On the same continent has been the wonderful work of South Africa’s Peace and Reconciliation Commission bringing blacks and whites together for mutual forgiveness. This has been headed by Nobel Prize winner, Bishop Desmond Tutu. We remember that wonderful Christian man of faith Dag Hammarskjöld who died seeking to bring peace to the Congo
Each one of these is excellent examples demonstrating that the Whole Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Society.
And The Whole Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Person. Would you permit me to go back to Africa? In addition to preaching the Gospel of salvation in villages across the continent, in the 1950s and early ’60s nearly every hospital in Sub-Saharan Africa was begun and served under the auspices of Christian missions. Nearly every school was begun and operated by church groups. Agricultural missionaries helped to improve food supplies; relief trucks carrying famine relief provisions were guided by missionaries and native pastors. Mission vehicles regularly took victims of snake bites to the hospitals.
In the late sixties things began to change as governments sought to take over education and health care. While the administration of many of these institutions changed, there were the same Christian teachers instructing students and the same nurses ministering to the sick. In a continent decimated by AIDS some good Christian parish nurses are now proposing a center in Africa where parish nurses from all over the continent can come together to learn both to educate and to treat the many afflicted. Meanwhile congregations across the U.S. are being informed about the growing numbers of AIDS orphans that we can help get through the formative years of their lives.
Back in the United States listen to the prayer requests for healing, for comforting the grieving, for employment, for the safety of soldiers overseas. Track the sons and daughters sacrificing their time, and sometimes their futures in taking care of moms and dads suffering from Alzheimers and other diseases. The Whole Church is involved in Christ’s Mission to the Whole Person.
Well, some might say, all of that is good and proper but what does it tell us of how the institutional church, more specifically, how The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod should plan for its mission? God’s people are already in mission; they are being moved by the Spirit in every area of life. That is the good news. We get to do Christ’s Mission. We are not starting over; we are just carrying on what is already going on.
Can we do it better? Of course! Here are several suggestions I hope will be fleshed out by the next speakers. The first is to welcome the existing alternatives to residential seminary education and provide even more opportunities for theological study and skills in ministry arts. From the time of Jesus and St. Paul to the days of the Reformation and many times before and since there have other ways to equip people for ministry. When we limit the ministry to those who have been professionally trained and paid, we do grave disservice to the mission of the church. Furthermore, when we limit ministry to less than one half of the human race, we bind the church militant to fighting the devil, the world and our flesh with only one arm.
The second is to learn how to rejoice when Christian people do Christian things in all areas of life. Remember what Moses said when people came to him and reported that the “non-certified,” Eldad and Medad, were prophesying? He said, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:27–29). Or again, remember what Jesus said when John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:37–39).
The Whole Church is Christ’s Mission. That’s great news! That’s good news!