mission and deficits

In the spirit of Stanley Fish’s recent, somewhat controversial NY Times blog post, I want to do some wondering out loud about the impact of the current crisis on Christian mission.

My friends who are candidates for ordination in Sydney Anglican churches are beginning to apply themselves to finding work next year. And it seems to me that the level of uncertainty they’re facing is unprecedented. They aren’t just wondering if they’ll find a good position. They’re wondering if they’ll find a position. Full stop.

More broadly, with the Sydney Diocesan mission supposedly kicking into high gear off the back of its Connect ’09 campaign — at least, assuming the ‘mind-shift’ it’s expected to catalyse does in fact take place — there’s plenty to wonder about financially. While the extent of the fallout is yet to be determined, like anyone else looking to significant investment income it’s pretty clear that things are going to be tight. And, even if it only directly impacts centralised services, who can say what kick-on effect it will have?

So what will become of the mission? Not just Anglican Sydney’s mission but the wider mission of the triune God in which Christians everywhere are caught up?

It depends on how bound we think the mission — and our almighty Lord — is by budgets (and other institutional realities). Of course, this tips my hand. Although I certainly don’t want to underestimate the significance of institutional factors for the shape that the mission takes, I wonder if the uncertain climate might provide an opportunity to surrender some of our illusions of control and success.

Let me share a pertinent anecdote from Lesslie Newbigin’s slim little stick of dynamite, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission. Reflecting on his involvement in Christian missions in India, which so often were dependent on the resources and initiative of the ‘sending’ country, Newbigin writes:

I have seen this system come to a practical standstill: funds were not available to increase the number of salaried workers. New areas could not, therefore, be occupied. Teachers could not be offered to new villages. Enquirers who came to ask for a teacher to be sent to their village had regretfully to be turned away. Only if some fresh resources came from ‘home’ could the mission become a mission again. As it was, it was plain that any talk of ‘winning India for Christ’ was not serious. I was compelled to ask myself whether it is really true that the Church’s obedience to the Great Commission is intended to be contingent upon the accident of budgetary surplus. (p 75, emphasis added)

Newbigin reports that the outline of a solution emerged as he observed the continuing work of the Spirit of Christ even though the mission engine had come off the rails. With the weight of ‘official sanction’ lifted, local, organic and indigenous ministry began to flourish. It just bubbled up as ordinary — and often not particularly well ‘trained’ — Christians just got on with being Christian and bearing witness to Jesus.

Indigenous Christians who had been converted in remote villages — often through the witness of other indigenous Christians — kept turning up, seeking instruction and baptism. Rather than waiting for official sanction, Newbigin found that the key was to back the people the Holy Spirit had already backed (so to speak). To assume that if they’re converted and keen enough to seek out more mature Christians for assistance, then God has probably ear-marked them as leaders. And they ought not be spirited away for ‘training’ but resourced to get on with the job they’re already doing.

The application of all this to our own situation seems obvious, doesn’t it? The current financial crisis may well be a blessing rather than a curse. It may well force us to cultivate organic, lay, grass-roots mission. Not that there’s no role for officially sanctioned institutions or training. Well-trained people are vital. But their role is not to do all the ministry. It’s to ‘equip the saints for works of service’…

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