The theme for this school year is the Church in Mission. That mission is God-centered. Therefore, it is not the church that has a mission, rather it is God's mission that has a church. And the only way the church can fulfill its role is through the power of God's Spirit. This brief essay is intended to initiate a conversation on this theme that will continue throughout the school year in chapel, classes, and special events. I want to highlight just a few of the multifaceted dimensions of the church's mission. These dimensions, however, are not mutually exclusive; they overlap and ultimately become greater than the sum of their parts.
At the most fundamental level, God's mission for the church takes on the responsibility of loving one another. This is Paul's emphasis as he writes his letters to the churches. He repeatedly admonishes them to build up and edify one another. They are to love one another, accept one another, be kind to one another, forgive one another, bear one another's burdens, etc. When the church no longer builds up its own, it no longer witnesses good news but fake news.
James Thompson observes that the churches Paul established did not directly engage in missionary outreach, but "they are 'missionary by their very nature', through their unity, mutual love, exemplary conduct, and radiant joy" (168, 2014). David Bosch, in a similar vein, describes the church as an example of "the world in obedience to God" (168, 2005).
While the church is in mission for one another, it does not engage in "excessive caregiving" (Willimon, 101, 2020). A church all wrapped up in itself makes a mighty small package. God's church, therefore, moves beyond itself and is in mission for the neighbor. From the very beginning, this was what God wanted the chosen people to do. God chose Abraham and his descendants (as dysfunctional as they were) to act in ways that blessed others (Gen 12:1-3). Paul, in referring to Genesis 12, says this is "the gospel" message: God's people are called to bless others (Gal. 3:8). That "gospel" message is woven all through the rest of Genesis as God's people interact with others with whom they come into contact (e.g., 18:18-19; 22:17-18; 26:4, 27-28; 28:13-14; 39:5). The people of God were to be "carriers of blessing." God intends that mission to continue through the church (as weak and dysfunctional as it is; 1 Cor 1:26-29). The church is to serve as a light to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 60:3; Matt 5:13-16) and to "shine like stars in the world" (Phil 2:15). According to the Gospels, the church carries a special responsibility to bless the powerless, the foreigner, the disabled, the elderly, the underprivileged and those treated unjustly.
The church's mission, however, continues to expand to the whole world. The church does not believe in a "stay at home God." God's message of judgment and grace is for all races, all societies, and all nations. Even though Paul never directly calls the churches he established to evangelize, he still expected them to engage in a mission to the world! They were to remain distinct in character and lifestyle from the standards of the world. Evangelism was not the result of structured programs but of the spread of the gospel within one's sphere of influence. When in Babylonian exile, Jeremiah admonishes Judah to build their homes, plant gardens, and raise families. They were to "seek the welfare of the city," that is, to be a blessing to the Babylonians (Jer 29:4-14). Also, by remaining steadfast to his faith in God, Daniel, holding a prominent political position in a pagan culture, effectively witnessed to the power of God (Dan 3:12, 28-29). In a more direct way, churches were responsible to select individuals to send out and serve as evangelists and missionaries. They were to support these individuals as they had supported Paul.
There remains one neglected mission that must be included. God's mission extends not only to the human world but as well to the nonhuman realm (Col 1:15-20; Rom 8:19-23). Therefore, the church is in mission for the created world. To care for God's creation is essentially an unselfish form of love. The church defends that which cannot defend itself. Its members care for creation because creation belongs to God. An important part of church's mission involves partnering with God to bring about the new heaven and the new earth.
The church in mission for God is demanding. That means leaders in the church carry a special burden to insure the church remains faithful to God's mission. That requires them to be mission equippers and mission movers (Eph 4:11-16). All of these components of mission contribute to the church fulfilling its mission and serve as starting points for what will hopefully be a fruitful conversation during this school year at HST.
Dave Bland, D.Min., Ph.D.
Professor of Homiletics
David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shift in Theology of Mission. MaryKnoll, Revised edition. New York: Orbis Books, 2005.
James Thompson, The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2014.
William Willimon, Leading With The Sermon: Preaching As Leadership. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020.