Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mission as organizing principle

Pete Ascosi of ChristLife, a lay Catholic ministry for evangelization out of Baltimore, sent me an email the other day with a great reflection by Alan Hirsch, based on some insights of Gordon Crosby, the pioneering leader of a remarkable ecumenical Christian community, Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. Hirsch wrote the following:
He [Crosby] noticed that in over 60 years of significant ministry, he had observed that no groups that came together around a non-missional purpose (i.e. prayer, worship, study, etc.) ever ended up becoming missional. That it was only those groups that set out to be missional in the first place (while embracing prayer, worship, study, etc. in the process) that actually got to doing it. This observation fits with all the research done by Carl George and others that indicate that the vast majority of church activities and groups, even in a healthy church, are aimed at the insiders and fail to address the missional issues facing the church in any situation.

If evangelizing and discipling the nations lie at the heart of the church’s purpose in the world, then it is mission, and not ministry, that is the true organizing principle of the church. Mission here, is being used in a narrow sense here to suggest the church’s orientation to the ‘outsiders’ and ministry as the orientation to the ‘insiders.’ Experience tells us that a church that aims at ministry seldom gets to mission even if it sincerely intends to do so. But the church that aims at mission will have to do ministry, because ministry is the means to do mission. Our services, our ministry, need a greater cause to keep it alive and give it is broader meaning. By planting the flag outside the walls and boundaries of the church, so to speak, the church discovers itself by rallying to it—this is mission. And in pursuing it we discover ourselves, and God, in a new way, and the nations both ‘see’ and hear the gospel and are saved.

... A country’s constitution is basically the organizing principle of the state and its associated public and political life. For instance, the constitution of the USA preserves the basic freedoms and democracy that have marked this nation as unique. Similarly, mission is our constitution, or at least a central part of it. To preserve the movement ethos of God’s people it is fundamental that the Church keeps mission at the centre of its self-understanding. Without mission there is no movement and the community dies a death of the spirit long before it dies a physical death of the body. To forget mission is to forget ourselves, to forget mission is to lose our raison d’ etre, and leads to our eventual demise. Our sense of mission not only flows from an understanding of the Mission of God and missional church, but it forms the orienting inspiration of the church of Jesus Christ and keeps it constantly moving forward and outward.
I suppose some people will presume that this is me leaning perilously close to evangelicalism. I'd point out that the situation is reversed. These good Christians are leaning closer and closer to the Catholic Church. As has been pointed out on this and other blogs, the Church, according to the Vicar of Christ, Pope Paul VI, "exists to evangelize." In other words, evangelization is the mission of the Church around which every ministry, and every pastoral effort must be organized. This is deeply Catholic, not Protestant! Or, perhaps more accurately, it is deeply Christian, and a point on which Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox should be able to agree. And what is preached is not the Church (or an ecclesial body or a sect), but Christ!
"We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church."[Declaration of the Synod Fathers on the completion of the Synod on Evangelization, 1974] It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection. - Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14
As I was trying to do a little research about Mr. Crosby, I ran across this bit about him on the blog A Jewish God-fearer in a roomful of Christians that really makes me want to find out more about him.
Gordon Crosby was speaking on the subject of Christian vocation. He said in summarizing that the primary task and primary mission of the Christian is to call forth the gifts of others. "We are not sent into the world in order to make people good. We are not sent to encourage them to do their duty. The reason people have resisted the Gospel is that we have gone out to make people feel good, to help them do their duty, to impose new burdens on them, rather than calling forth the gift which is the essence of the person himself." He then said that we are to let others know that God is for them and that they can "be." "They can be what in their deepest hearts they know that they were intended to be, they can do what they were meant to do. As Christians, we are heralds of these good tidings."

How do we do this? "We begin," Gordon said, "by exercising our own gifts. The person who is having the time of his life doing what he is doing has a way of calling forth the deeps of another. Such a person is Good News. He is not saying the good news. He is the good news. He is the embodiment of the freedom of the new humanity. The person who exercises his own gift in freedom can allow the Holy Spirit to do in others what He wants to do."
Here, Mr. Crosby is recognizing the power of the charisms to inaugurate and/or further the process of evangelization. In our Catholic culture, where we tend to not explicitly proclaim Christ enough, we need to be more explicit about Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Still, Crosby's comments re-affirm my belief that the greatest ecumenical advances might be made as we recognize in one another, whatever our denomination, intentional discipleship and the power of the Holy Spirit at work through us in the charisms we have received from Christ.

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