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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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Whatever is truly Christian" Part II

Sherry asked me to comment on her post "Whatever is truly Christian” in light of my own experiences studying in a Protestant, though thoroughly ecumenical (at least five faculty members are Catholic), Divinity School. I think it would be easiest simply to offer my insights into what I have learned from Protestants at Duke that I probably would not have learned or been exposed to in a Catholic setting. 

As I was reflecting on what those lessons were, I was reminded that none of them are alien to the Catholic tradition or stand in opposition to it. In fact, they are all very “Catholic” and deserve our recognition and affirmation as such. Of course, Protestantism is a protest and my time at Duke has also reminded me of why I am Catholic and strengthened my Catholic identity. From its nativity, Protestantism has rejected the authority of the bishop of Rome to govern and guide the Universal Church and in so doing has lost a great deal of what is essential to Christian faith and the life of grace. But, with that caveat in mind, let me tell you a bit more about what I think is worth learning from our Protestant brothers and sisters. 

My experience at Duke Divinity School, which was founded as and continues to be a Methodist institution, has been primarily with Methodists, conservative Episcopalians (mostly of the conservative Anglo-Catholic variety), and assorted others including AME, AME Zion, Nazarene, Lutherans, and Baptists (mostly Cooperative Baptists). 

Methodists at Duke have a strong sense of their own distinctive heritage as spiritual children of John and Charles Wesley. And, believe it or not, John and Charles Wesley have much to teach all Christians, including Catholics and Orthodox, about what it means to live life in the Holy Spirit. These were two men who really knew Jesus and knew him well. Their “Holy Clubs” and group meetings provide a tremendous pattern for the formation of disciples committed to personal sanctification. 

The Methodists I have encountered at Duke truly have a living, personal knowledge of Jesus that, unlike some other Protestants, spills over into a radical commitment to the care of the poor and marginalized (understood as an implication of Eucharistic communion) and to evangelization and discipleship formation. They talk openly about their relationship with Jesus and the relationship of their communities with Christ. The result of this is a lived, experiential understanding of the Church’s communio that is often lacking in the lived experience of most of American Catholics. 

The Methodists that I know also have a praiseworthy commitment to racial reconciliation and are always willing to stretch out the hand of friendship and include those who are often marginalized in the mainline Protestant churches. Especially laudable is their ongoing deep commitment to rural communities and congregations. 

Methodist commitment to discipleship formation is evidenced by their press (Abingdon, and its retail arm, Cokesbury), which provides some tremendous resources for parishes, including the wildly popular and effective Disciple bible study. 

Methodists are often delightfully humorous people who don’t take themselves seriously or their denomination too seriously and are always open to good-natured, ecumenical ribbing. They live comfortably and cheerfully with one another even through significant theological disagreements (which admittedly, as a Catholic, I sometimes find a frustrating trait) and have an ironic sense of humor about Methodist culture, polity, politics, and idiosyncrasies. 

On a final note, many Catholics may be surprised to find out that many of the best hymns that we sing at Mass are from the Methodist hymn tradition, many written by Charles Wesley himself. This demonstrates the great Methodist commitment to the formation of disciples by reaching the heart through stirring music and theologically rich texts. Some of the more famous ones are: “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” “Christ the Lord is risen today,” “Love Divine, all love’s excelling,” “Rejoice, the Lord is King,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and, my personal favorite, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which is always the first hymn in every Methodist hymnal. 

Perhaps, in a future post I will consider some of the other Protestant groups I know well and what lessons they bring for Catholics. 

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"May They Be One"

I am both amused and saddened by the readings for Thursday, May 24. I get the giggles thinking about Paul's cleverness. Paul's been hauled before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem after causing a ruckus while telling a crowd of his conversion. We read,

"Paul was aware that some were Sadducees and some Pharisees,
so he called out before the Sanhedrin,
'My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees;
I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.'
When he said this,
a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees,
and the group became divided." (Acts 23:6-11)

As the story unfolds, the Sanhedrin ends up forgetting about Paul's testimony about Jesus, and basically dissolves into a fracas over Jewish doctrine.

But the readings are also incredibly saddening, because in the Gospel, we hear Jesus praying to His Father,

“I pray not only for these,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me." (John 17:20-21)

We dare not be comfortable with all the divisions within Christianity, and certainly must think twice about causing any division within the Catholic community. We know already that the divisions greatly impede the Church's mission of evangelization. How can people believe in Jesus through our word, when
1) we continue to emphasize the differences between Christian denominations and forget our common ground?
2) we speak disparagingly or even hatefully of other Christians?

We are like the Pharisees and Sadducees who forget why they'd gathered in the firstplace, and our divisions (especially when they become particularly violent, like in Northern Ireland) not only make evangelization less effective, they lead some people to the conclusion that Christianity is a detriment to human welfare.

I'm not just crying, "why can't we all just get along?" But I believe the closer we come to the Lord, the more intolerable will divisions in His Body be to us, and the more we will do what we can to be reconciled with one another. Christian unity can't only be addressed on the level of interdenominational ecumenical bodies. It begins with ordinary Christians, lay AND cleric, working side by side to address the problems in secular society. It begins with ordinary Christians praying together in simplicity and humility. It begins by inviting the Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives, for it was in the Spirit that Jesus prayed for unity, and it is the work of the Spirit to make us all one.

Nothing breaks down the barriers between Christians than to recognize the Holy Spirit at work within people of different denominations. The charisms are common to all the baptized, and through them God works in us for one another. Learning about them gives us a very powerful way to talk to one another of our lived experience of being a Christian and an instrument of God. If you want to know more about these spiritual gifts, visit our website at

Finally, not only did the Lord pray for our unity, but so did St. Paul. His words are particularly poignant as we approach the feast of Pentecost.

"I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift." (Ephesians 4:1-6)