The Litmus Test of Mission

Theologically speaking, a Christian denomination’s priority should always be mission – that is, service to the world.

We could say the same thing for congregations and parishes. It is that outward-moving, creation-and-people-loving, God-honouring impulse that takes seriously Jesus’ own sense of mission in Luke 4:16-21:

When he came to Nazareth … he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day[.]
He stood up to read … the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
… ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
… [Then he said] to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

If this is Jesus’ own program for mission, and if we are also called into mission as people who follow Jesus, this pattern should be central for us. It is about proclaiming good news; seeking the well-being of the impoverished; working for liberation and healing; and announcing the goodness of God. In short, it is about serving others.

Have I missed something? Let me know in the comments.

Although there were ugly aspects of The United Church of Canada’s originating dream (for example, the totalizing and sometimes anti-Catholic discourse), the heart of that denomination-forming impulse at the turn of the 20th century was principally a missional impulse.

We need to keep the priority of mission (serving others) in front of us in the present. It will help us test how we invest ourselves. How is ‘x’ serving Christ’s mission? ‘X’ might be a favourite project, a new or continuing ministry, a committee, a gift of time or organization or money or labour.

When we answer that, we’ll know how to allocate resources, energy, time, prayer, people.

Serving Christ’s mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit, becomes the litmus test for the faithfulness of our life together.

Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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On prizing one’s own views

In the novel The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes a scene in which a clergyman is deeply committed to his “honest opinions.” By this, the cleric means that he is sure that his own opinion is more important than understanding others’ views, and much more important that ever changing his mind!

Sometimes people say (accuse) that to go into a church service, you have to check your brain at the door. In other words, church isn’t about thinking, but feeling; or, maybe, church is for people who prefer not to be rational about reality.

As a not completely irrational person (I hope), I would say that going to worship is not about checking our brain at the door. Far from it.

But here’s the thing: worship IS about worshipping God, and not myself. Worship is about celebrating a relationship of trusting faith in God, the One whose way is the way of love, forgiveness, reconciliation.

This is a way that can be hard to follow. It takes a lot of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy. It asks of me that I surrender my own “rightness” in favour of the goodness of God. If my own opinions are my gold standard, for example, they quickly become my idols and I worship them instead of the living God. But worship reminds me I have to give them up and seek a better way.

Love, forgiveness, and reconciliation often don’t come easily, or even naturally. But that is the way of God as we see it in Jesus Christ. Good worship will coach and encourage us in the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus’ way.

Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Fifty Shades of Grace?

Happy Valentine’s Day! Nothing says romance like a day in remembrance of a Christian martyr who was sentence to a three fold death of beating, stoning and decapitation. With this odd mix of violence and love it seems strangely appropriate that the movie Fifty Shades of Grey comes out this weekend. The “Fifty shades” book series has been flying off the shelf these past few years. I remember buying it as a joke for my wife at Costco in California a few years ago while on a family holiday. She declined to read it – so I did so around the pool at Disneyland! I remember counting seven other people poolside reading the same book. It was one of the cheesiest novels I’ve ever read. The story (as much as it can be called that) is of a student Anastasia Steele who goes to interview billionaire Christian Grey and discovers a handsome but troubled man. She starts a relationship, despite his stalker-like tendencies and “colourful” sex life. She soon discovers Grey is consumed by a desire to control everything, including her very life.

Here in British Columbia, in the small town of Sechelt on the sunshine coast, the only movie theatre, Raven’s Cry, has refused to screen the movie. The owner Deborah Proby says she’s concerned that the film’s rating of 18A means teens accompanied by older friends or relatives can watch it. She also disapproves of the film, as “just because the actress smiles as she is being beaten does not make it ok.”

“That’s exactly what I wouldn’t want to happen, is young, impressionable girls thinking this is their Harlequin romance hero — this cold, aloof, dysfunctional asshole,” she said, referring to the film’s lead character Christian Grey. “He’s got lots of money. He’s great looking. So that excuses his bad behaviour?”

I was up in Sechelt last weekend and drove by the Raven’s Cry. I found it ironic and delicious that the movie playing last weekend was “American Sniper.” I suppose we might call that “situational ethics.” American Sniper – sure. Fifty Shades – no way!

I wonder though, has our sex obsessed culture finally reached a point of saying, “Whoa. I wonder what love really is.” If those folks around the pool at Disney (this guilty preacher included!) had been reading the Bible instead of Fifty Shades of Grey a totally different understanding of love would show up. If one listens not to E L James but to the “Author of our Salvation” we discover something totally different. As Christians we confess God to be revealed as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The love that is revealed between the persons of the Trinity – the perichoresis of the Godhead – is one of mutual, self, giving love. Not bondage – but freedom and grace. If Karl Rahner’s famous line holds true that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity” than how God is revealed to the world REALLY is how God exists for all eternity. Wow, imagine human life patterned on gracious, humble, selfless giving of one servant’s heart to another. That we might form and fashion human community patterned on the love of God revealed through Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hmm. You might not get an “R” rating for that kind of love – but in the end it will change and save your life for good. As one of my favourite theologians Bill Placher once said, “The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” Millions of people will take their loved one this weekend to watch “Fifty Shades of Grey” and be taught that selfishness and violence are part of healthy love. My prayer is that millions more will show up on Sunday morning in (any!) church to hear that a selfless, mutual, and joyful love is available through empty cradle, empty cross and empty tomb. From the One who whispers through all eternity, “Be Mine,” I choose Fifty Shades of Grace instead.

Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall at The University of British Columbia.

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God and the Big Bang

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So says Genesis 1:1.

Then there’s the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

And the New Creed: “God has created and is creating….”

My young grandson says: “Why do you say God created us? My parents made me,” he says with a knowing glint in his eye. “And then there were grandparents, and great-grandparents, and all that, right back to the Big Bang, right? We evolved, right, grandpa?”

Right, I say.

“So, why not say: In the beginning was the Big Bang?”

There followed a conversation about the science. This seven-year-old knows a lot. He has his iPod handy, which puts swift information at his fingertips. Yes, we homo sapiens have been around about 200,000 years. Not very long. Behind that, we seem to have descended from ape-like creatures. The planet has been around for about four billion years. But that wasn’t the real beginning. The earth is just a satellite of the sun, and the sun is one of billions of stars in the galaxy called Milky Way. And the Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies! His eyes are like saucers.

“Grandpa, did you know that the universe is expanding? Hubble’s telescope shows that the galaxies are moving away from each other. So they must be expanding from somewhere. The astronomers have figured out that it all started with a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. A tiny ball of energy exploded and expanded, and it’s still exploding out there. Awesome!”

“So where do you think the ball of energy came from, and why did it expand?” I ask.

“It’s a mystery,” says my grandson.

“Indeed. That’s why we say: ‘God is holy mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.’ Just think, dear boy. That Big Bang included, potentially, the rational order of the universe, the laws of nature, and all the building blocks of life. Potentially, all the galaxies were there, our sun, and our planet, the forests and the oceans, the fish and the birds, the insects and the animals. And you, dear boy,” I say, ruffling his hair, “potentially you and your intelligent brain were there in that Big Bang….”

The conversation about creation has a long way to go. But it’s a start.

Harold Wells is Professor Emeritus of Emmanuel College, Toronto.






























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You say Chesed, I say…

Among my most prized possessions is a gift that was presented to me by a student (in a Hebrew Scripture class I taught) who specializes in miniatures. It shows a Rabbi, dressed in a prayer shawl, reading from God’s Word. The detail is amazing, and this image is contained within half an eggshell.

Across the bottom of the eggshell, in tiny Hebrew characters (she transcribed them perfectly without even knowing Hebrew) is one of my favourite verses from the Old Testament – the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.” (Psalm 103:17)

The “steadfast love” attributed to God is a popular phrase in the Psalms. It is an English rendering of a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate because it really has no precise equivalent in English, the word chesed.

It is a relational, covenant word that refers to the loyal love and faithfulness that binds two parties together. When one shows chesed to another, one is not motivated by legal obligation, but by a free offering of deep affection and solid commitment. In Hebrew it also conveys the mood of keenness and eagerness to love unconditionally . . . which moves the word close to the word “grace” in the Christian Scriptures.

The fundamental truth about God to which the Hebrew people clung was that God was a lover, and God’s chesed had been demonstrated by the fact that not even all Israel’s persistent waywardness had ever destroyed it. At times they ignored, turned their back on, disregarded God, and there were consequences for that, but the light that was never put out was the truth expressed in the Psalms: God’s steadfast love has been from of old, and as my miniature Rabbi proclaims, “is from everlasting to everlasting.”

Christians sometimes buy into the notion that the Old Testament God is a God of law and judgement, while the New Testament God is a God of love and grace. This is a simplistic view of the Bible, and is inaccurate. At the heart of both Testaments is the message that God loves us from our very beginning, through to our very end, and in our life beyond.

Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB, and teaches online courses in the Certificate Program at Atlantic School of Theology.

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Evangelism in The United Church of Canada (excerpts)

Evangelism needs passion and commitment. What, then, is the fuel in your furnace, the coal in your engine, the ‘dig’ in your digital?

When I have worked directly with congregations, I have often asked them, at some point, “but why it is important to survive?  What difference does it make?”

I press and press the question, and almost always someone starts to get on to matters of mission and the importance of serving others.  Then I find the conversations start to change … start to change!  Then the preaching, personal conversations, group gatherings need to follow up the discussion. We need continual reminders and dialogue about why we are in this business at all. Can we, for instance, stop obsessing about the church building as a building and start to see it as a mission headquarters? Or will we treat it like a museum or community nostalgia centre?

And I am still curious: what is driving us missionally and in terms of evangelism – if anything? To find that fuel for our furnaces, that coal for our engines, I suggest that we need to know our “grand narrative” really well.

The Grand Narrative that will drive our sense of mission and therefore our evangelism (I would suggest) is about freedom, healing, and transformation; and (for most United Church people) it attaches somehow to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

For us, for others, and for all creation, the stakes are high. For the sake of these goals (freedom, healing, and transformation), God was made incarnate in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. For the sake of these goals, God calls us into the work of evangelism, which is sharing the good news of God’s love for the whole world, especially as we have experienced it though the ministry of Jesus Christ. The work of evangelism matters, because it is about helping one another get on board with God’s mission in the world and receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit that will make this possible.

The work is not ultimately our own. God is at work, and our task is to join in God’s business, to welcome the Holy Spirit, to apprentice ourselves to Jesus, to learn to live like him, and to follow in his way. The real work, then, is in fact God’s work, and we are becoming partners in it.

For the full text of this essay, please click here:
Four Paradoxes – R Fennell (UCC Evangelism Symposium 4 Nov 2014)

Rob Fennell is Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Canada.

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Courage to Stay Put

Should we stay, or leave?

At a monastery in the Atlas Mountains live eight French monks. The award-winning film, Of Gods and Men, tells their true story. (Check out your local library system; it’s also on Netflix. The film has some violence, but it’s not excessive. The threat of violence is nonetheless ubiquitous.)

Their monastery is a long-standing presence in its place. The monks share in community festivals and enjoy friendships with village leaders. They provide medical care and some clothing to their neighbours. People turn to them for wisdom about life and love. The village grew up around the monastery, and counts on the monks’ presence for protection.

But for how long can it last? In the mid-1990s, Algeria is beset by an Islamist insurgency against the military regime. A radical group targets anyone who transgresses their notions of belief and morality, foreigners especially.

The threat to the monks’ survival is ever-present. They have no defense against violence. The insurgents demand that the monks leave. Returning to France would be easy. Many in France and Algeria implore them to go. The question of staying or closing drives the movie’s story.

Recent events in Paris and Nigeria make their story all the more poignant.

Stay or go? What future do we have? Similar questions drives the current stories of many of our congregations, mine included. Certainly, the stakes are extremely different. We don’t face the threat of violent death!

Nonetheless, can we learn from these monks in Algeria?

By all appearances, their religious community has no future. Growth is no option. Newcomers are most unlikely. The monks are aging and exhausted. Always, violent death waits unseen, to strike at them unannounced. What purpose is there in continuing? What hope?

They stay.

They continue their rhythms of prayer. (Worship is a cord that ties the film together.)

They continue to care for each other.

They continue to show love to the community around them.

They continue to celebrate.

Gradually, it becomes clear to them that their mission in that place is not finished. Their leader, Father Christian, says near the end of the film, “Wild flowers don’t move to find the sun’s rays. God makes them fecund wherever they are.”

Does our congregation have a future? Yes, as long as our mission continues! For Jesus continues to call us, saying, “Follow me.” Does he call us to long-term survival? Probably not. Maybe not far past the next sunrise. (Remember, his call was to the way of the cross.)

Perhaps in our places, Jesus calls us to continue and deepen our practices of worship and prayer, our showing love for one another, our abiding presence in our community around us. Always celebrating within the life we have in him, together.

Forever? No. Only for as long as we have left. Yet a congregation that has no prospects for growth, and is facing death, can continue to be a church of Jesus Christ.

Greg Smith-Young is Minister for Worship, Spiritual Development and Pastoral Care with Elora & Bethany United Churches, near Waterloo, Ontario.

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