In recent decades Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, and their import for the mission of the church, have been explored anew by many theologians and ministry practitioners. Taken with passages such as Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20, the commonly identified three-fold mandate for the work of the church – evangelism, incorporation, and discipleship – now seems clear. This is what we are called to. This is what we are to be about. However, in this short paper I would like to suggest that we also need to keep in mind certain other, broader principles that undergird our ministry endeavours in partnership with this mandate. God has not left us only with the ‘what’ we are to do. He has also revealed a great deal about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. These wider, what we might call ‘theological’, foundations for our ministry provide some much needed depth and direction to the practical work we carry out in Jesus’ name. For me, four of them in particular are amazingly helpful in trying to stay on track. They are the Character of God, the missio Dei, the Incarnation, and the Kingdom of God. In what follows below I would like to examine each of them in turn and lay out a little of their significance as we approach the task God has called us to.
I. The Character of God
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches, but let those who boast boast about this:
that they understand and know me” (Jer 9:32-24)
Ministry, like everything else that is good in our lives, has its starting point in the one who has created us. It is God himself who shapes and defines and energises our service and thus our first, and always greatest need, is to reflect upon and ground our ministries in the character of the one whom we serve. As A.W. Pink puts it:
“The foundation of all true knowledge [and service] of God must be a clear mental apprehension of His perfections as revealed in Holy Scripture. An unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshiped.” (Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God, p. 7.)
Almost all of our failures in ministry come from forgetting this simple fact. We lose sight of who God is, of his nature and purposes, and thus we lose sight of who we are and what we are called to be about. And this is not just about our being god-centred rather than man-centred. It is that, of course, but our thinking and praxis in ministry must always be in alignment very specifically with the God of the Bible and with him alone. Far too often we allow pragmatism, our desires to be successful in ministry, the views of modern Deism or our own imagined pictures of God to cloud and distort our judgments and decisions.
The scriptures tell us a great deal about our God. He is eternal, unchangeable, all-present, truthful, merciful, holy, just, compassionate, jealous, mighty, angry at sin, longing to forgive, powerful to save, entirely self-sufficient – just to mention a few of his characteristics. God’s glory, his wondrous, perfect character is an exciting, as well as essential, starting point for all that we do in ministry because it enables us to answer the most significant and vital questions we will ever ask: ‘What should our ministries be like?‘ ‘What should our evangelism, discipleship and mission be focussed on?’ ‘What are we hoping to see develop in our churches?‘ All of these questions are answered best when we gaze at God himself, understand what he is like and allow his character to underlie and undergird all that we do in his name.
As Ray Pritchard puts it, we must constantly be those who: ‘Learn his holiness. Exult in his mercy. Ponder his patience. Consider his ways. Meditate on his goodness. Remind ourselves of his justice. Rest on his faithfulness. Linger at his cross. Memorize his promises. Pray his psalms. Testify to his kindness. Declare his glory. Defend his honour. Be silent before his judgments.’ In other words, the more we learn of God’s character the more we understand what we and our labours are to be about. Such worship is the first proper foundation for our ministry.
It is also the proper means for evaluation. As we look back over our recent and past efforts the sort of questions we need to include are: Has our ministry authentically reflected God’s character? Have our efforts been in line with His love? Did our commitments reflect His priorities? Were our actions and reactions consistent with God’s justice and mercy? Have we been trusting in God’s faithfulness? Have we been pursuing God’s holiness? Only when the character of our ministry is in line with the character of our God can we expect to see God’s kingdom grow in our midst.
II. Missio Dei
David Bosch, in his book Transforming Mission, explores the emergence of the phrase missio Dei (the mission of God) in theological expression over the past seventy years. As he points out, theologians have increasingly been drawn to this phrase in their attempts to express the conviction that God is not only the inspiration for missionary endeavour, he is the missionary. The mission of the church does not arise from our invention, drive or programming, but rather initiates with and flows from God himself. It is He who is at work in our target communities. It is He who sends His spirit to soften hearts and open minds and bring people to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. Our role is not so much to take Christ to those outside of His Kingdom, but to join in cooperation with Christ who is already there and who Himself is reaching out to those who are cut off from Him. Stuart Murray in his book on church planting comments very similarly,
“God is the Missionary, who sent his Son and sends his spirit into the world, and whose missionary purposes are cosmic in scope. Concerned with the ‘restoration of all things,’ (Acts 3.21) the establishment of shalom, the renewal of creation and the coming of the Kingdom of God, as well as the redemption of fallen humanity and the building of the church. Mission has a Trinitarian basis and is theocentric rather than anthrocentric. Mission is defined, directed, energized and accomplished by God.”
Given that this is so, all that the church does in mission must be related to this missionary work of God. This means that beyond the question as to what church leadership should be doing to advance the effectiveness of their own ministry, they must also be asking questions concerning how they might lead their people to be servants in what God himself is doing both in the local church and outside of it. The church has a vital role in the missio Dei. It is often God’s chosen instrument to express his sovereign love and provision for people, but the church must not allow its self-understanding as God’s mission agent to result in an inflated view of its own importance. The concept of missio Dei reminds us that beyond the vision of any local church lies the intention and working of God who is fulfilling His own mission amongst lost people on earth.
For new ministry projects, especially, this has considerable significance. First, in seeking to draw up detailed plans and strategy, we must be careful lest our enthusiasm and excitement divert our primary focus away from the mission to which we are called. Likewise, as our churches grow and develop, it is all too easy to evaluate and concentrate on what is happening inside the church community, and lose focus on what is happening around it. Missio Dei is directed primarily towards the world rather than the church. As Robert Warren writes: “A church effectively engaged in mission will see that participating in the missio Dei will involve shifting emphasis from a focus on the life of the local church… to a concern for the world in its needs, joys and struggles.”
Secondly, the broad scope of missio Dei must not be reduced to a narrow vision for denominational development nor even for evangelism. The desire to grow existing congregations and to establish new ones is legitimate only if their development can be justified by the broader mission context of the area or country. Church expansion or reproduction devoid from this sense of co-operation with what God is doing in a local area can result in little more than “ecclesiastical expansionism”. Likewise, new church projects can easily embody a limited vision of mission that concentrates only on one or two aspects of mission (for example evangelism and church growth) to the neglect of other vital aspects such as authentic engagement with local culture and working for justice and peace within society. The voices of the Old Testament prophets together with the clear teaching of Jesus and of those in the early church warn us from defining our spirituality solely by our perceived vertical relationship with God. Unless our faith reaches out horizontally to the world around us, not only are we not participating in the missio Dei, but we may find ourselves opposed by the very God we claim to be serving.
Third, our ministry as congregations is entirely dependent upon the empowerment and enablement of God. This is something rarely forgotten by those producing resources, speaking at conferences, or offering training to those interested in the field, and rightly so since our need for spiritual empowerment to engage in the mission of God is revealed throughout the scriptures. Yet in the desire to create culturally relevant ministries that utilize the newest and most effective methodologies available, there is always the temptation to strategically plan and operate without adequate spiritual discernment and dependency. Thus, if what our local congregations do is to be set consciously within the context of mission Dei, we must endeavour to under gird methodology with a proper reliance and emphasis upon the spiritual empowerment of God. Prayer for communities must be set in place alongside their statistical analysis. The spirituality of church leaders must be nourished and grown, as well as their practical knowledge and skills. Spiritual warfare for those in the target community must be set alongside innovative ministry programming.
Fourth, engaging in ministry as a local congregation presents an opportunity to express something of the cooperative and creative nature of God who is at work in the world. Those involved in ministry who reflect theologically on their work will rightly understand themselves as fellow-workers both with God and with others. Rather than perceiving themselves as individuals with personal goals and targets for their ministry activities. They will continually sense that they are playing a part in God’s wider work as He seeks to expand not just a particular local church but the church and His Kingdom in any geographical location. Such perspective under girds commitment to team ministry which, apart from the biblical examples and teaching on such finds its basis in the “three-ness” of God as the community context of the Trinity, is seen to reflect the community nature of God’s plan for us in ministry. It also fosters mutual trust and support amongst local clergy as they together seek to identify and cooperate with what God is doing in their midst. This encourages unity rather than competitiveness which, in Ireland today, especially given our history of denominational and cultural strife, is a powerful testimony to those in the unchurched community, and will create opportunities for mission that otherwise would not be possible.
Since our efforts in ministry are as agents for God’s mission, proper theological reflection also opens the doorway to experiment and creativity in ministry. The God who builds upon the foundation of what has been established in the past is also the God of creation who is continually doing “a new thing”. Such a God “who has created diverse profusion in the natural world is unlikely to desire monochrome uniformity in the creation of new churches.” Thus, in the context of any local church the opportunity rightly exists to create new approaches, structures, and methodologies which are consistent with biblical teaching and theological reflection, yet which move the congregation forward in its effectiveness within the twenty-first century context in which it exists.
A third element that needs to be considered when reflecting theologically upon our ministry is that of incarnation. If our mission originates, not with us, but in the character and activity of God, then the way in which God engages in mission must surely inform and shape the way in which our churches engage in it. As we read through the biblical accounts of God’s mission through the centuries, we find that he uses a great diversity in approach and personnel, in structure and methodology. All kinds of people have been used in all kinds of ways as God has worked out his purposes for and amongst his people. This diversity and variety of strategy again offer to us the warning of adopting any one key method or model as a general practice within the mission of our church. The successful strategies of one time period may well prove be entirely inappropriate for another. In fact, it is very often the case that currently ineffective and outdated church programmes, mission strategies, or church traditions were once the very things that built the churches up and propelled them forward. The problem for many of them is not so much poor strategic thinking as it is outdated strategic thinking. Lyle Schaller has made the insightful comment, that for churches in such situations, there is no point in hoping that next year will be 1957! Having said that, change for change sake alone, without proper theological reflection, may be little better. For those engaged in developing new ministries, there exists the constant danger of embracing new methods and strategies uncritically rather than carefully, because of perceived effectiveness in a modern context rather than because they represent biblically consistent methodologies for the modern world. There is often a narrow divide between what may seem effective and what is appropriate for the Christian church, and whilst few church leaders run off into open heresy for the sake of ministry effectiveness, the long-term impact of Christian mission and maturity of Christian communities may be hindered if apparent effectiveness and theological appropriateness are not held in proper tension.
Of great help to us in this process is the fact that the centre point, and most complete expression, of God’s missionary activity is found in the incarnation. Summarizing the diversity of past revelation and the completion of that in the incarnation, the writer to the Hebrews says to us:
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”
God has always being working and communicating with His people through creation, his people, and His word. But now He has expressed Himself completely and authoritatively through the person and presence of His Son, Jesus Christ. Now God is with us. God is one of us. God has now revealed Himself through flesh and blood. This has several implications for those of us engaged in congregational ministry:
First, Jesus himself is the primary source of inspiration for our ministry practice. As the New Testament record unfolds, we encounter first the birth and then the development of early Christian communities and the issues and problems they faced. Alongside of this development we see the emergence of church planting teams, and indications of the strategies employed during those early years. Without doubt, there is much to learn here, which can be applied to modern day ministry. Nevertheless, our primary resource is the life and ministry of Jesus and the mission agenda God himself followed whilst walking amongst us. This means that all of us who are involved in ministry need to make time in our schedules for serious reflection upon and engagement with the New Testament accounts of the model and practice of Jesus. This reflection can of course be initiated and nurtured in the guided environment of theological preparation, but it needs to be maintained and deepened throughout the development and maturation stages of any ministry. The society context for mission in Ireland today is one of rapid secularization and decline in church attendance. For a number of reasons the once strong and secure position of Christian faith in the hearts and minds of many Irish people has been eroded if not entirely destroyed. The “established” churches, and the models and methods of ministry used by them, have been clearly demonstrated to be inadequate in bridging the current gap between people and Christian faith. Thus, if we are to see the unrelenting pattern of church decline addressed and turned around we will need new, culturally, and biblically relevant approaches, many of which have yet to be discovered. This discovery will need to be made by Irish Church leadership ministering in the Irish context. This is not to imply that many helpful resources for church based ministry do not already exist and have been embraced with some effectiveness by those ministering around the towns and cities of Ireland. However, the reality is that few of the models and methods developed and successfully implemented elsewhere in the world have proven equally successful here. To be fair to the authors of these resources, few, if any, of them would suggest their methodologies should work here. Instead, it is the principles they have gleaned from scripture and from experience that are offered for reflection, and this is entirely helpful. What remains for us in Ireland is to further contextualize these principles, building upon the exciting ministry already being carried out here and establishing methods and ministry models appropriate for this land and this people. This process can only occur if our church leadership spend adequate time away from the busyness of ministry activity and create ample opportunity for prayer and reflection upon the life and ministry of Jesus Himself.
Second, the method God chose to supremely reveal himself to our world was that of incarnation. Thus, our primary method must be the same. God chooses to reveal Himself to people through making His word flesh. Throughout His comprehensive ministry, we see Jesus engage with others not only through His words, but also by His actions. He came as a Jew to minister to Jews. He lived as one of those He came to teach. He modelled what He taught others to live. He authenticated His claims by His deeds. In the choices He Himself made He faced the challenges He set for others. He instructed through journey and community as much as through sermon and lecture. He showed His closeness to God as much through kindness and compassion as through theological insight and understanding. He proved His faith not only through debate but also through the harsh reality of His suffering and death. His unafraid and unwavering commitment both to orthodoxy and to orthopraxis meant that not only did He teach with great authority about the Kingdom of God, but He demonstrated with great integrity the reality of this Kingdom through His own life. The basic truths of this new Kingdom now present were something His disciples caught as much as were taught, they were something they tasted and experienced as much as grasped. To encounter Jesus was to come into contact with the very reality of what His message proclaimed.
The very same must be true of any truly authentic Christian endeavour today. In establishing or expanding our ministries, what is necessary is not simply the gathering together of like-minded people who will come and sit under the word of God, and participate in corporate worship and support financially the wider work of the church, but rather the assembling of a community who will embrace and embody that word and that work in how they live and interact together. Only as the word is made flesh today, as it was in Palestine so long ago, can we truly say that we are engaging in the missio Dei at all. In past decades, the general pattern that emerged was that churches more “liberal” in nature focussed on the social witness implications of the Gospel to the exclusion of the evangelistic, whereas churches more “evangelical” in nature focussed on the evangelistic implications of the Gospel to the exclusion of social witness. If this general observation is correct, then both categories of churches were in error. The principle of incarnation brings a holist, “earthy” nature to ministry that addresses and encompasses the whole of life. Proclamation of the Gospel can not be by either word or deed alone. That was not the way of our master.
In contexts where there are no functioning church communities, therefore, this call to incarnation provides a theological basis for engaging in mission that proclaims the Gospel and establishes new biblical functioning communities in which the Gospel is lived out. It could be argued that no serious attempt to respond to the great commission could lead to anything else. However, in contexts such that exist in the majority of Irish cities, where Christian churches already do exist, the application of this need for incarnation needs to be made with sensitivity. For example, cavalier church planting carried out with insensitivity to the existing churches in the area could easily do more to deny the reality of the body of Christ than to affirm it in the minds of the local community. There have been sufficient abortive attempts in starting “exclusive” new churches that proclaim themselves as the only truly biblical community in our country for this observation to be self-evident. The communal nature of Irish society is very sensitive to “invasion” from without, and new development ministry in particular needs to understand and honour this fact.
In the same way, care must be taken lest the desire for sensitivity and inclusiveness in our mission inhibits our commitment to allowing God’s word to be heard. Evangelism is the “announcing of Good News.” Both etymologically and theologically, this announcing contains a strong element of proclamation. In recent years, however, attempts have been made to redefine Christian evangelism in a way that would radically reduce this focus and shift the emphasis away from “telling” good news to “being” good news. In our post-modern culture, where privatisation of religion and the embracing of pluralism are strong characteristics, and in which the only thing not tolerated is intolerance, this is not surprising. Furthermore, on an island known throughout the world, never mind amongst its own inhabitants, for religious hatred, bigotry and violence, proclamation can easily be seen as arrogant, intolerant and confrontational. Sadly, very often it has been. It is impossible to overstate the damage that has been done to the cause of Christ in Ireland by the religious sectarianism and spiritual elitism that has raged and continues to rage amongst its people. Indeed it is hard to imagine a more effective strategy to close the hearts and minds of the Irish people to the message of Christ than the very conflict, and religious bigotry it has engendered, which has occurred here. How tragic for the message of the prince of peace that Irish parents should instruct their children to never discuss politics or religion as it will only lead to fighting. Nevertheless, we must be careful here lest in seeking to overcome the barriers set up by our history and culture, we allow ourselves to be drawn away from the incarnation model and practice of Jesus himself. Stuart Murray rightly comments:
‘The testimony of a consistent Christian lifestyle is vital if Christian faith is to be commended to others. But if evangelism is to be understood in relation to missio Dei, rather than tailored to social sensibilities, it is not possible to eradicate or minimise the element of proclamation. The God who sends his people into the world to participate in his mission is a God who speaks, whose Son is the Word, and whose Spirit leads people into truth. Silent presence does not accurately describe the mission or ministry Jesus, whose words unsettled, challenged and disturbed his hearers.’ (Stuart Murray, Church Planting, 37)
IV. The Kingdom of God
The fourth foundation that we need to reflect on as we engage in mission is that of the Kingdom of God. It has been said that the early followers of Jesus were expecting the arrival of the Kingdom, but what came instead was the church. Certainly, as we survey His teaching, the focus of Jesus’ words seems not to have been upon the establishment and multiplication of local churches around the world but upon the presence, development and final consummation of the Kingdom of God. Very little of His teaching even mentions the institution of the church. (There is a certain irony that Matt 18’s reference is given in the context of conflict!) Thus, if we are to approach the task of mission with proper perspective, it will be imperative that we keep this broader issue and calling in mind. Failure to do this can easily result in a warped understanding of church development and of the link between the extension of the church and that of the Kingdom.
Whilst some of those writing today have clearly sought to wrestle with the issue of church development in the context of the development of the Kingdom many of us fail to give proper cognisance to this perspective. Put in simple terms, the strong position of the New Testament’s teaching is that the church and the Kingdom are not the same thing. Granted, they are closely related. If the church functions as it should, then local churches, including new ones, will be agents of the Kingdom, signposts to what God is doing in bringing His Kingdom about, tangible examples of what the Kingdom is all about and living communities that point others to the reality of what is yet to come. However, whilst this close link between the two is unquestionably present within the New Testament, the actual identification of the church and Kingdom is simply not justified biblically or experientially. This distinction may be illustrated in a variety of ways. For example, whereas the church concerns a godly community of people gathered together, the Kingdom concerns God’s kingly rule over the whole of the world He has created. Whilst this is undoubtedly carried out in part through the workings and impact of the local church, so that as people see the deeds and hear the teaching of the local church, they are able to discern that God’s Kingdom has come, nevertheless His workings and rule extend far beyond the borders of our congregational activities. God’s Kingdom concerns such universal issues as justice and forgiveness, freedom and wholeness, mercy and reconciliation, and these He pursues both through and without the involvement of the local church. Indeed, the scope and focus of the Kingdom is such that, whilst at times God may be at work inside the church and through it, at others he may be working outside the church and even despite it. Biblical and ecclesiastical history make clear that there have been many times when God’s people and Christian churches have ceased to function as agents of the Kingdom, and have instead become agents for themselves, and God has simply bypassed them to initiate and consummate the changes he required.
This necessary distinction between the church and the Kingdom of God provides a most helpful backdrop to evaluating the ministry activities of any congregation. Too easily we can define the church’s mission in ways that fail to do justice to the breadth and depth of biblical teaching on the Kingdom of God and though things may move forward and see growth even so, in the long-term we will fail to reap the harvest intended through our work. Failing to keep a biblical perspective on the Kingdom of God can impact negatively upon our work in a number of ways: Mission can be regarded as a recruitment drive or marketing exercise simply for our particular denomination. As long as “our” church is doing well, the danger is that we care little for what is happening in the churches and communities around us. All our resources then become narrowly focused on what will push “our church” forward. Here, the broader perspective of the Kingdom as to how the corporate witness of the church in any region is doing is inevitably lost. God’s Kingdom requires us to have an active understanding of the one-ness, not only of the God head, but of all those engrafted in to the vine of Christ.
Again, mission can be reduced to soul-winning, where a narrow, anthropocentric understanding of evangelism prevails. Success in our calling as a church is then relegated to a numerical tally of those encountered, and of decisions made, in response to the preaching of the word. Whilst these are not unimportant statistics, the evidence in our Irish church experience and the clear teaching of the scriptures on what is involved in following Christ warn us away from placing them at the centre of our ministry’s evaluation. For example, over the past few decades two major evangelistic campaigns have been held in Ireland, one in Dublin and the other in Derry. At both week-long events, large numbers of people attended, and a high number of responses were recorded. Lives have undoubtedly been changed by the gospel. However, in both locations, church leaders today indicate that the lasting impact of these evangelistic crusades seems to have been extremely limited. On reflection, it would seem that these events and many other smaller ones held both before and since, failed to adequately incorporate those reached into local communities where they could grow and deepen in their faith, and thus have had less enduring impact than we would have hoped. Such evangelism has clearly been used by God in the past and will no doubt continue to be used in the future but that any such ‘mission’ endeavours that focus solely on soul-winning can so easily lapse into asking only for changes of belief, a verbal testimony of faith and mere adjustments of certain aspects of personal morality. Being called to participate in the Kingdom of God, however, radically challenges political, social, and economic values and commitments, and leads to a radically new allegiance, a progressively transformed lifestyle, and different priorities.
Third, mission in the lives of Christians can be relegated to the private sphere of church, family, and leisure interest, where larger issues such as justice, peace, and human dignity are left unaddressed. Churches can thus become bubble-like organisations that exist primarily to create social and spiritual oases for the benefit and interaction of those within them. The local church then becomes a place of refuge and blessing for the found rather than being a mission and Kingdom centre reaching out to the lost. This danger not only faces God’s people today, but was the constant temptation faced by His people in the Old Testament. Although God repeatedly made clear that the Israelites were not chosen to be His people because of anything in themselves, but because He had chosen to love them, and that they were chosen not simply to be blessed themselves, but to be a blessing to others, they repeatedly lost this perspective. Instead of seeing themselves as agents of God’s Kingdom in the world, they became insular, ignoring the world around them and being content with enjoying the blessing of God for themselves. Through His prophets, ancient and modern, such inward looking practice has been denounced by God. Sadly the content of Isaiah chapter fifty-eight is all too relevant for some of the Irish church today.
Fourth, mission can be restricted to proclamation, marginalizing the demonstration of the power of the Gospel that is evident in the holistic evangelism of the New Testament, and many subsequent periods of mission. It is not by word alone that we are sent into the world as witnesses to God’s love. As Jesus told the early disciples, so we too shall receive “power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us.” Only as we embrace this truth and release God’s power through us can we effectively bear witness to the work of Christ.
All Christian leaders operate within their ministries according to a theological framework of one kind or another. Particularly for those involved in developing ministries, the pragmatic nature of ministry often results in this theological framework being something that is assumed rather than clarified or articulated. The drive to “get on with the work,” engage culture through ministry, and gather people together under the Word of God often results in approaches and basic principles being embraced rapidly and uncritically, rather than after thoughtful reflection. Indeed, such reflection is often poorly regarded by those in development ministries as a merely theoretical exercise which contributes little to the actual field-work they are engaged in. This attitude may possibly explain the lack of theological discussion present in the great majority of ministry literature and material. However, unless we think theologically as well as practically, the long-term may actually hinder the work rather than help it. All four of these concepts (God’s character, the missio Dei, incarnation, and the Kingdom of God) are key components in developing a theological foundation for our congregational ministry. Only as we keep these broader issues in mind will our response to our great commission mandate be appropriate, effective, and honouring to God.