Presbyterians believe that the church exists for mission
By Gwen Crawley
Examining what we believe and how we act on those beliefs can be both reassuring and unsettling. For example, we talk about our mission, the mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but in reality it is God’s mission and we are merely agents, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s will (mission) on earth.
Presbyterians do strongly support mission activities. When a special alert goes out to churches telling of a natural disaster, they contribute for immunizations and relief supplies. Attendance triples at church suppers when a missionary speaks about work in Asia or Africa. When things heat up in Zaire, special prayers are offered. When Bibles are needed in the language of a group of new believers, Presbyterians arrange for translation and printing. When soup kitchens need staffing, prisoners need visiting, refugees need to be resettled, Presbyterians are there.
Every day, in many ways and in more than 80 countries around the world, including the United States, Presbyterians engage in mission. Why? Because we have always been a church in mission, believing that at its core the church exists for mission that flows from the very heart of God.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order declares that “the mission of the church is given form by God’s activity in the world as told in the Bible and understood by faith.” We are to be “the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.” This call restates the charges for mission in the New Testament. Consider the implications of the Book of Order’s words for us today:
The church is called to be Christ’s faithful evangelist (1) going into the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all he has commanded;
Where are the unreached today? Out there? In our workplace, schools and communities?
(2) demonstrating by the love of its members for one another and by the quality of its common life the new reality in Christ; sharing in worship, fellowship, and nurture, practicing a deepened life of prayer and service under the guidance of the Holy Spirit;
Is ours a church of Christian hospitality and acceptance of others, or one of judgment, meanness and division? Do we pray, “Thy will be done”?
(3) participating in God’s activity in the world through its life for others by (a) healing and reconciling and binding up wounds,
Can we condemn ethnic violence in Rwanda and Bosnia while our ethnic churches burn?
(b) ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless,
Out there? On our church steps? In our own congregations?
(c) engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger and injustice,
What about buying sweaters made by workers under inhumane conditions paid 38 cents an hour?
(d) giving itself and its substance to the service of those who suffer,
How much does God consider enough? 5 percent? 10 percent? What Barnabas, who sold all he had, gave? The widow’s mite?
(e) sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world.
When our country sells more arms internally and externally than any country in the world?
The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.
Can we imagine putting our lives on the line by declaring our faith as our brothers and sisters in Iran must do daily?
Over and over Presbyterian policy papers like the “Life and Mission Statements of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (1985), “Turn to the Living God, A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ’s Way” (1991) and most recently the “Brief Statement of Faith” reaffirm that God “calls women and men to all ministries of the church . . . to witness among all people to Christ as Lord and Savior … to strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks” — because:
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
— Brief Statement of Faith
The Confession of 1967 declares that “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation.” And last year ’s General Assembly action on Just and Sustainable Human Development deplores those who tolerate injustice to the poor, breakup of communities, and depletion of environmental resources while pursuing profit and global markets.
Answers to the challenges of mission are never easy. For years Presbyterians’ belief in the Great Commission to “go … make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) was acted out by sending and supporting mission personnel in places where the gospel had not reached and physical needs were high. As mission work bore fruit and sister churches were established, we learned that mission does not depend on us alone, and in fact these younger Christians are often better at reaching people in their own culture and finding ways to resolve disputes and problems, using methods familiar to the people.
In serving the poor and working for justice we found that we had to get involved in issues that required changes in the status quo, sometimes in our own systems. It has been unsettling to find our partners in mission differing from our government. This was true in Nicaragua, where the lives of the poor people deteriorated while we supplied arms to the contras, who shot health workers whose only crime was listing “murder” as the cause of death for innocent peasants.
Are we comfortable about bargain-priced products, knowing that they may be produced with child labor or in unsafe overseas plants? Are these Presbyterian concerns? Are they mission? Do they impact what we believe about mission? Yes, if we believe in the peaceful kingdom of swords beaten into plowshares (Micah 4), and the words “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
It has been humbling over the years to recognize that we are only a small part of that body of which Christ is the Head. We have learned that in order for the body to function in the unity for which Christ prayed, our one part can neither function alone nor dominate the other parts of the body.
For many Presbyterians today, living out their call to mission means a firsthand experience on a mission trip, expecting to produce a profound change in the lives of those they go to serve. What they find instead is that the gospel is many-faceted. They find Christ and are ministered to by those they thought they were serving. Some report being transformed as they experience God’s grace in cultural diversity and the unity that comes through shared faith in Jesus Christ.
Presbyterians believe mission is not so much an obligation but an opportunity — to see how God, who is already present in all places, can and does work in marvelous new ways helping us grow in our own faith and commitment to Christ’s mission. It will mean continuing to risk, question, grow and seek, through prayer and interactions with others, what it is that we are called by the Holy Spirit to do as faithful servants of Christ.
This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Presbyterians Today.