Integral Mission… say what?

Wow, I’ve been away far too long. I’ve got a LOT to catch up on, but let me get back to where I left off… Which was what I mean when I say that my vocation involves “building a community of reflective practitioners of integral mission.” So what do I mean by integral mission?

First, it obviously has to do with mission, specifically Christian mission. By this many people figure it involves crossing some sort of border to bring the “Gospel” (good news) of Christ to places where it has not yet been made known. Others, of a different bent, see it as going into the world to “be the hands and feet of Jesus,” meeting human needs in the name of Christ.

Starting with one approach or the other, a range of biblical support is typically marshaled to support why doing this sort of mission is what we, as Christians, should be pursuing. If one is properly selective in one’s choice of “evidence” a fairly compelling case can be made that will show our efforts to be the properly biblical way to go.

However, as David Bosch points out, “Our point of departure should not be the contemporary enterprise we seek to justify, but the biblical sense of what being sent into the world signifies.” In other words, what does it mean to be sent into the world by Christ as he was sent by the Father? (Jn. 20:21) My problem with both “liberal” and “conservative” approaches to mission is that they often seem like “reverse engineering” from what we want to see happen in “the world of mission.” I don’t believe in using the Bible to justify pet projects or agendas. What I’ve been looking for, together with many others is a way, together, to grow into a fuller embrace of what it means to be “sent into the world.”

We know that we go with the truth and in the power of the Gospel. But how well have we “integrated” the fullness of the Good News, in all its wonderful implications, into our understanding of mission? (I’ve recently finished NT Wright’s “How God Became King,” which is a great treatment of how the the actual Gospels in the New Testament relate to “the Gospel” of which we speak.)

We do the writers of the Gospels (and the God who inspired them) a disservice by taking their marvelous narrative and reducing it to something individual (all about you having a “personal Savior”), to something exclusively other-worldly (it’s all about how to get to heaven when you die), to something this-worldly (it’s all about making changes here-and-now), to something strictly spiritual (it’s all about what’s in your heart).

These and many other aspects of the Gospel are true, but they don’t capture the Gospel in its entirety. It’s cosmic in its scope– God is not merely saving people, he’s restoring his fallen creation… and not just this ball of confusion on which we live… his entire creation, now “subject to decay” will be renewed! (Rom. 8:19-23).

It does relate to people, but not only as individuals: it also relates to the true meaning of love, mercy, compassion, justice… aspects of human life which cannot even be imagined as being “individual.” The Gospel touches every aspect of human life, bringing a promise of renewal and restoration to individuals, families, communities, cities, cultures and nations.

And even in its personal implications, the Gospel is not just about “saving souls”… it’s about being fully human, as Jesus was truly and fully human. People are not merely souls, or spirits, or bodies: we are an amazing unity of these elements, embodied souls, possessing emotions, memories, imagination, creativity, vocations – all of which are impacted, transformed by an encounter with God in Christ. While compartmentalizing things can be a helpful tool for analysis, it’s not particularly well-suited to the formation of a worldview that matches that of the scope of the Gospel.

So what does it mean to “go into the world in mission” with a full appreciation of the Gospel? First, letting God be God and the Gospel be the Gospel, it might be better NOT to talk about the “church’s mission”: as Christopher Wright has said, “It is not so much the case that God has a mission for His church in the world, as that God has a church for His mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission – God’s mission.”

It’s important clarify that this is not “agenda-driven”: we are not seeking to hold onto our “basic agenda” of “saving souls” through the Gospel and just adding something else onto it; we are not seeking to maintain a particular “social agenda” and cover it with some salvation-talk. We are not talking about adding some “frosting” of compassion or justice onto the “Gospel cake.”

We are talking about understanding, appreciating, proclaiming and embodying the truth that God has sent us out with good news for individuals, for society, for creation. Apart from God, all these are broken and in need of restoration. God’s love revalues all three; his mission embraces all three. Thus, going forth in his name, redemptive proclamation and action in all three spheres of life are vital aspects of mission.

I dream of communities of people who are committed to grow in knowledge and appreciation of how the Gospel touches “the whole person” (as well as the whole community, the whole world, the whole cosmos!), that the Gospel is good news to a world in need of personal, social, and ecological healing and reconciliation. That’s what we mean by “integral mission.”

This engages us theologically: consistently examining our thinking, values and practices in light of Scripture, shoring up their grounding in the Gospel, and refining our grasp of the Gospel, not allowing its pure white light to be splintered in a reductionistic or dichotomistic prism into narrow, distinct bands which split our being into physical and spiritual, our health into mental or physical, our lives into personal or social…

This engages us missiologically: we cannot ground our mission in terms of Christendom, empire, power. We are sent not by the king or emperor, nor the superior culture (whether in terms of education, resources, or productivity), but by the LORD, whom we fully represent as ambassadors of reconciliation.

This engages us strategically as we move forward: It demands humilitywe can, at best, facilitate, not dictate; catalyze, not control. It necessitates a renewed faith in the Lord of mission – what we learn will almost certainly not be spoken with any single voice, or from any single privileged human perspective. It will be the LORD, or it will be “sound and fury signifying nothing.”  It requires courage – It will require us to intentionally pursue international, multifaceted conversations… without knowing concretely where they may lead. We will need to study, to share, to dialog across all sorts of borders, many of which require no passport to cross.

I believe we can deeply impact our homes, neighborhoods, cities, cultures by a commitment to integral mission. We can serve healthy and empowered teams whose words and actions reflect the full value of persons in light of the Gospel. Our effectiveness in evangelism and discipleship can grow as a fruit of a deeper understanding of the Gospel and its implications. We can be engaged in social work that is not only competent but transformative, because of its grounding in the Gospel.

What could be the impact of a church sent clearly and only by the LORD of mission, fully functioning, in all dimensions, as his “ambassadors of reconciliation,” embracing the full value of all His image-bearers? We are trying to find out as we embrace and advocate for those in our communities who are touched by AIDS, by human trafficking, by the challenges of disabilities. We are learning what it could look like as the holistic nature of the people God made is reflected in vital ministries of economic empowerment, care and counseling, advocacy, care for creation, education, engagement in the intellectual and imaginative life of our communities… I’m not trying to make a “to do” list here. I am trying to be ready to be a catalyst for what God is doing as we lead people into a fuller embrace of Kingdom values and practice.

While some may remain skeptical of our vision of a church reawakened in Europe, it begs to be asked: Has Europe ever even seen this sort of church?

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