Long time no post – life both in and outside work have been so busy recently. But whilst I’ve been doing other things my mind has kept returning to some thoughts about mission and discipleship, and a framework for keeping a balanced view of them. I’m not an expert on missiology by any stretch of the imagination and I can’t believe that the following is at all original – although I’ve never seen it expressed in quite these terms.
Basically I think there are four dimensions to mission – one might call them ‘degrees’ or ‘tropics’ or whatever (my picture of them is bearings on a map), but basically there are four of them. If we can keep all four of them in view, both individually and collectively as Christians, I think we’ll be doing reasonably well.
1st Degree: orientating ourselves within the big story of God’s relationship with the world – the ‘missio dei’ – that which God wants to accomplish in and through creation. Understanding this (macro-historical) dimension of mission is about understanding our life here and now within the big story of salvation, liberation and the coming Kingdom of God, which is our ultimate reference point for what we are to be and do as Christians. This big story doesn’t change and stands true for all Christians at all times and in all places – although of course we interpret it in different ways.
2nd Degree: working out ‘what does it mean to be the people of God in this time and this place?’ This is more of a generational/epochal question about how we read the signs of the times and live/act faithfully within these. It’s the dimension of mission which demands most engagement with the historical and cultural realms. It takes as fixed reference points the 1st and 4th degrees of mission, but improvises faithfully upon them and expects to be working in new ways to do so.
3rd Degree: This is the realm of mission action planning – working out how the 1st, 2nd and 4th degrees of mission translate into a specific short to medium term strategy. This is the realm which is the most programmatic, although not to the exclusion of the everyday command to be available to love our neighbour. Again this will change according to the times and culture.
4th Degree: This is the dimension of mission which (although 4th on this framework) is not least, in that it demands engagement with the ethical teaching and example of Jesus at grass-roots, everyday level. The 4th Degree of mission is the bread and butter of what every Christian is called to be and do, regardless of personal gifts or charisms, regardless of time and culture (though the expression of it will inevitably be culturally incarnated). It’s about loving your neighbour, being and sharing the good news of the gospel, being a person of God’s peace in the everyday.
It may just be that ‘balance’ (of a properly Augustinian kind) is personally and psychologically familiar, but I think that there could be something important in keeping these four dimensions in balance. Within a recent Christendom context, churches have tended to major of the 4th (living individual good lives according to Jesus’ teaching) but to the exclusion of the bigger vision of God’s plan for the world. The 1st dimension has taken greater prominence recently as our post-Christendom context forces us to ask: ‘just what is God up to with the world, and how are we supposed to be part of that?’. The current (and mainly positive) vogue for mission action planning has led to increasing attention to the 3rd dimension of mission.
The 2nd, however, tends to be forgotten. Or rather, it tends to become the preserve of prophetic thinkers and leaders whilst the rest of the church tends to make judgements about the 2nd degree unconsciously and uncritically, preferring to live at the everyday and macro-historical level without standing back and asking ‘what does God call us to do in these times and this place?’ It’s the kind of question prophets ask (as well as historians – for the two are not necessarily so far apart), and as a result it is not one which is easily asked by the church in its ‘modal’ (everyday, pastoral) form. Of course, just as with the others, if too much emphasis is placed on the 2nd degree we risk identifying too closely with our times, when the really radical in Christianity is that which inserts that God’s purposes and Jesus’ life and work break in and disrupt history regardless of culture. However, the 2nd degree is a sphere we must engage with, if we are to make disciples and transform communities in our lifetimes.