I recently had a fascinating conversation with my son, Alister, in his senior year at Brisbane Boys’ College. Like most of his peers, he’s been feeling deeply discouraged by the impact the Corona Virus has already had, and will continue to have, on his final year. Everything has, or is, being cancelled. The cricket season was abruptly halted, the football season will be cancelled, the school play is cancelled, the Year 12 formal has been cancelled, Old Boys’ Day has been cancelled. All the things the boys have been looking forward to for years have been taken from them.
But recently he suddenly seemed quite upbeat. I asked him what was going on. He said, “Dad, I’ve just realised how much opportunity there is in the world at the moment.” He went on to relay a conversation with two students who had lead roles in the school musical – they had been rehearsing for months, a joint production with St Aidan’s girls’ school, full-day Sunday rehearsals, just a few weeks out from the performance … and it’s cancelled in a moment. Al offered to pray for these boys in their distress. They were surprised but said, “OK!” That led to a lengthy conversation where Al was able to reflect with the boys that their value and identity was based on so much more than their ability to perform dramatically. Their value and identity were actually found in the regard and action of their Creator toward them.
This is a tiny example of the missional opportunity that currently abounds. As our normal social conventions are disrupted by exceptional circumstances, many social stigmas are also being interrupted. It is more ‘normal’ now to enquire of stranger’s wellbeing. It is acceptable to offer support to others. One of my friends, who for months had been praying for an opportunity to connect with his neighbours, recently went and knocked on every door in his street. He introduced himself as a neighbour and offered his mobile number if people found themselves in need of support. He received a few raised eyebrows, but generally people were deeply appreciative of the offer and many were happy to debrief their circumstances with him through the front door. Imagine if that happened in every street in our city!
Of course, Christian mission is much more than just being nice to people; but this moment in time presents a unique opportunity to engage in that first step of mission, which is to establish authentic relationships with people, being ambassadors of the kingdom, salt and light in a decaying and increasingly gloomy world. A prayerfully offered kind word can literally transform someone’s state of being.
Mission doesn’t have to be a big organised activity. We don’t need to be gathered in a church to ‘do’ mission. The words ‘mission’ and ‘missile’ share the same Latin root, missio, which means ‘to send’. Deep in God’s heart is a missional inclination. “As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world,” prayed Jesus regarding his disciples.
Even in Old Testament times, God intended that Israel become a missionary nation. Israel’s God-defined purpose was world-wide demonstration of the benefits and blessing associated with worshipping the living God. Abraham’s call exemplifies this. God promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great, blessed and famous nation, “so that you will be a blessing” and “so that all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This man and his family were to be missionaries, representing God to others, from the very beginning.
Jesus being sent to us is called the incarnation (literally: en-fleshment). God didn’t ultimately deal with human problems by remote control, from the comfort of a heavenly couch. Instead, wrapped in humanity, he invaded the mess of daily life. There was no advice from the sidelines. Jesus entered the game. He went from being the eternal, invisible, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present God to a frail baby, dependent on a teenage couple for food, shelter and hygiene. This large step down, culminating in savage crucifixion, highlights the cost associated with missionary obedience. Jesus set the standard. His thoroughly incarnational approach generates a paradigm for ministry. How can we represent a missional God unless we also enter others’ chaos and offer them Christ: individually, personally, locally?
At the heart of the Christian faith is the gospel, literally meaning ‘good news’. Good news should be shared. When my kids were born, no one had to drag the information from me. I was bursting to tell the world. Few Christians doubt they should be missionally inclined. The challenge is to work out what that means. For many, acting missionally equals asking friends along to church. This is good but may indicate the need for mental rewiring. No longer seeing themselves as church members who sometimes do mission, Christians must be missionaries who also go to church. If ‘missionary’ is our essential identity, then all parts of our lives are engaged in God’s service. The home, workplace, sporting field, school, university and supermarket, even the street where we live, our phone calls and zoom meetings, all become places where God fulfils his divine purpose through us. Seeds of life and faith are sown and nourished in people’s hearts through our words and actions.
Being dispersed makes no difference to this. God’s people have often experienced diaspora (Latin for dispersion). Whether fleeing from conquering armies in the Old Testament (which necessarily led to the emergence of many small, local synagogues to replace large-scale, centralised temple worship) or fleeing from persecution in New Testament times, God’s people have a heritage of adapting to new diaspora circumstances in which they tend to not only keep the flame of faith alive, but capitalise on opportunities to stoke the fires and spread the flame around.
Let’s be mindful of opportunities to be agents of hope in our current context. Seek God in prayer, immerse yourself in his Word and live every day with your eyes open to the occasions that God will create for you to step forward in service.
Lecturer in Historical and Contemporary Mission at Trinity College Queensland