Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mission and the Millennium Development Goals

The following piece is taken from my listserv, Toward2015, which can be joined through

This is an attempt to respond to Tony Seel's question, "Would you like to comment on what it means for ECUSA to name the MDGs as our top mission priority? Personally, I thought that Jesus had given us our top mission priority in the Great Commission."

It is a question that requires much more time and thought that I have, but I will try my best.

For starters I want to say that the MDGs are generally a pretty good set of priorities when looking at the major challenges that face us in the world today. Most of them focus on areas that each of us, if we were to take them seriously, would be able to impact in some small way. For example, my wife and I have for a long time now sought to be as environmentally responsible as we can, because whatever we are doing to the environment we certainly aren't doing it a lot of good. I would encourage all Christians to try to see how the goals might help shape their own life and lifestyle as citizens of God's Kingdom.

Yet however valuable the MDGs might be they are not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, although taking them seriously might be part of our response as those transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the things that I have noticed time without number is that we have this fabulous ability of putting the cart before the horse -- which is what the Episcopal Church is doing on this issue, I think.

If you look back over the last several decades of the church's life each General Convention gets hot under the collar about something new and we play with that until the next Convention comes along, then drop it and go onto something new. In 1988, for example, it was the challenge of urban America, in 2000 we got anxious about evangelism and monkeyed with the whole 20/20 notion of doubling the church before 2020, then in 2003 it was sex, and now in 2006 in an attempt to take our minds off sex we are into the MDGs.

The truth is that the denomination functions a little like my 18-month-old granddaughter who has an attention span of about 45 seconds when it comes to toys, books, television programs, etc. The result is that the Episcopal Church seems to be on a permanent search for the illusive silver bullet rather than getting on with the serious business of being the People of God in a fallen world.

The rub is in the last sentence I wrote because the reality is that the tendency in most of the mainline traditions today is not to be sure that there is such a thing as a fallen world. This is where the theological rubber hits the road. If our understanding of the nature of God and the nature of God's creation is inadequate, then so will our response be. Certainly in the thirty years I have been a priest of this church few of the voices within the denominational structures have had what I would describe as a full-blooded Anglican theology shaped by commitment to the substance of Scripture and the values of the church catholic. The wind was sown and now we are reaping the whirlwind.
The truth is that what we believe is going to shape the ministry that we and the church have. During the last few days, in preparation for what we are going to be doing in our parish from Advent to Easter, I have been giving John Stott's The Cross of Christ a more careful reading than I have given it in the past. Both directly and indirectly John makes the point that what we believe about the Cross is going to give structure to how we minister within a needy world.

A huge proportion of the Episcopal Church, including many who claim renewal or biblical credentials, for my money do not take the Cross seriously enough as satisfaction for our sins -- partly because we do not believe that sin is as ghastly as it actually is. We do not take sin seriously enough because we do not have a clear enough grasp of the holiness of God and how impossibly wide is the gulf that needs to be bridged -- and is the reason for the death of Jesus, the God-Man.

I have in that last paragraph probably raised a huge number of hackles because if there is anything over which Episcopalians wriggle and feel uncomfortable it is that the Second Person of the Trinity voluntarily sacrificed himself, becoming sin that I might be freed from the bondage of sin (Galatians 3:10-14). This great and wonderful truth is considered offensive, and there have been occasions in the past when I have literally been shouted down asserting such a "primitive" notion although it is rooted and grounded in God's revelation.

Yet, primitive or otherwise, this notion is behind a wholehearted willingness to take into all the world the Good News of what Christ has done on our behalf. It is because Christ died as he did that we believe that no one comes to the Father except through him. That is a profound message and is one of the driving forces behind obedience to the Great Commission as presented in Matthew 28 and Acts 1. Jesus called us to be witnesses, and by every word and action we show forth whether or not the Cross is important to us, and what we believe about the Cross.

Now, it is because I am a person of the Cross that love for my fellow humans should be shown in the things that I do, like helping to promote universal primary education, helping to feed the hungry and ease the lot of the excessively poor, working to eradicate diseases like AIDS and malaria, and so forth. My wife and I actually in our own small way give time, treasure, or talent to all these areas, but we do it (and have done it for a long time) not because the Episcopal Church thinks it a great idea, or merely because all humans are made in God's image and should be honored and respected as such, but because the Son died for them and we want them to meet him just as we have.

In ECUSA it is my observation that there seems to be little real desire for those who are in need (physical, emotional, or spiritual) to meet Christ and have their lives transformed by him. Until I was excluded from life in the wider denomination in the latter part of 2001 I had been involved in National Church life in one way or another for a quarter century. I have to say that although in that time I met many wonderful people, few in those circles were comfortable with a forthright affirmation that Jesus Christ is Lord. Far be it from me to make judgments about their relationship with the Lord, but those relationship seldom bubbled over with the evangelistic enthusiasm that I have always discovered comes from finding out exactly who Jesus is and what he has done for me (and you).

When I served on the 20/20 Task Force there was often hovering in the background this notion that if we could find some technique or mechanism to enable evangelism to take place other than a forthright proclamation of the richness of the Gospel, then we would heartily embrace it. That inadequacy was there in the report that we produced, although its theology was richer than that. I suspect it was the richness of the theology and the audacity of the vision which means it has virtually disappeared from the agenda of the Episcopal Church as we have gone shooting off and redefined what it means to be male and female, and now fallen into the arms of the MDGs.

Quite honestly, regardless of which Anglican jurisdiction you happen to belong to, I have come to the conclusion that connexional structures do little or nothing to enable mission in the red-blooded biblical sense of the word -- indeed, most of the time they are a hindrance. Frankly, I do not expect the Episcopal Church as a denominational entity to have much of a clue what the Great Commission is all about.

The place where the Great Commission hits the ground is in congregations. God didn't call us to be dioceses or denominations, but to be local fellowships of Christian people called together by the Lord to go out into our Jerusalems, our Judeas, our Samarias, and then onward to the ends of the earth, proclaiming by word and action the Good News that is recorded for our guidance and edification in Scripture. When it comes down to it the local church is the basic unit of mission.

I had hoped a few years ago that ECUSA might be giving itself a chance to at least change the climate in the church regarding mission and evangelism, but it has rejected that course and instead has bought into the values and priorities of a fallen culture, and is thereby missing the point. I suppose in some ways this makes it less a church than a mission field into which some of us have been sent to proclaim the Good News that the Jesus who is Lord died in our stead upon the Cross that we might witness to the fulness of life that is ours through his love.

1 comment:

Rick Arllen said...

So the MDGs are a great idea that are worth exactly a 0.7% level of financial commitment? Get real! 0.7% is hardly a statement. Certainly not close to being a commitment. Puleeeeeeze!

But this is TEC we are talking about. I guess it is about right, after all.