On the Church and Mission

The Autumn season is upon us with its crisp evening air, changing leaves, and ramping up of church and school programs.  On the latter I have been thinking a fair amount recently as it pertains to the nature of the church and how I talk about the church in my classes.  Missiologists like myself like to quote (perhaps too uncritically) Emil Brunner’s famous phrase, “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.”  Somewhat less frequently quoted is Ivan Illich’s remark that missiology is the “study of the church as surprise.”  I like these quotations.  I use them frequently in my classes.  While one should always be wary of building theology upon “soundbites,” quotations such as these are good reminders for a people (myself included) who get too attached to programmatic thinking and institutional maintenance such that we lose sight of God’s larger mission in the world.

I wonder, however, if the words of Lesslie Newbigin in an often overlooked book, The Household of God (1953), are equally necessary in an age where it is so very easy to be flippant or even derogatory toward the church as an embodied institution.  I wonder how my remarks about the church are received by my students.  I wonder if my use of the Brunner and Illich quotations mentioned above unintentionally reinforces an unhealthy anti-institutionalism or an attitude whereby the church is merely instrumental to a wider, more glorious end.  Newbigin writes,

This life in Christ [which the church seeks to embody] is not merely the instrument of the apostolic mission, it is also its end and purpose.  The Church can be instrumental to the divine purpose of salvation only because she is much more than instrumental – because she is in fact herself the Body of Christ.  In other words, just as we must insist that a Church which has ceased to be a mission has lost the essential character of a Church, so we must also say that a mission which is not at the same time truly a Church is not a true expression of the divine apostolate.  An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary Church.

It may be that Newbigin put too fine a point on things in his effort to keep a vibrant tension in his thinking about the Church and mission.  In my classes I will continue to stress the dynamic images of the church as fire or the church as surprise as exemplified by Brunner and Illich.  But Newbigin’s ecclesiological and missiological insight remains an important articulation of a valuable tension in Christian theology.

Maybe the reason I am drawn to Newbigin’s ideas here is also the reason why I especially like the moment in the Lord’s Supper liturgy when we say together as the Church, “We give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.  Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others…”  Our life in Christ is powerfully made manifest in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and our call to mission is there as well – through the flaming fires of Pentecost and in the “surprise” of the Incarnation.

About Ben Hartley

Since 2021, I have served as the Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Seattle Pacific University. I have served in similar roles at George Fox University (2016-2020) and at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University (2005-2016). I am an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church.
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