The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
The Mission of the Church
Caring for creation and seeking justice are not add-ons or optional program emphases for churches. They can, and must, be integrated into the core of our mission and ministry. That theological conviction shapes the work of Eco-Justice Ministries.
To help make that case today, I draw on a wonderful (and true!) story, and look to an important and challenging new ecumenical resource.
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The story is one told by Rev. Jim Ryan, who recently retired as the executive of the Colorado Council of Churches -- and who served as the chair of the board of Eco-Justice Ministries for our first six years.
Jim had been invited to be a special observer at a local church that was working through an extensive planning process. He sat through a day-long church retreat where church members spoke passionately about their hopes for the beloved church, where they evaluated existing programs, wrestled with the budget, and negotiated several proposals.
As the day came to a close, the church leaders presented the six things that had come through the day's process as top priorities for the next several years. There were new building projects, revitalized fellowship groups, ambitious stewardship goals, and clarity about how outside groups might use the building. They were all very pleased with the way the congregation had negotiated hard choices, and had come to strong agreements.
Then they said, "Dr. Ryan, you have been here with us all day, observing and taking notes as we've done this important planning. What do you have to say to us?"
Jim stood in front of the sheets of newsprint, and complimented them on their dedication and hard work, and their obvious love of the institution. He did, though, have one important word for them. "Make sure you leave some money in the budget for changing the sign out front."
"Change the sign?", asked the Moderator. "Why? What is wrong with it?"
"Well," Jim replied, "the sign says that this is a church, and there is nothing in all of your plans that has anything to do with being a church of Jesus Christ."
Someday, I'm going to have to ask Jim what happened after he dropped that bombshell. But his point in telling the story is probably reflected in a sentence from his book, Doing Justice in a Purple Congregation. "If we allow ourselves to believe that the primary purpose of the Church is to meet our needs, then we must, at all cost, protect the institution so that it will be available to meet our needs."
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I thought of Jim's story as I read through a marvelous document that will be discussed at next fall's assembly of the World Council of Churches. In contrast to the congregation that Jim visited, the WCC paper is a deeply theological affirmation of Christian mission and evangelism which is designed to guide the work of the World Council in coming decades -- and to make absolutely sure that the Council's work is rooted in a Christian faith that is both biblical and profoundly relevant.
I highly recommend Together Toward Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes as a study document for those who want to think carefully about what it means "to be the church" in today's world. As it asks in the opening paragraph, "How and where do we discern God's life-giving work that enables us to participate in God's mission today?" (Maybe that should have been the question that guided the church Jim visited!)
Together Toward Life is both exciting and refreshing because it speaks from the WCC's great ecumenical and geographic diversity, its long-standing understanding of justice as an essential component of God's shalom, and the way it brings the whole creation into the heart of theology and mission. It is not light reading, and its carefully developed affirmations will be stimulating for either personal study or group discussion.
Read through these few selections from Together Toward Life. (The numbers refer to the paragraph numbers that make it easy to navigate the 19 page document.) Think about how these affirmations speak of a kind of mission that was incomprehensible to the church Jim visited, and think about how these words might challenge and inform your own theology, that of your congregation and your denomination.
This new document from the World Council of Churches speaks a prophetic word to all of us about what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ in this time. It challenges us with descriptions of mission, worship and evangelism that are guided by God's purposes, that honor all creation, and that mandate work for justice and peace. This is a marvelous statement from the global ecumenical church.
If our churches do their planning for mission and ministry using statements like this as a foundation, then we will be sure that caring for creation and seeking justice will be woven into the very heart and soul of our identity. I urge you to read and study Together Toward Life, and to bring its wisdom and insights into your faith and the ministry of your church.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org