Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Mission of the Church
distributed 7/26/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Carla Valentine Pryne of Seattle, Washington.. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

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.

  • "Therefore, the church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. If it does not engage in mission, it ceases to be church." (57) "Starting with God's mission leads to an ecclesiological approach 'from below'. In this perspective it is not the church that has a mission but rather the mission that has a church. Mission is not a project of expanding churches but of the church embodying God's salvation in this world." (58)

  • "We affirm that the mission of God's Spirit is to renew the whole creation. ... Humanity is not the master of the earth but is responsible to care for the integrity of creation. Excessive greed and unlimited consumption which lead to continuous destruction of nature must end. God's love does not proclaim a human salvation separate from the renewal of the whole creation. We are called to participate in God's mission beyond our human-centred goals. God's mission is to all life and we have to both acknowledge it and serve it in new ways of mission. We pray for repentance and forgiveness, but we also call for action now. Mission has creation at its heart." (105)

  • "Jesus calls us out of the narrow concerns of our own kingdom, our own liberation and our own independence (Acts 1:6) by unveiling to us a larger vision and empowering us by the Holy Spirit to go 'to the ends of the earth' as witnesses in each context of time and space to God's justice, freedom and peace. Our calling is to point all to Jesus, rather than to ourselves or our institutions, looking out for the interests of others rather than our own (cf. Philippians 2:3-4)." (100)

  • "Liturgy in the sanctuary only has full integrity when we live out God's mission in our communities in our daily life. Local congregations are therefore impelled to step out of their comfort zones and cross boundaries for the sake of the mission of God." (74)

  • "We tend to understand and practice mission as something done by humanity to others. Instead, humans can participate in communion with all of creation in celebrating the work of the Creator. In many ways creation is in mission to humanity, for instance the natural world has a power that can heal the human heart and body." (22)

  • "We understand that our participation in mission, our existence in creation and our practice of the life of the Spirit are woven together for they are mutually transformative. Mission that begins with creation invites us to celebrate life in all its dimensions as God's gift." (104)

  • "Mission spirituality is always transformative. Mission spirituality resists and seeks to transform all life-destroying values and systems wherever these are at work in our economies, our politics, and even our churches." (30)

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.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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