Mission or Community Ministry?

I spent the morning yesterday at a theological symposium organised by the Cinnamon Network – thinking about the theology that undergirds our mission activity. In discussing some of the presentations with a friend, I found myself advancing an argument I’ve made for several years regarding the difference between mission and community ministry.

I draw a distinction between mission and community ministry. It’s a distinction which is not always popular amongst some of my Anglican colleagues – but one that I still feel is important to make.

I’m all for community ministry – there’s all kinds of valuable projects which serve and meet the needs of various communities. If an organisation which ran, for example, art classes for adults with learning difficulties, approached me and asked if they could use space in the church for their project, I would almost certainly do whatever I could to support them. We might offer a charitable rate for the venue hire, we might clear some cupboard space for them. It would be a valuable class and a valuable service to its particular constituency.

However, in my mind it would still be very much community ministry rather than mission. This is where things can become slightly contentious – for some of my Anglican colleagues would count this amongst their mission projects, and if they were counting up the number of people they encounter in mission projects every year, they might include the number of people attending the classes. But I wouldn’t count this among the church’s mission projects.

Now, as I’ve already said, I value community ministry, and would support projects like this if I were able. So why do I not count them as mission?

For me it comes down to the questions of who is organising and delivering the project, and what the inspiration or source of vision has been for the project.

Mission is what happens when the worshipping community of faith is moved (even compelled) by God to act and serve in his name and as a witness to his compassionate mercy, grace and love.

So if a member of our congregation wanted to organise a series of cookery classes for local adults to alleviate the impact of poverty and encourage healthy living, and they were to recruit one or two volunteers form the church community to help deliver the project, because the inspiration for their action has been the love of God in Christ moving their hearts to love of neighbour, and because the volunteers are part of the baptised community of faith, this becomes an act of mission.

This doesn’t mean that the volunteers are required to greet guests with a ‘eat healthily, Jesus loves you’ smile! (Which may allay some fears!) it doesn’t even mean that the volunteers need to pray before sessions, or report to the church mission committee or equivalent.

But it does mean that those who lead and deliver the project are seeking to bear witness in their lives, their words and their actions to the hospitable love of Christ. In meeting this very real and immediate need – namely, educating people to eat more healthily and use food wisely – they project leaders are still clear that the ultimate need of every person there is to receive the grace of Christ, to come to knowledge of his saving love, and to appropriate this gift for themselves by repentance and faith.

The real and tangible need being addresses in the project is not elevated above the ultimate need to bring people into contact with Christ through relationship with his body – the church.

None of this motivation is necessarily present in community ministry – indeed, at worst, certain forms of community ministry are self-serving – in that they fulfil my need to be useful and valuable to others. They may contribute to the development of a sense of self-righteousness in me as I meet others’ needs. They may create a dependency culture if we subconsciously ‘need to be needed’.

Now to be clear – all these risks are attendant in mission work as well – ‘the heart above all things is deceitful’ says Jeremiah. We always need to be reflective and repentant and question our motivations for our works of mercy and service.

However, mission projects, being rooted in the worshipping life of the church, are more likely to be brought regularly into that pattern of repentance and transformation.

And of course, in a very mundane and practical way, the great advantage of mission projects is that when Christians build friendships and relationships with those they serve, it is far easier for them to display their hope, their peace, their joy. Their actions and attitudes may just provoke the question: ‘What’s the reason for the hope that you have?’

And of course, when that question is asked, we can say, like Philip to Nathaniel, ‘Come and see’.

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