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God's Mission and Ours in the 21st century

The ICS lecture, Guard Room, Lambeth Palace

Tuesday 9th June 2009

An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury to a meeting of the Intercontinental Church Society at Lambeth Palace.

The Archbishop is Vice-Patron of the Intercontinental Church Society (ICS).  ICS is an international Church of England mission agency which seeks to make known the Christ of the Scriptures to people of any nationality who speak English. It does this by

ICS was founded in 1823 and has worked in most parts of the world looking after the spiritual and practical needs of people from countless nationalities, backgrounds and economic circumstances. From the 1830's onwards ICS began planting churches in mainland Europe and now its work is mainly focussed on mainland Europe, and places in and around the Mediterranean. ICS also works in the South Atlantic and South America. In the Church of England's Diocese in Europe alone ICS is responsible for recommending for appointments in over thirty of its chaplaincies (the Church of England's term for a church or parish overseas).

The Archbishop gave the 2009 ICS London Lecture on Mission to members and supporters of ICS at Lambeth Palace, following the Society's Annual General Meeting.

Read a transcript of the lecture below, or click download on the right to listen [41Mb]

God's Mission and Ours in the 21st century

ICS lecture, Lambeth Palace, London

When we think about mission, I suspect that among the many questions that arise in our minds, these five will recur quite often: Where do we start? What do we say? What do we do? Why are we doing it? How do we plan it? And what I want to suggest to you in the first part of my remarks this afternoon, is that Christ himself in Matthew 10 addresses those questions very directly and very clearly. And so I'll begin by sharing some thoughts on that passage to suggest ways in which Christ shapes our sense of mission with the mission he gives to his disciples within his own lifetime on earth. But we need to recognize of course, that what he says to his disciples in his life on earth is not the whole story, and we would have to turn forward to Matthew 28 and the great commission to see that filled out further so that in the last of part of my lecture I'll be referring to Matthew 28.


Matthew 10: initial lessons

Here are the first few verses (1 – 10) of that chapter.

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus send out with the following instructions: 'Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You have received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food'.

I want to suggest that these words answer the questions with which I began. First – where do we start? 'Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. In other words it seems that Jesus is saying, 'Start where God has started'. Israel is historically God's people. The history of Israel is the preparation of the ground for this new mission, which is Christ's. So feel your way for what God has been doing; sense how he has been working and then you will be able to proclaim what is new. In your mission, discover what God has done and the doors that God has actually opened.

It's of course a salutary reminder of the very general principle that mission is never a matter of taking God where he hasn't been before, and introducing him to a lot of kind strangers. In every act of mission, God is there ahead of us. But by saying, 'Go first to the lost sheep of Israel,' Jesus is telling us that we need always to be alert to that prior history. We need to be reminded that mission is God's before it is ours. And in relation to our title this afternoon that seems to be of central importance.

So as we engage in mission, communicating the good news – the really new message of Jesus Christ and who he is and what he's done – we will always be attending to the pattern of God's presence and action, already there. It may take a lot of discerning and may not be at all obvious to start with. And yet there it is: we wouldn't be there if a door had not been opened. And of course that has as an implication the rather sobering other side of the coin, which is that Jesus seems to be saying there, 'Don't waste energy trying to re-invent wheels, or go where there is no ground to sow upon,' rather as Acts 16 seems to hint:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. (Acts 16.6-7)

And as I read that rather puzzling passage, I have a sense that the Holy Spirit is saying to Paul and his companions, don't waste your energy where God at this moment is not opening a door. Keep your eyes and ears open for the door God is opening; the place where God has already in some way turned over the soil. Where do we start? Where God has started. How do we start? By listening, looking, discerning for the way in which God has turned over the soil for us.

And that of course connects straight away to the second question and the second answer – what do we say? 'As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' What do we say in our mission? How do we communicate the newness of the new creation in Jesus Christ? Perhaps one of the first things we should say on the basis of all this, is God is nearer than we think. God is on the way to you before you have begun to be on the way to God. Mission is not about introducing a distant and rather shy God to people that he's never met before. It's much more a question of saying to people that God is more interested in you than you are in God. And the good news is that if you show signs of interest of response, trust and love, then that interest turns into profound intimacy and relationship. God is nearer than you think. God is already on the way. So that what we say about God in mission is actually very closely connected with the question of where and how do we start? We start recognizing God who is there before us, and we say to the people with whom we're speaking, 'God is already at work in you and the challenge is for you to recognize this and give your heart and your will to cooperating with what God wants to do with and in you. Our assumption must always be that God has started.

I always think, in that respect, of the wonderful verse in George Herbert's poem, Easter:

I got me flowers to straw thy way,

I got me flowers off many a tree;

But thou was up by break of day,

And brought'st thy sweets along with thee.

Before anybody gets to the empty tomb, God is already up 'by break of day'. And so he is in all our mission endeavours.

What are we doing? is the third question. Once again let's turn to what Christ says: 'Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.' (Matthew 10.8) It's a rather tall order even for mission societies like the ICS to meet all those requirements straight away. But it seems that the fundamental point once again, in answer to the question what are we doing? is changing - changing and releasing. Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity. But whether we're talking about the individual or corporate, we are talking about change and a change in the life that you see around. What are we doing? We are bringing Christ-shaped change into the situation.

And I put it that way so that we can remind ourselves that the change we speak of, where mission is concerned, is not simply or primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs. First of all, it's a change in the whole environment, a change in the world you live in. Not for nothing does St Paul speak of new creation. Not new things going on inside your head; not new concepts but a new world, a world whose newness is shown in that manifest release that's going on in the lives of people and communities. Where do we start? Where God has started. What do we say? God is nearer that you think. What do we do? We seek to bring Christ-shaped change.

And, fourth, why do we do it? 'Freely you have received, freely give': that, surely must be the hymn to all our thinking about mission. Gratitude is why we do it, because we can't help it. Why are we seeking to share the good news of Jesus Christ? It is because we have received without payment an inestimable gift, which will not stay still in our hands.

I've sometimes used the metaphor (which I hope doesn't seem too irreverent) that the gospel placed in our hands is like a small, highly active animal: it won't sit still, it'll leap out of our hands to go somewhere else. As soon as we've received it, off it goes, it has (as we say) a life of its own. We receive a gospel that will not just settle down in us in inaction as something that we can possess and put away in a bottom drawer. We receive a gospel that makes us active, and pushes us out, and leaps out of our hands into the lives of others. And we sometimes need to reflect on the 'restlessness' of the gospel, as if the gospel is never content just to settle down and make a home here without wanting to make a home there as well, which is of course why we're all here. The New Testament is the story of a restless gospel that constantly leaps over barriers and frontiers that we might be much more comfortable leaving in place. The Acts of the Apostles is a story of that constant frontier leap of the gospel. 'Freely you have received: freely, give.' That's why we do it because our gratitude for the free gift means we can't keep it to ourselves, and the old adage that the Church exists in mission as a fire exists in burning, is just one way of saying the same thing.

And then of course we come to one of the most challenging bits of the whole picture (the fifth question), How do we plan it? 'Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food'. (Matthew 10.9-10) The words of Jesus clearly imply that initiative comes first and resource comes later. Anybody involved in planning mission activity has a real challenge in these words. Put a slightly different way, we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be lead by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – 'For the labourers deserve their food'.

Mission travels light. Mission is probably not best advanced by the spectacle of someone embarking on it encumbered with a massive weight of cultural or financial baggage. Some of you may know that wonderful comic novel by Evelyn Waugh, Scoop. It's about a journalist who is, quite by mistake sent to cover a civil war in Africa. One of the finest passages is the two pages that describe how young William Boot assembles all the things he thinks he's going to need in Africa. They include any number of pith helmets and waterproof chests and cleft sticks for carrying messages, and sure enough it's impossible for him to get it on the plane. Evelyn Waugh is an unlikely place to turn for advice on mission and yet, that image is worth pondering.

Jesus, again and again, emphatically says to his friends in the gospels, travel light, you may find yourselves going into a new situation so encumbered with what you think you need, that you are unable to perceive and respond to what the people in front of you need. And it would be a brave person (wouldn't it?) who tried to deny that in the history of the Church - indeed in the history of our church that mission has more than once been held back by people coming along in the spirit of William Boot. So, resource follows initiative; initiative is finding where the doors are open, where the needs are, and God is turning over the soil and that's where we'll set our faces. We try and allow that situation to shape our sense of what we need to bring, and how we resource it. Needless to say, it's not a recipe for doing no planning and trusting in the providence of God. That's the other big mistake. Just wandering aimlessly into the field and saying here I am: over to you, may be a mark of great spiritual courage, but is not necessarily very sensible in the light of the New Testament, which encourages us to be prudent and thoughtful, to count the cost, to know where we're going and why. But all that being said, travelling light is absolutely essential.

So in these short verses in Matthew 10 we do seem to have some rather clear directions about where mission starts, and how and why it takes the shape that it does. It starts where God starts. It says, 'God is nearer than you think'. It realizes Christ-shaped change. It arises afresh, day by day, out of gratitude, the restlessness of God's love. And it requires that we take the initiative and then look for the resource. We step out in trust that God seems to be opening the door.


Matthew 28 and a global perspective

All that is part of what our Lord spells out for his disciples as he sends them out on their initial mission tour of his own people and his own context, but it is only the beginning of the biblical picture of mission that the gospels put before us. And that's why I want to turn now to Matthew 28 to fill out the picture with just a few more considerations which may help to put what we've already said into a larger perspective of global mission, and more specifically the global mission of the crucified and risen Christ.

And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28.18 – end)

Mission has begun; the apostles have received their charge. And now in the light of the glorious, and terrifying and world-changing events of the first Easter, that a broad picture of the five points I started with, begins to be fleshed out in different ways at greater depth I'd like to draw out a few points from those short verses which may help us direct our thinking around mission.

The first has to do with the brief, plain word, go. Don't wait for them to come; don't wait for people to arrive; travel, look for opportunity. It's another way of spelling out those first two points from Matthew 10: look for where God has started, tell people God is already active, but go. Mission is certainly not just the exercise of a kind of hyperactive communications strategy. But neither is it simply sitting, and hoping somebody might notice. God himself, in his mission with us, goes from heaven to earth, comes where we are and discovers who we are and what we need. 'What do you want me to do for you?' says Jesus again and again in the gospels. He has come to ask that question, what's your need? what is the gap, the emptiness in your existence that only the living word can supply? So go, ask those questions; go and discover; travel and look for those openings, look for God's open door as people open up to you. Go and make disciples of all nations.

Making disciples is a matter of shaping people who are willing to go on learning from God. Interestingly, Jesus doesn't seem to talk about making members, recruiting people to sign up: he wants disciples. He wants members of his body, not members of an organization. And the members of the body are those who share in the action of the body - a disciple is a learner, somebody who puts themselves to school under God and God's Messiah. So go and make learners; encourage people to embark on the journey of discovering what the gift of God is.

In mission when people see the new creation, the transformed reality that is set before them, they will need time to learn what it's about. Don't look for short cuts. Draw people in to the newness and mystery and excitement, and then let them know that it's a lifetime's work to find your way into it. Take the time that is needed for people to learn and to grow to be disciples. Of course Christ asks from his disciples service, obedience, sacrifice, but all the time Christ asks us to continue learning, day by day taking up the cross, walking this path and discovering as we go.

This is perhaps connected with the third thing here. 'Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.' Something that has struck me more and more recently, is how in the gospels Jesus draws the disciples into his circle and activity without necessarily explaining to them ahead of time all that it's going to imply, and when some of them realize what it's going to imply, they don't want to be there at all. (see John 6) But there is a dimension of mission that is trying to draw people in and immerse them in the mystery and the joy of newness, before you do all the topping and tailing of what they think they believe. Orthodox belief in its full sense doesn't come before, but in the light of, the new life. And sometimes it's necessary to give people time to grow into the full dimension of that.

Another of the mistakes we sometimes make in mission and evangelism is to present our faith as if it were first a set of requirements, whereas sometimes (as in Acts) we need to respond to people's willingness to learn. And what always delights me in a situation like this is when somebody says, I'm not sure whether I can understand or say that yet, but I want to be somewhere where I can begin to understand it better. In response I'm very happy to say that we'll take the time it needs and I hope and pray that in due course all will be clear; but meanwhile, be in the life of Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit so that you can see what the new world is like.

Belief, creed, doctrine are vastly important and indispensible but they are the deposit of the awareness of the new creation rather than the conditions of entry. This is why I said earlier that the Christ-shaped change that mission brings is something rather different from just a set of new beliefs. Truly new belief is a matter of understanding the reality that the creeds speak about that arises and is molded by the Christ-shaped change. So mission requires a great deal of patience and a degree of awareness that people will move and discover at a different rate. And that immersion in that new creation, and being part of something before you've quite found the words or the ideas, is a reminder that the life of the Church - crystallized in the sacraments of baptism and the Holy Communion - is a life in which we are required constantly to return to doing things together, not just thinking the same thoughts, but being fed at the same table and understanding ourselves to be swimming in the same water.


Practical reflections

I'd like to suggest briefly what some of the practical implications are of all of this. Some I have already implied quite strongly, but just let's just spell them out a little bit further.

The very first point from Matthew 10 is the implication that good mission needs informed local research, by which I mean real willingness to understand the particular situation in its fullness. And a good mission organization is always one that is equipped for, and engaged in, doing that testing of the waters, that looking and listening in different contexts.

One of the impressive things about the history of this Society has been that its antennae have always been very acute. It's looked for new opportunity and tested, explored and settled. Certainly what I was saying about resource and initiative has some sobering implications about flexible patterns of funding. One of the things that is very difficult (not only in the life of the Church of England but other churches too) is that resource is not quite where we need it at this particular moment. A good and healthy mission organization has the capacity to move resources around with a degree of imagination and freedom.

When a few years ago we launched the Fresh Expressions initiative in the Church of England, one of the guiding principles of that initiative was that the funding should be flexible, that the structures should be light, that we would commit ourselves to finding where the need was and let the funding follow it. Five years and two million pounds on, we've discovered that doing this through channels other than the official Church of England, was the right thing to do, so that we kept a degree of ability to go (as it were) without too many spare tunics or odd pairs of sandals! We needed to be travelling light, discovering that process. We're now moving into Phase 2 of the Fresh Expressions cycle and I think that God has blessed the Church richly in the last four or five years through Phase 1, and I look to great things in the future. It does seem to me that the work of Fresh Expressions and the ICS are very close together and need more convergence and synergy in the years ahead.

We need a long-term view. Mission always requires an almost superhuman level of patience. When I look at the history of Christian mission, I find that the stories that move me most are not always the ones of rapid and widespread success, but the stories of those who, through a whole generation of apparent frustration have stayed with the particular situation, confident that God really is opening a door even if you can't yet see it. There are many such stories. There are sad stories too, of successes that have proved short-lived where the enemies of the gospel have more or less extinguished what seemed to be great early promise.

The long view is the most important, but because we live in a culture that is not at all in love with long views and likes short-term solutions whether in religion or politics, the Christian committed to patience is a very counter-cultural person and all the more important because of it. But even in local and prosaic settings, how very tempting it is to say that we want our results now, before the end of the year. We have justify what we're doing in the shortest of short terms and that is a curse for churches, universities, charities, community regeneration projects, all sort of things in our society. And we need deep breaths and long views again.

And the last practical implication – which may not immediately seem so relevant to mission but which I believe is deeply relevant – is a solid, three-dimensional liturgical life. That is, we need to find ourselves in a Church that has a deep rhythm of teaching and symbolizing of our faith. I don't mean elaborate ceremonial and I don't mean complicated externals. I mean a nourishing diet of sacramental worship with baptism and the Lord's Supper at the heart of it, taking us again and again through the Christian year in ways that make the rhythm of the life of Christ second nature to us. Because that's how the new creation is fleshed out in the life of the Church. And that's what we're asking people ultimately to become part of. It certainly doesn't mean that when you're engaged in mission or evangelism, the first thing you do with people is present them with the annual lectionary! But I do mean that in the long term, what we hope will happen in mission is that people come into that flow of Christ's love that the Christian year and Christian worship represents. Each year Christians go through the story of waiting and expectation and fulfillment of Christmas, of baptism, temptation, passion and resurrection, ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and the great climax, the celebration of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we've just experienced on Trinity Sunday. And that annual rhythm, that taking time and going through the story, is so important in anchoring us to something other than what we happen to be thinking or feeling on any one day. None of what I've said is going to have its full effect on us unless we are aware of the need for our worship and community life as Christians to have that depth and solidity, that three-dimensional quality to it.

In conclusion, God's mission and ours in the century to come is exactly what it's always been. There's absolutely nothing new to say here because it's already been said in scripture. God's mission first. We are here because God has moved towards us, into our midst, and drawn us into his own movement of love, drawn us back to him through Christ praying in him by the power of the Spirit. That's God's mission and all that we ever do is to reflect its movement, and be carried along in the slipstream of God's movement into the world, gathering the world back to himself. God's mission and ours: because God gives us the responsibility of witnessing to his own journey into the depths of the world and back to heaven, of telling that story and making that life available. We start where he has started and witness to the fact that he is there already however early we get up. We witness in gratitude and we seek the transformation and we struggle to let our policies reflect the radical challenge that comes with all that. But perhaps the simplest and most central thing in all this, is the expression which Jesus uses in Matthew 10.8, and which surely has to be the rationale for all we do in mission and in every other area of our discipleship, 'Freely you have received; freely give'.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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