For years, church growth was a great concern in church circles. I was never interested in adding my voice to that talk. I wasn’t sure what it meant. I’m still not sure. These days we hear a lot about mission and the missional church. I have a better idea about what these words mean, but I’m aware that they’re easily misunderstood.
When the words growth and mission are considered together they conjure thoughts of adding members to the rolls of the church. That seems like a good thing. The idea of it usually makes church leaders (lay and ordained) happy. But I have to admit, none of that gets me very excited.
What does get me excited?
Mostly this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . .” (John 1:14).
That is, in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, God became one of us—a flesh and blood human being—in order to live with us. He did so because he was on a mission. His mission was and is (to paraphrase the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer) to restore all of creation to unity with God and each other. That gets me going in the morning and it keeps me going. And there’s more.
For the Church, which is Christ’s Body, Christ’s mission is also our mission, which means that we, the baptized, are called, empowered, and given the great privilege of working with Christ in the reconciliation of all of creation. How cool is that?
But this truth raises a lot of important questions, like: What is Christ up to in the world right here and right now? How do we find out? How to we join him in that reconciling work?
A priest friend of mine once said: “Find out where you’re not supposed to go, that place that’s off limits, that place that everyone tells you to avoid,” she said. “Find that place and go there. Because that’s where Jesus is.”
Jesus himself said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Jesus identifies himself with the people that our society seems too willing to throw away.
Jesus also says that where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them. So Jesus also promises to be present in gatherings, in community.
So, the Church goes into the world because Christ went into the world. And the Church seeks out those the rest of the world doesn’t care about because when we find them we will find Christ. And the Church seeks out ways of being community because Christ has promised to show up when we do.
And when we encounter Christ out there, we begin to have an idea about what he’s up to. We begin to get a sense of what Jesus’ mission looks like in this time and in this place through encounter, relationship, and community.
We find Christ among people, and we find him most present among those he described as the least of these (which may mean those who are poor, or those who are hated, or those the world or the Church have simply forgotten). And we find that for us joining that mission means coming alongside them and building relationships with them.
So if we think about church ministries, such as Christ Church Cathedral’s 5000 Club food ministry or its Cathedral Cafe outreach or its Shifrah service of contemplation in Cincinnati, we’re probably missing the most vital aspect of what we are doing. And I think this is where the “growth” in the “growth and mission” comes in.
Christians grow in Christ by encountering Christ, by deepening their relationship with Christ, by entering into deep communion with Christ. The point of these ministries isn’t about taking Christ to other people. The point isn’t about Christ in us. It’s about Christ in them.
In mission-oriented ministries, we get closer to Christ. If we take Christ at his word, this isn’t metaphorical. It’s literal. In other words, ministries aren’t about what we are giving to others. Nor are they about that shallow cliché that says how we gain more out of our service than we give.
Mission-oriented ministries make possible our growth in Christ because they offer us a life of encounter, relationship, and communion with him.
That’s growth and mission to get excited about.