Doing mission locally: an imperative for discipleship in the 2020s

In many Congregations around the country—in rural towns, in city suburbs, in regional centres, in inner city areas—members of the church are also members of local community groups. In many cases these relationships have a long history; it has always been seen to be important for people of faith to be active in their local communities, engaging alongside people of other faiths or no faith with those community groups—CWA, service groups like Lions and Rotary, Masonic groups, climate groups, organisations to feed the homeless or the lonely, refugee justice groups, craft groups, hobby groups, playgroups, and so many more.

In many cases, however, there is no clear understanding of how these relationships can provide a base for deepening the discipleship of these people and extending the mission of their local Congregation. The missional understanding or commitment within such Congregations was often shaped by an ethos of a past era in which the local church was the de facto “community hub”; and perhaps with a sense that mission is really about inviting people to “come and be with us”. Open the door, advertise the event, and folks will come; that was certainly the experience of a (now, rather distant) past.

Today, by contrast, there has been a significant development in our understanding of mission—that it is more, now, about “go and be with others” rather than “come and join us”. Mission, after all, is about “being sent”, rather than about “bringing in”. Indeed, the very word missio comes from a Latin word which means “sent”.

In my Presbytery, the Canberra Region Presbytery, there has been a year-long process of developing a mission plan for the next few years. It has been driven by my colleague, Andrew Smith, who has offered the following insightful reflection on how mission might be understood and expressed in such contexts, in ways that give expression to the developing understanding of mission that has been underway for some time now. He writes:

From “come and join us” to “go and be with others”

The references to a change from “come and join us” to “go and be with others” aim to describe a shift in mission focus for the church over time. Previously church mission could largely rely on a “come and join us” approach. This was a time when churches were highly respected and were at the centre of the wider community life, and being a good citizen entailed church attendance. That era was some of the heydays for the church when the church could expect people would come and join us. All we really needed to do was put on a church service, and people would come. The patterns of conventional church life (with its worship styles and times and models of discipleship) were well accepted, and people willingly obliged.

However, with changes in society, the church no longer enjoys the respect it once had, and people are less likely to be interested in making the changes needed for them to assimilate into the patterns of conventional church life. This means that the “come and join us” approach to mission no longer serves us as well as it once did for calling and forming disciples.

Now, our approach to mission needs to be more along the lines of “go and be with others”. We can no longer expect the wider community to come to us and assimilate into conventional church life to become and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. Rather, the church needs to change to accommodate to the wider society to find fresh ways of calling people to discipleship. We need to be accommodating. We need to “go and be with others” to build trusting relationships on their turf and on their terms, and look for how the Holy Spirit is working in their lives, and respond appropriately to create fresh pathways aligning with the Spirit’s work toward discipleship.

Example from playgroups

Perhaps an example, growing out of the life of the congregations, might be helpful to illustrate the above intended meaning of mission being more, now, about “go and be with others” rather than “come and join us”.

Playgroups are often very well received acts of loving service by congregations, and a lovely and much appreciated community grows among the families who attend. However, it is not unusual for some individuals in congregations with playgroups to view their playgroup as a something like a funnel that would channel playgroup families to the church’s existing Sunday morning worship service. Such an attitude fits neatly with the “come and join us” approach to mission where the families are expected to assimilate into the patterns of conventional church for their growth as disciples.

However, “a go and be with others” approach to mission would take a very different journey with the families. A congregation with a playgroup has already listened to the needs of the young families in the wider community and has sought to be accommodating by setting up and running the playgroup. This is an act of loving service in which folk from the church are with folk from the wider community, and it is part of the mission of God. We hope and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of the families, and we are aware of folk from the congregation praying for the families along these lines. A next key step in discerning the work of the Spirit could be to tell the families that folk from the congregation do indeed pray for them, and to ask the families for any matters that they would like the church folk to include in their prayers.

Such an initiative around prayer is likely to be well received as generally people do not find an offer of prayer to be confronting, rather they find it comforting. Such praying will also build the community among the group as people share what is important to be prayed about, and will also offer some clues about how God is working in their lives.

This is a fresh pathway into discipleship. It may even be that down the track one or two of the parents or grandparents find themselves drawn by the Spirit even more toward the God of this prayer, and may give off signs of seeking more about faith. Then one of the church folk involved in the play group might be able to meet up with them in a local café at a time that suits them to hear and respond to what they are seeking. If others have a similar interest, perhaps a small group could form.

Who knows where all this might lead, but one of the important points is that it is all based around being accommodating to the parents or grandparents – going and being with them on their terms, rather than them being required to come and join us by assimilating into the patterns of conventional church.

Presbytery Mission Plan

The account in Scripture of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 is inspirational in this approach to mission. Read the passage to see how much is on the turf and terms, and at the initiative, of the Eunuch – Philip comes to the chariot where the Eunuch is; Philip gets into the chariot and sits beside the Eunuch at his invitation; Philip starts with the passage that the Eunuch is reading; Philip responds to Eunuch’s request for baptism. Notice as well how the angel of the Lord and the Spirit are at work.

The draft Presbytery Mission Plan gives expression to this approach to mission. It affirms:

  1. God is always present, preparing the way and calling us into mission
  2. God is doing new things in us and through us in unexpected, surprising, and amazing ways
  3. God is calling us outward to be present and engaged in our communities.
  4. God’s faithfulness leads us to share and grow our faith, calling and forming new disciples.

Perhaps the example above about playgroups could be the beginning of discerning and creating a new community of faith that fits with some of the playgroup families.

It is this fullness of God’s mission, and this approach to mission, that we are called to explore and implement.