Note: Pastor Shaun just returned from lecturing at Union School of Theology in the U.K. for a course called, "Church and Mission in the Contemporary World." One of the things discussed in the course was the need for the Western church be on mission right where it is.
Mission “Over there”
I will never forget when I was presented with an opportunity to be part of world missions for the first time. I was 16 and had attended a Christian worship event with my church’s youth group. At one point during the event there was a multimedia presentation of unreached people groups in faraway places like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Then came the Great Commission text from Matthew 28:18-20 on the screen and the challenge to consider “going” on mission. I was intrigued and I distinctly remember saying in my heart, “That is what I want to do.”
That evening when I returned home, I told my mother all about what happened and that I had decided to be a missionary! My mother listened, but did not take me very seriously. She reminded me that there was plenty of missionary work to do at home, and that I should stay on track with my education and athletic goals and serve God where I was. In telling me to reach people “at home,” my mother was likely simply hoping to keep her son safe. But as I would later learn, she was more biblical than she had perhaps realized.
Mission Next door
In the view of mission that most of us hold in the West, to “go on mission” means to leave the West to the non-Western world. While this certainly might be the call of some, it is incomplete.
The call to go is for us all.
One reason it is incomplete is because it might assume that the West is not a mission field. While certainly the West has never been anything but a mission field, rapid secularization has begun to open the Western church’s eyes to our own society to this fact.
In other words, the mission field is no longer over there; the mission field is next door.
This is accomplished, first and foremost, through the proclamation of the gospel as a church and as individuals. While this is essential, we must also realize that mission includes more than just evangelism.
Lesslie Newbigin (1909 – 1998) was a British-born clergyman who left his home in England to be a missionary in India where he laboured for nearly 40 years. When he returned home, he realised that while there were still many churches and Christians, the church was no longer engaging missionally with the culture around it. It was only a matter of time before it faded into irrelevance.
Newbigin issued an urgent plea to the Western church to adopt a missional posture to its own society. Newbigin’s plea was not simply utilitarian strategy for growth of the church. Rather, he understood the church to be missional or sent, by its very nature, because God is a missional, sent, God:
For Newbigin, mission is not one activity of the church among many, or even its primary activity. Mission is essential for the church to be church; it is part of its identiy. The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner sums this up well:
One of Newbigin's most important works on calling for mission engagement in the West is The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989). Here he diagnoses the problem of the Western church as having allowed division between public truth and private faith, a result of the Enlightenment celebrating the sufficiency of scientific explanations to explain life. Consequently, only those things which could be proved scientifically, based on empirical facts, could be proclaims as public truth. Public spheres of society like politics, education, science, are rendered off-limits for Christian perspectives. The place to talk about the Gospel is purely a private matter. The results of this have been devastating.
So Newbigin called on the church to commend revelation, the basis for our Christian faith, as public truth. Christian faith and submission to Jesus as our King and his Word as our authority, he claimed, should shape our involvement and voice in the world. To be clear, Newbigin is not calling for a totally Christian society, a theocracy, or return to Christendom. Rather he is saying that the Gospel has something to say about education, politics, economics, environmental issues and so on, and that we cannot relegate Christian truth to the private sphere.
The Call to Go in Finland
Finland is often referred to as a Christian country. But we need to remember that this is a sociological distinction and not a biblical one. There is no earthly culture that is “Christian” or even neutral toward Jesus (Matthew 28:18). In fact, the Bible teaches that our default state is to oppose Jesus (John 15:18-21). This means as a church our work is cut out for us!
We are called to be on mission right here in Finland to our neighbors, colleagues, friends and families. We are on a mission to reach the lost, recognizing that most people in Finland do not have saving relationships with Christ.
We are also on mission in all spheres of society, bringing the truths of the Gospel to bear on all that we do: as teachers, as parents, as social workers, as politicians, as engineers, and everything else. As our vision statement says, we are "a community united in Christ on mission into all creation."