Towards a theology of global mission: invitational community

One unexpected bonus of Christmas under lockdown has been the opportunity to think, reflect and reread some theology books. So much is changing and the pace is likely to increase next year. It’s a mark of success to be agile and to change tack as circumstances change, but it’s not enough to traverse the storm, we need to understand both the destination and which stars can help us navigate.

Over the next three posts I’m going to set out three focal points that might, if developed, provide stable foundations on which to ground a theology of mission. What follows are not well worked through arguments, but rather some pointers that at some point I’d like to work up into a more coherent theological piece.

First up: Invitational Community

Through his death Jesus created a new type of community, where the church and not just Israel become a kingdom of priests. His crucified body is the core and centre of this community. In his resurrected body he incorporates an entire community of members through their baptism – as 1 Corinthians 12 puts it,

12 just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

This body of Christ, the church, has both a universal (catholic) dimension and a local particular (congregational) dimension. It is a community where members are held together by their covenant to God and to each other. It is a community which is ordered and sustained through various practices; sacraments which through which God’s grace is mediated, ministry through which the church is helped towards maturity. The local expressions of this community reflecting different histories, contexts and cultures; giving a glimpse of that heavenly vision in Revelation of different languages, nations and ethnicities joined in worship.

And yet, this community is not closed, it is created to be open. God’s desire is that everyone responds to the invitation to join. Hence my suggestion of invitational community, rather than covenant community or other potential modifiers. The fellowship of God’s kingdom is inclusive; the ministry of Jesus shows he is more concerned with the outsider.

So where does global mission fit into this? Sure we can be part of extending that invitation to take your place in the people of God. More fundamentally we need to recognise that we are first and foremost members of this community of Christ, members of his body. We are part of local churches as well as part of the wider catholic church. Mission that is separate from the church has separated itself from the purposes of God. Perhaps the monastic traditions can help us here, which from its earliest days included not just solitude, ideas of community, but the importance of sharing the gospel: communities of believers committed to each other and to working for the Lord, being willing to give up comforts for the sake of the kingdom. Alternatively, the recognition that human existence is embodied, the love of others and the love of God are intertwined, indeed who we are as persons is constituted by our relationships and context; in the light of which the koinonia created by the Holy Spirit is both the place where we are most truly whole and the community to which people should be drawn. Mission is rooted in the church, in community and in its openness to the outsider.

Mission organisations should understand themselves primarily as communities of people called to serve together; not charities or agencies but the result of churches and members joining together to support each other to share this invitation to become part of the people of God. To the extent that para-church organisations may be needed, we should see them as being provisional and subservient to the wider church; expressions of the wider community, connecting together to best reach out to others.

We speak of believing in one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Jesus, in his John 17 prayer speaks of the essential unity of his followers, and how this is foundational to their life and witness to him. Maybe, one particular gift that global missional communities can offer is the opportunity to live out this unity; sharing people and resources across continents and cultures; enabling people in other parts of the world to share their stories with the world church so that the church global can be enriched and deepen its bonds of fellowship; learning and growing from each other.

Alongside the Scriptural examples of the people of God as a community there are the examples Jesus uses of the feast and table. Perhaps one aspect of this global table that mission communities can bring is to go out and bring in those whose voices are not being heard, those who might be left out, that the visible expressions of God’s community in our experience more closely resemble the vision that Scripture gives us.

Since the 1980’s the Anglican Church has developed and used ‘5 marks of mission’ as part of it’s thinking. In many ways these are excellent, grounded in sharing the good news of Jesus they describe something of the breadth of mission. But by themselves they are limited; for they depend on a living, vibrant church to engage in these different activities – the community of God’s people is the unspoken foundation that the marks depend on.

The aspects I’ve described above need work to create a polished argument but I hope that they demonstrate that invitational community lies at the heart of mission and is an important theological foundation for who we are in Christ, our place in his body, and how we should live today. Next time we’ll consider Missio Dei and the Resurrected Christ.

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