The Changing World of Mission in a Changing World

At the outset, I passionately affirm that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ never changes: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8). As his followers, we have been commissioned to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them… and teaching them to obey everything I (Jesus) have commanded you. And surely I am with you always’ (Matthew 28.19-20).

So the task is clear, but the methods have required adaptation over the past 2,000 years, as each local church has had to work out what it means to be Christ’s gathered and scattered ‘witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1.8). Every church should therefore be a missional congregation!

My aim here is to get us all thinking more about our responsibilities at Cambray with regard to mission and being a sending church. In 23 years as a church leader, it is evident that mission patterns have shifted dramatically from the established conventions of yesteryear. For example, at Duke Street Church in Richmond (where I started as an Assistant Pastor), during Alan Redpath’s pastorate in the 1940’s a total of 32 members of the church were called to ‘full-time missionary service’ overseas – mostly women! And their names and places of mission service were beautifully inscribed on Mission Boards in the church hall. The church there learnt how to pray and meaningfully support these overseas missionaries who went abroad to serve Christ faithfully for decades. Yet significant shifts occurred during the latter part of the 20th century which has impacted all churches. Here are eight of them:

1) Travel became easier, so instead of lengthy voyages on ships to parts of the world which necessitated extensive years before returning, air travel enabled speedy and cheaper travel. Instead of home congregations having to depend upon the infamous slide presentations, members of home churches started visiting distant places themselves, for leisure, business as well as seeing their mission partner in situ.

2) World categories have shifted. Mission focus often concentrated on the ‘Third World’, the ‘Iron Curtain’, or other such definitions which are no longer appropriate or helpful to missional thinking.

3) Transience as people groups move around the globe more and more, for all sorts of reasons, as the world has increasingly developed into the proverbial ‘global village’. So for example, in a 5 mile radius of our church in Richmond, in the 1990’s there was a substantial community of settled Afghans, who were described by Operation World as ‘one of the least reached lands in the world’. The ‘mission field’ (another phrase!) had come to us, similar as we see in Cheltenham today, with the vast number of internationals visiting for business, to learn English, or as tourists.

4) Financial patterns have also shifted in giving to support mission work. Rather than supporting a mission society/agency, typical preferences are to support individual mission workers known to the donor personally.

5) Sending churches is an issue for many young adults, who due to greater mobility don’t necessarily have just one church for support. Positively, there is potentially a wider circle of sending churches from which prayer and financial support may be forthcoming. The downside is that greater transience with study/work patterns leaves many mission partners trapped trying to raise support.

6) Short-term/Long-term debates regarding mission strategy will need to be evaluated by every local church. We have certainly seen the benefits for many who have gone to serve Christ overseas for a few weeks or months. Such experience can be life changing, and stimulate desire for further mission trips and potential long-term service.

7) Terminology also needs clarity, as Church leadership teams address the tangle that is often revealed in the words we use, like ‘evangelism’ and ‘mission’, and misnomers such as ‘full-time’ and ‘part-time’ Christian work. The word ‘missionary’ contains negative historical connotations with days of Imperialism; therefore many mission organisations have changed their names, and churches like Cambray now refer to ‘Mission Partners’, rather than ‘missionaries’. As our current sermon series aims to clarify, each of us should regard ourselves as mission partners, whether ‘sent’ to work in Senegal, Shurdington or Sainsburys!

8) Opportunities are vast. For those taking early retirement, or perhaps accepting projects which can combine with ‘tentmaking’ opportunities, strategic thinking can enable further Gospel work in communities anywhere in the world.

Mission is intrinsic to being the Church. Someone once said, ‘The Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning’. Over coming months we will continue to sharpen our understanding of what needs to change to become even more effective as a missional church. God-willing, this will impact the mission fires that emanate from Cambray, locally and globally, over coming months and years.

Please pray! And in the commissioning words of Isaiah 6.8, ‘Who will go?’ let’s each respond: ‘Here am I. Send me!’

With prayerful good wishes,

Tim Welch
November 2013