As The Episcopal Church seeks to reclaim its original name of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, what does that mean in today’s context? Sure all the cool kids in the late 18th to late 19th century wanted to band together to form missionary societies, but you ask, “Didn’t that come with the baggage of culture attached to the Gospel?” Right you are! Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus was trotted around the globe without a thought toward context. But before we throw the Gospel baby out with the colonial bathwater, we would do well to ponder why happening guys and gals like David Livingstone (who helped wipe out slavery in East Africa, yet still looks sad in the picture of him posted here) and Lillian Trasher (who founded an orphanage in Egypt) would work with the help of missionary societies.
It turns out that Christianity is inherently a team sport, as community is hard wired into “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” God does not give any single person, no matter how talented, all of the answers and everything she or he needs to succeed. We need one another. Missionary societies are formed when we need mutual support to accomplish our missionary goals. The missionary then has the support of other Christians and many churches. God routinely gives people a vision so big that they need other people to help them accomplish it. Hence the need for missionary societies to support the work.
As a church planter who went to Kingsland, Georgia to work with my wife and daughter, and others we met along the way, in founding a new Episcopal Church, I know that we could never have even begun that work without the support of the other churches of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. They were our missionary society supporting the work of sharing the love of God as found in Jesus Christ with the people of Camden County.
We were 21st century missionaries working close to home. But looking to local inspiration we had the words of the Rt. Rev. Frederick F. Reese who shepherded our Diocese from 1907 to 1936. In his 1929 address to this convention he said,
“Christianity is either a missionary religion or it is nothing,
and every Christian is a missionary
or he denies the faith in his life, if not in his words.”
And if we wanted someone to put it even more starkly, in 1956, Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart told our Diocese,
“It is high time the Episcopal Church rose from her dignified posture
of waiting to be discovered and appreciated and went out into the byways and hedges
seeking the souls for whom her Lord died.”
These inspiring words come from the context in which I work. You can fund similar examples from the past on which you can build which are unique to your plot in the much larger vineyard. Once we look at the world through Gospel eyes, we see that there are plenty of folks lost and hurting all around us. We may have come to take the Gospel for granted. Our neighbors may be convinced the healing and wholeness they need can be found anywhere but in Jesus’ judgmental and hypocritical fan club. Yet, the world still needs the Gospel and while the 21st century may need new ways of sharing the old, old story, whatever shape our efforts at sharing the Good News of God’s love, we’ll still need mutual support. This is where a missionary society comes in to play.
The only difference in a 21st century missionary society is that we need to let go of recent inventions like buildings dedicated to Christian worship called churches, or seats in those buildings called pews, or instruments in those buildings called pipe organs, and anything else that gets in the way of sharing the Good News. Those are the baggage that we have packaged with the Gospel for so long that we can forget that Jesus never needed any of these later inventions to share the love of God and challenge his followers to greater faithfulness. We might also need to jettison structures within the denomination itself—CCABs, I am looking at you (if you don’t know what they are, don’t worry as they are not Gospel, but they can serve it at times).
We just have to remember what the goal is and begin with the end in mind—sharing God’s love—then consider what tools best get us there today. For to be a 21st century missionary society is to find ways that fit our varying contexts which are most effective at carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission to go to all the world and make disciples. In many contexts, the church of the 21st century will closely resemble the church of the 16th to 19th centuries and earlier. But as old ideas become new and house churches or dinner party liturgies serve us well, a 21st century missionary society will need to learn not to judge them as failures using old metrics like counting butts filling pews on Sunday, but use really old metrics of considering whether these new methods are transforming lives the way Jesus did in first century Palestine. To do this faithfully over the long haul will take more than individual Christians going alone. To do this faithfully will take missionary societies.
Note: the Photos show Dr. David Livingstone and Basil’s Kitchen, a dinner party liturgy meeting at Christ Church Episcopal in Savannah.
This post is a participating post in the Acts8 BLOGFORCE on
“What does it mean to be a 21st century Missionary Society?”
The Acts8 Moment is a missionary society whose purpose is to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church.