Rowan Williams on mission

Rowan WilliamsThe good Archbishop Williams recently gave an address titled ‘God’s Mission and Ours in the 21st century’. [You can also listen to/download it here]. He unpacked Matthew 10 in order to answer 5 commonly-asked questions about mission: Where do we start? What do we say? What do we do? Why are we doing it? How do we plan it? He then turned to Matthew 28. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing is well worth reading, but here are some snippets that got me all fuzzy inside:

‘It’s of course a salutary reminder of the very general principle that mission is never a matter of taking God where he hasn’t been before, and introducing him to a lot of kind strangers. In every act of mission, God is there ahead of us. But by saying, ‘Go first to the lost sheep of Israel,’ Jesus is telling us that we need always to be alert to that prior history. We need to be reminded that mission is God’s before it is ours … So as we engage in mission, communicating the good news – the really new message of Jesus Christ and who he is and what he’s done – we will always be attending to the pattern of God’s presence and action, already there’. [I was immediately reminded here of Vincent Donovan].

‘Mission is not about introducing a distant and rather shy God to people that he’s never met before. It’s much more a question of saying to people that God is more interested in you than you are in God. And the good news is that if you show signs of interest of response, trust and love, then that interest turns into profound intimacy and relationship. God is nearer than you think. God is already on the way. So that what we say about God in mission is actually very closely connected with the question of where and how do we start? We start recognizing God who is there before us, and we say to the people with whom we’re speaking, ‘God is already at work in you and the challenge is for you to recognize this and give your heart and your will to cooperating with what God wants to do with and in you. Our assumption must always be that God has started’.

‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity. But whether we’re talking about the individual or corporate, we are talking about change and a change in the life that you see around’.

‘Gratitude is why we do it, because we can’t help it. Why are we seeking to share the good news of Jesus Christ? It is because we have received without payment an inestimable gift, which will not stay still in our hands’.

In addressing the fifth question – ‘How do we plan mission?’ – Williams says, ‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be lead by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – “For the labourers deserve their food”. Mission travels light. Mission is probably not best advanced by the spectacle of someone embarking on it encumbered with a massive weight of cultural or financial baggage’.

Turning to Matthew 28, and to Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples’, Williams reminds that ‘Making disciples is a matter of shaping people who are willing to go on learning from God. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to talk about making members, recruiting people to sign up: he wants disciples. He wants members of his body, not members of an organization. And the members of the body are those who share in the action of the body – a disciple is a learner, somebody who puts themselves to school under God and God’s Messiah. So go and make learners; encourage people to embark on the journey of discovering what the gift of God is. In mission when people see the new creation, the transformed reality that is set before them, they will need time to learn what it’s about. Don’t look for short cuts. Draw people in to the newness and mystery and excitement, and then let them know that it’s a lifetime’s work to find your way into it. Take the time that is needed for people to learn and to grow to be disciples. Of course Christ asks from his disciples service, obedience, sacrifice, but all the time Christ asks us to continue learning, day by day taking up the cross, walking this path and discovering as we go’.

Williams spoke encouragingly of the Fresh Expressions initiatives, and pressed that when it comes to mission the Church needs to take a ‘long-term view’. ‘Mission’, he says, ‘always requires an almost superhuman level of patience. When I look at the history of Christian mission, I find that the stories that move me most are not always the ones of rapid and widespread success, but the stories of those who, through a whole generation of apparent frustration have stayed with the particular situation, confident that God really is opening a door even if you can’t yet see it. There are many such stories. There are sad stories too, of successes that have proved short-lived where the enemies of the gospel have more or less extinguished what seemed to be great early promise. The long view is the most important, but because we live in a culture that is not at all in love with long views and likes short-term solutions whether in religion or politics, the Christian committed to patience is a very counter-cultural person and all the more important because of it. But even in local and prosaic settings, how very tempting it is to say that we want our results now, before the end of the year. We have justify what we’re doing in the shortest of short terms and that is a curse for churches, universities, charities, community regeneration projects, all sort of things in our society. And we need deep breaths and long views again’.

He also highlighted that one of the practical implications of mission is what he termed a ‘solid, three-dimensional liturgical life’. He said: ‘we need to find ourselves in a Church that has a deep rhythm of teaching and symbolizing of our faith. I don’t mean elaborate ceremonial and I don’t mean complicated externals. I mean a nourishing diet of sacramental worship with baptism and the Lord’s Supper at the heart of it, taking us again and again through the Christian year in ways that make the rhythm of the life of Christ second nature to us. Because that’s how the new creation is fleshed out in the life of the Church. And that’s what we’re asking people ultimately to become part of. It certainly doesn’t mean that when you’re engaged in mission or evangelism, the first thing you do with people is present them with the annual lectionary! But I do mean that in the long term, what we hope will happen in mission is that people come into that flow of Christ’s love that the Christian year and Christian worship represents. Each year Christians go through the story of waiting and expectation and fulfillment of Christmas, of baptism, temptation, passion and resurrection, ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and the great climax, the celebration of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we’ve just experienced on Trinity Sunday. And that annual rhythm, that taking time and going through the story, is so important in anchoring us to something other than what we happen to be thinking or feeling on any one day. None of what I’ve said is going to have its full effect on us unless we are aware of the need for our worship and community life as Christians to have that depth and solidity, that three-dimensional quality to it’.

That’s a lot of fuzzies …

4 comments

  1. Now what would the response be if this script were handed out to uninformed detractors of the good Archbishop without telling them who said this? A long time since I heard such an attractive account of mission, the church and the God on whose grace and love both depend. Thanks for putting it in the front window Jason. Shalom from Scotland.

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  2. Hi,

    I very much liked this lecture, too. I only came across it today. I’ve written a piece on it on my blog: http://thinkingblueguitars.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/rowan-williamss-radical-christian-mission/

    I realise that that seems like shameless self-advertising, but there’s no point in my simply reiterating here everything that I’ve already written there! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the elements of the lecture on which I myself placed particular emphasis.

    Best wishes,

    Daniel Hartley

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  3. When I first noticed your comment at the end that “that was a lot of fuzzies” I thought you meant you’d found the “good Archbishop’s” talk a bit fuzzy…And then I found your reference to fuzzy early on (having skimmed my way down the page as usual) – “some snippets that got me all fuzzy inside.” So I’m assuming that you got excited about this, “fuzzy” not being quite the word I’d use for such an emotion! LOL
    Now that I’ve read the fuzzies a little more thoroughly, I might pay some attention to what the Archbishop is saying…

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