From Start to Finish

by Rob Weingartner

From Start to Finish

When I was in seminary over three decades ago, mission was taught and experienced as one program among many that made up the life and work of the church. There was worship, education, fellowship, a few other things – and mission. It was twenty years ago that an encounter with the church in Africa and exposure to the writings of Leslie Newbigin and others helped me to understand that mission is the purpose of the church, not a program.

For our congregations here in the States, it seems to me that a critical diagnostic question we must ask ourselves is a question that gets to the heart of the church’s identity and purpose: For whose sake do we exist? Do we exist for the sake of ourselves, or do we exist for the sake of others? I’ve come to believe, as Bonhoeffer puts it, that the church is only the church when it exists for others.

Still, in these days, as we feel the weight and inertia of denominational structures, there is a great draw of attention and resources to the institutional side of being church. It is not how we are at our best. Focusing on the needs of the institution brings to mind Luther’s description of sin as the soul curved in upon itself.

Perhaps Richard Halverson, former chaplain to the U.S. Senate, captured this self-preoccupation when he summarized the changing character of the church in the West this way: “In the beginning the Church was a fellowship of men and women who centered their lives on the living Christ. They had a personal and vital relationship to the Lord. It transformed them and the world around them. Then the Church moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. Later, it moved to Rome, and it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, and it became a culture. Finally, it moved to America, and it became an enterprise."

Today, it feels like the enterprise is running out of steam. The church too often is disengaged, passionless, self-preoccupied, resigned. How different this is from the description of God that we find in Scripture. As the late Steve Hayner put it, “The picture of God from one end of the Bible to the other is that God is on a mission. God is involved. God is passionate. God reaches out. God never gives up.”

God is on a mission, and he would use you and me – and our congregations! – for his purposes as he gathers up all things in Christ Jesus. The story of God’s mission is clear in the Bible from start to finish, from God’s call to Abram in which God promises through Abram that all of the peoples of the world will be blessed to John’s vision in Revelation 7 that describes people from every nation, from all peoples and tribes and languages standing before the throne and before the lamb.

We see it in God’s call to Israel to be a light to the nations.

We see it in a loving God who sent his Son into the world to save it and in how the Son asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the church to empower it (us!) to continue Jesus’ redemptive work.

We see it in the way that Jesus links discipleship and mission in his first words to the disciples. “Follow me,” Jesus invites, “and I will make you fish for people.” And we see it in his last words to his followers just prior to his ascension. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

It isn’t the church’s mission, it is God’s mission. It is our identity and purpose, grounded in the very character of God. As David Bosch puts it in his Transforming Mission, “God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission . . . there is mission because God loves people.”

Rob Weingartner
Executive Director
The Outreach Foundation