The mission of the church: speaking across generations

by Kathy Staudt

I am a baby boomer and the parent of milennials, but I find that when I am thinking about the life and mission of the Church I am often energized by looking at where we are now through the eyes of people in their 20s and 30s. Sure, that means putting up with some criticism of how my generation has managed things, but years of parenting has made me pretty inured to that. I”ve been interested in the coverage of General Convention offered by Steve Pankey, a former student (and the one who convinced me to start doing some blogging). In a recent post from early in the convention, (entitled “Our Fundamental Identity”) Steve remarks on what he sees as a “fundamental” generational difference. The boomer generation, in power now in the church, seems focused on issues of power inequalities, inclusion and social justice issues. This focus seems to leave out concerns about the mission and purpose of the church that occupy the generation now in their early 30s. I think there are some issues worth pondering here.

My generation came of age in the 60’s and 70’s when the church, especially the mainline churches, were not as open as they are now to people of all genders, races, sexual identities, social classes. And most of us would say there is still work to do in these areas. Theologically, as I was growing in the faith I found that these issues were framed as ways in which we as church were responding to God’s call to carry Christ’s ministry of reconciliation into the world. And so for me it feels like progress and cause for celebration when we see people of all backgrounds gathered around a common mission that transcends culture and identity. It may be a good thing that a next generation sees this as less of a big deal and more as the “new normal” and something to move past. But for boomers there will probably always be more inclusivity to pursue: The way to this is through our struggles to be a community in diversity. I also grew up assuming that the Church, as instsitution, would be a voice for change in the public square. This has been the heritage of mainline denominations at their best, often, in my experience, allied with a progressive political agenda that focuses on the needs of the poor and the marginalized. This is the positive ideal that I was rasied with, and reflects perhaps, assumptions that the boomer generation operates with that are not necessarily the assumptions of a younger generation.

It is interesting to me that Steve, speaking from a generation that came of age in the “bubble” economic years of the 80s and 90s, hears what I have thought of as language about the church’s mission as language that can become laden with “shame,” “guilt” and “partisanship” — and I think it is true that we can get hung up on the work that remains to be done. In his post I hear a longing for the reclaiming of a sense of common mission centered in Christ. I’m not sure whether there is a “fundamental” generational divide here or just a difference of context that we need to process more thoughtfully. This of course would mean including multiple generations in our common conversation The more that that happens, I think, the more exciting the future of the Church will be.

But it does seem to me we easily lose track of a more fundamental question – and one that a new generation is calling us back to: this is the question of mission in a post-Christian world. What is it about the gospel that is transformative and a gift to the world? What is it about Christian faith that makes us want to embrace and proclaim and live it? What is the right blend of tradition and innovation that will help us to make manifest the good news of Christ. And what IS that good news: how do we proclaim it in a way that can be heard in our time? I was also fascinated to see, in that in a link to emergent theologican Tony Jones’s blog on our General Convention, several commenters asking Tony this very question: Tony, what is the mission of the church? We’d like you to articulate it). So we’re all getting this challenge and it should energize us. What is the mission of the Church? How do we answer that question for ourselves, as Christians, as Episcopalians?

Brian McLaren framed it this way in A Generous Orthodoxy: the mission of the Church is “to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.” Drawing on Anglican missiologist Leslie Newbigin he connects that mission to God’s original call to Abraham to “be a blessing” to the world. To be bearers, transmitters, agents, of a loving God who desires to bring reconciliation and healing to a broken world. Other writers I like share this in different ways. Verna Dozier and Desmond Tutu, for example, write of the “dream” of God . Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing at another time when churches heard a call to be counter-cultural, wrote that the Church of Jesus Christ, “takes up space in the world” — is a visible witness to a God at work among us.

My favorite modern Anglican Writer, Evelyn Underhill, draws on a long Christian tradition when she suggests this way to think about the Church’s mission: Every human being, she suggests, has the potential to become a channel of God’s love and mercy in the world: that’s what it means to be made in the Image of God; that’s what the Incarnation affirms. That is the call to Christian discipleship — to become, each in our own way, and as a community of faith, channels of God’s mercy. How do we live this out, as a church? What does it look like in practice and institutionally?

My great hope is that we may give more thought and prayer to the things that make for this transformation, of ourselves as disciples of Jesus and of our congregations and instsitutions as places meant to shape our discipleship and bear witness to God’s presence and love in the world. From personal practice to conversations about budgets and institutions, there are opportunities everywhere for the Church to become the leavening, transforming agent for good that we are called and empowered to be, in this hurting and broken world. And by the Church, I also mean each and all of us, called to pursue in humility a path of faithful discipleship, in and for a hurting and broken world.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps two blogs: poetproph and David Jones, artist and poet. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

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