January 2016 Issue-The Mission and Identity of the Church in a World of Global Flows

by Dr Calvin Chong

I wish to extend warm congratulations to the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship (GCF) on this very special milestone in your history and give thanks with all here for GCF’s special role in Singapore over these last 60 years. Sixty years on, we can only say that we live in a very different world…a new world order. This is a new world of fluidity and flows where we find, in the words of social theorist George Ritzer, “increasing liquidity and the growing multi-directional flows of people, objects, places and information…” (Ritzer 2011, p. 2) This is a new globally connected world in which life straddles an expanded ecosystem of geographic and digital spaces. This is a new world in which our continents, communities, congregations, and children are situated. This is a new world which has introduced deep level, irrevocable changes to how everyday life is experienced, how habits and values are formed, and how things are done.

Times of fluidity and change

Whatever continent you find yourself located in, whatever community you belong to, whatever congregation you are from, whoever our children are, no place and no one have been left untouched, unaffected, or unaltered by these shifts, accelerations, and movements. Of course, the impact of globalisation and global flows affects different people differently, depending on your social and geographical location. But whether it is First World or Third World problems that are introduced, we all observe increasing vulnerabilities, uncertainties, stresses, conflicts, inequalities, displacements, and worrying next-generation-concerns.

It is at a time of great world changes that God’s people are called to take a global-local perspective to life on earth and to look deeper, farther, and harder at what is happening in our continents, communities, congregations, and children. Times of change and dis-equilibration provide great opportunity for God’s people to clarify what they exist for. Times of change and dis-equilibration provide great occasion for us to discern what external trappings to shed and what internal core to preserve. In times of change and movement, no one and certainly not the church want to be like what the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras has become. If you know that story, the bridge was built over the Choluteca River. When Hurricane Mitch swept through in 1998, the bridge was left intact but the river’s course shifted away from the bridge. Now, the river is alive and running a different course but the bridge stands – a monument to irrelevance, present where the action was, away from where the action is now. Its presence and preservation do nothing to address the realities, needs and challenges of everyday life in the new world.

The title of my address this evening is “The mission and identity of Christians in a world of global lows”. What the title captures is how God’s people’s response to the changes experienced in the new world we live in. One of the things I want to say is that given current realities, the body of Christ that wants to keep relevant and responsive must intensify missional efforts. More so than ever in the history of the world, missions need to be at the forefront of the life of the church and believers.

Defining integral missions

But by this, I do not mean missions in the traditional sense, which are captured in the mission policies in our church, that is, you have to leave your job, get trained in Bible college, leave your country, and do evangelism and church-planting in Bonga Bonga Land. Here, what I am referring to is what the leading missiologists and church historians in our generation have been saying for some time already. Amongst them include scholars such as Messrs Rene Padilla, Samuel Escobar, Andrew Walls and Christopher Wright and Ms Cathy Ross. Perhaps, I will use the more familiar Mr Chris Wright to speak on behalf of these missions thinkers.

In the opening page of his 2010 book, “The Mission of God’s People”, Mr Wright penned these words:

The Bible tells us that God did send many people. But the range of things for which people were sent is staggeringly broad. “Sending” language is used in all the following stories:
• Joseph -- to be in a position to save lives in a famine (Genesis 45:7)
• Moses -- to deliver people from oppression and exploitation (Exodus 3:l0)
• Elijah -- to influence the course of international politics (1 Kings 19:15-18)
• Jeremiah -- to proclaim God’s word (Jeremiah 1:7)
• Jesus -- to preach good news, to proclaim freedom, to give sight for the blind, and to offer rel
ease from oppression (Luke 4:16-19)
• The disciples -- preach and demonstrate the delivering and healing power of the reign of of God 
(Matthew 10:5-8)
• The apostles -- make disciples, baptise and teach (Matthew 28:18-20)
• Paul and Barnabas -- famine relief (Acts 11:27-30) and evangelism/church- planting
 (Acts     13:1-3)
• Titus -- ensure trustworthy and transparent financial administration (2 Corinthians 8:16-24) and competent church administration (Titus 1:5)
• Apollos -- skilled Bible teacher for church nurturing (Acts 18:27-28).
• Many unnamed brothers and sisters -- itinerant teachers for the sake of the truth of the gospel (3 John 5- 8).

So, even if we agree that the concept of sending and being sent lies at the heart of missions, there is a broad range of biblically sanctioned activities that people may be sent by God to do, including famine relief, action for justice, preaching, evangelism, teaching, healing and administration. Yet, when we use the words “missions” and “missionaries”, we tend to think mainly of evangelistic activity. What will our biblical theology have to say to that? (Wright, 2010, p. 24)

What Mr Wright and other great missions minds, keeping their eyes on the changing conditions of the world, are talking about is holistic or integral missions – missions which have five complementary facets all of which announce the good news of Jesus Christ. You see, in a world so full of very, very bad news, the good news of Jesus Christ not just need to be proclaimed, it needs to be demonstrated. The good news need not just be heard as words but experienced as works. Which is why missions need to include evangelism, teaching, compassion, justice, and creation care-missions directed at the church, society and creation.

Challenge to be missional

What then is the invitation to you and I then? To be amongst the sent who understand, embrace, and offer the transformational hope of the gospel in the different arenas of church and society. To be God’s agents of hope through evangelism, teaching, compassion, justice, and creation care.

But what are the arenas of society where God’s people can be missional and not just articulate but also flesh out the good news? From a sociological point of view, we think in terms of the pillars of society, which support the functions of every society’s everyday life workings -- family, religion, business, law and government, education, arts and entertainment, and media and communications. All these pillars of society are not untouched by the reach of globalisation and all these traditional institutions are arenas where witness of and for Christ is so pressing and critical.  Friends, isn’t this the everyday world you and I live in today?
Several years ago, I challenged a group of Varsity Christian Fellowship (VCF) students with this question about their contribution in society. My question was: “How do the most educated in society best contribute to integral missions?” Today, I place that same challenge before GCF members and friends: “How do the most educated in society best contribute to integral missions?” I suggested to them some possibilities
-- providing leadership and direction, foundation funding and expertise, guidance in areas of policy/legislation/governance, creative innovations, helping to network, providing perspective and having open mindset, educating, shaping, and mentoring.

Friends, I work in a seminary and as many of you will know, we are set up to train preachers, pastors, missionaries, counsellors, music directors, and others, who typically fill up the paid positions in our churches. I have been in the industry for more than 25 years now, and the more I serve in seminary, the more I really enjoy my work there. But here are some hard facts – in terms of our core business, seminaries only directly train a very small percentage of the church population, probably less than 1 per cent.

How about the rest? Which is the reason why I feel so strongly that the missional task of the church lies in your hands, in the hands of the whole people of God engaged in bringing the whole gospel of God to the whole world to your everyday world and to somebody else’s everyday world.

Friends, the task ahead is too big for traditional pastors, full-time workers, and missionaries to even make a little dent. But you have unique skills and platforms that offer unique access to every possible arena of life.

The fact that some who are not in the “pastors, full-time workers, and missionaries” category are working on upstream and downstream battles against sex trafficking and exploitation, and others are at the forefront of ministries serving migrants and the displaced. Some are civil servants who are working on policies which are shaping the landscape for divorce, elderly, handicapped, the poorest of the poor, and that others are teaching, researching, funding initiatives, creatively designing for hope, moulding lives and thought, involved in second chance ministries, fostering kids, loving the difficult and the unlovable, or faithfully keeping faith alive for the next generation.

All these indicate that we get it and already have on our hearts God’s missional purposes for Christians in this generation. All these flesh out the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 25:40: The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

But to point to the missional task of the church is only one half of what I think is important for me to say today. Those who are teachers and educators amongst us are familiar with the work of writer Parker Palmer especially his now famous book, “Courage to Teach”. One of the striking paragraphs in the opening chapter of his book goes:

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.  As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life.  Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to my inner life. (Palmer, 1998, p.2)

What Mr Palmer seeks to do for us is to point to the fact that whatever is within us finds its way out in ministry and that the state of our inner landscapes matter. If the condition of our soul and the core of our identity are nurtured in the garden of self-giving, long-suffering, integrity, authenticity, purity and absorbed in the imitation of Christ, then these virtues will overflow in ministry and missions. But if the condition of our soul and the core of our identity are bathed in insecurities, jealousy, greed, impatience, dishonesty, ambition, these will spill out in ministry and missions. I often tell my students: “In our youthfulness, we want to get on the large stage, plug in our electric guitars, and leave people stunned by our mastery!”  But I also tell them: “Before you play your guitars, tune your strings first because up on stage, every dissonant note will be amplified a million times and will have an active afterlife.”
Our missional efforts are therefore stained by our inner disorders and dysfunctions, our inner delusions and deceptions. Couple Palmer’s quotation with another insightful quotation. Again the quotation is about the inner struggles we carry in our very beings, but this time it is by the theologian Kevin Vanhoozer in his book “Everyday Theology”. There he writes: “The gospel – the power of God unto salvation – can transform culture; culture, however, is only too happy to return the compliment.” (Vanhoozer, 2007, p.7)

Friends, the human heart is stained by the fractures and deformities of our inner being. At the same time, the human heart is coloured and blemished by the pressures and seductions of our culture and the neo-liberal economy upon which it is built. What can we say then?  The task before us is so urgent, the mission of God is so pressing, and yet, God’s people are so inadequate for the job!

Empowered by the Trinity
When all seems lost and the odds seem so impossible, we are reminded that the work before us is fuelled by grace, kept alive by the Lord Jesus Christ’s deep commitment to spiritual failures and losers like you and me. The work before us is propelled forward by the power of the Holy Spirit, advanced by daily acts of dying to self and depending on His mighty hand, anchored in the Lord God’s everlasting care for the lost, and buttressed by a network of well-wishers, prayer supporters, and accountability partners.

May we never forget this, may we build on this foundation, and may these qualities of grace, empowerment by the Spirit, our mutual dependency on each other and on the Lord, the Lord’s commitment towards His people and His love for the world will take GCF, its ministries and its member safely and securely into the next year and into the next 60 years.

(This talk was given at the GCF 60th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner held on 23 October 2015 at the National University of Singapore Society Guild House at Kent Ridge Drive)