Friday, February 28, 2014

Why do outreach and mission matter?

In a recent book titled Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice, Fr. Daniel Groody tells a modern day parable. In this story, people rescued from drowning on a hazardous coast form an organization to save others shipwrecked there. The group of rescuers and their families become good friends and enjoy socializing with each other. Over time, the organization evolves into a rather exclusive social club, neglects to staff the rescue stations, and eventually forgets its original purpose. Drownings increase until another organization is founded to save those caught in the treacherous waters.

For many Evangelical Christians, the point of the story is clear: the church is a gathering of the saved who, however much they enjoy each other’s support, must not neglect their calling to convert others, to rescue them from an eternal destiny in hell. Yet many of us share the broader Christian tradition’s realization that God’s mercy has no bounds. We believe that a God of infinite love and creativity has an inexhaustible variety of means to reach people and bring them to wholeness. Considered from this perspective, the parable of the rescue organization perhaps only increases Christian confusion over the purpose of the church.

If becoming a Christian is not the only means to redemption, then is Christian outreach all that important? Why is it not enough to spend our time, talent, and treasure maintaining a mutually supportive community among those who are already struggling along this Christian path? To put it bluntly, why is more asked of us?

Of course we know that Christian faith has, throughout its history, inspired an outward mission to share God’s love with others. Christians recall Jesus’ teaching that we must love God above all things and love our neighbors as ourselves (or, more accurately translated, “as another self”). This Great Commandment did not originate with Jesus: well before his time, this two-part commandment was an accepted summary of the Torah, so that (as one early rabbi said) “the rest is commentary.” The recognition that anyone who would love God must love all that God has loved into being is wisdom deeply rooted in the Biblical tradition.

Many Christians are also motivated by the Hebrew prophets, whose writings comprise the largest section of the Bible. Through the challenging words of these ancient prophets, we continue to be called to resist the injustice and oppression that plague modern society no less than ancient Israel. Living amid today’s inequality, in a world where goods are plentiful and cheap for some because of slave labor and wages that barely sustain life for others, it is difficult not to be disturbed by the prophet Amos’s condemnation of those who oppress the poor or who buy the needy for a pair of sandals. At the same time, Isaiah’s beautiful vision of a coming peaceful kingdom, one where no one hurts or destroys in all of God’s holy realm, continues to inspire work for justice and reconciliation.

As disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians learn from the Gospels that Jesus calls his followers to continue his mission of inaugurating the reign of God, bringing good news to the poor, healing to the sick, and liberty to captives. In chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself identifies so thoroughly with those who are in physical, mental, or spiritual need that whatever we do for them is done for Jesus. Indeed, we are told in this passage that how we respond to the needs of others is THE standard by which our own lives will be judged. (This point is echoed in Charles Dickens’ great Christmas classic, when the ghost of Jacob Marley, assured that he had been a good man of business, howls in anguish, “MANKIND was my business.” Surely the church must say the same!)

As currently compiled, the Bible presents human history as a journey from a lost harmony (in the beginning of Genesis) to an even greater harmony in the reign of God. This final goal is described in the Book of Revelation as a shining city of people who live in peace with each other and with all of creation in the presence of God. The church is thus called to join with the people of Israel as God’s servants, mending the world and preparing for the fullness of God’s reign.

The wisdom of the Christian tradition further teaches us that God is a Trinity, a loving community actively seeking to bring the world into the very being of God. Our God simply IS love, so much so that God can—and does—make room within the loving life of the divine trinity for all of creation.

As Eucharistic Christians, we celebrate—and deepen—the communion we share with God and with all else in God through sharing the sacred bread and wine, a foretaste of that great banquet when all will be completely united in God. Every Eucharist is a prayer of thanksgiving for the divine love and grace that strengthens us to serve God and one another.

In every time and place, the Holy Spirit gives each Christian particular gifts and insights to contribute to the church’s redemptive mission. In the season of Lent, we are inviting to attend more carefully to the deepest impulses of the Spirit in our own lives and in our faith community. Where is God calling us? What insights into the life of Christian faith and discipleship do we have to share?

Mary Doak, Associate Professor of Theology, University of San Diego

What do you think? Is this your understanding of mission and outreach? Why do you do the good work you do in the world? Comment on this post or send an email to Colin ( or Mary ( to keep the conversation going!

No comments: