As I’ve thought about the comments on my last post, it seems that somehow folks think I am arguing for an “either/or” perspective on a congregation’s focusing on mission and relationship. Obviously, from the beginning of this entire church thing, relationships have been important. The early Christians gathered regularly for the breaking of bread and prayer, hosting an early experiment in communism . . . uh . . . sharing of resources as each had need. And Jesus, at least according to John’s version of the story, said that the world would learn of him through the love of church members one for another.
There is no doubt that being overly focused on mission with little concern for relationships is just as flawed as being concerned about relationships without mission. For one thing it can lead to a pragmatism in which the ends justifies the means, trampling on the needs and emotions of others in order to accomplish the mission. For another it can easily cast aside the needs of the weak among us in the pursuit of our holy goals. Missional zeal which is unable to embrace others with the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) is passion out of control.
One refrain that has come to me again and again in ministry is “…the process is as important as the outcome.” Yes, moving in a direction toward a mission is important, for otherwise we find ourselves wallowing in self indulgence and the pursuit of personal comfort. Yet achieving that goal never trumps the need to treat others with love and respect, and to help move folks at various speeds and levels toward the common goal. Seeking justice in one area doesn’t allow us to treat other rudely or as impediments in our way. Even those who get in the way of what we are seeking are children of God deserving of love. And, pragmatism has to be careful to recognize the human need for connection.
For a couple of years one of our mission projects was what we called a “biscuit drop.” We had done several “potato drops” with the Society of St. Andrew with good success, but as potato processors began to be more efficient, there were fewer “gleaned” potatoes available, and one year we couldn’t find any to distribute to our local hunger agencies. One of our church members, in a fit of brilliance, came up with the idea of making biscuit dough which we would package in dozen lots and quick freeze for distribution to those agencies, and the next couple of years we would take a Saturday and make thousands of biscuits (enough one year to dwarf the Statue of Liberty!). It was messy (we would take over the Fellowship Hall) and cost a couple of thousand bucks, but it was a great time of church folks getting together to work with their hands on something they loved to help others. We weren’t the most efficient operation, but it was fun and allowed persons of all ages to rub elbows kneading dough, creaming butter, and cutting biscuits.
For all the fun, there were a couple of folks in the church that simply didn’t get it. “It’s too expensive,” they said. “Why are we doing this, because we could take that same amount of money and buy even more biscuits from Pillsbury than we can make on our own.” And in one sense, they were right. If our goal was simply to help the hungry be fed, there were many ways that we could have been more efficient, many ways that we could have obtained more food for the same amount of money, and many ways to help the hungry that didn’t take as much time and energy.
But what we were doing wasn’t simply in pursuit of the goal, it wasn’t pursing the mission at all costs and damn the torpedoes to anything that stood in our way. Yes, we wanted to help those who needed to stretch their food dollars, but we also wanted to get our people tangibly involved with the act of helping, not simply throwing money at the problem. And, we wanted to be involved in that act of service together, as friends and family joined in having fun as we incarnated the love of Christ through flour, butter, and water. We had a blast! People got to know one another better. We got to play and have flour fights. And in the process, some 15,000 families in middle Tennessee got to have free biscuits for dinner one night.
So this mission/relationship thing is an “either/or” scenario. It’s a “both/and” one, the balancing of a purpose and a people to demonstrate the wholeness of God in the world.
The danger comes when our congregations lean too far one way or the other. In the context of my ministry, in the heart of the Bible belt, there can often be a focus on relationality to the exclusion of mission. In other parts of the world, the pursuit of mission cuts the heart out of Christian life and practice. In either case, we miss out on a part of God’s intention for the church, and the world misses out on a living and breathing example of kingdom reality in their midst.