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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mission or Missions?

One of the never-ending debates in the church has to do with a single letter: the letter "s" attached to the end of the word "mission."

We have a mission as Christians, no doubt. Our Lord gave it to us himself: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20)

Our mission, at its most basic level, is to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Under that umbrella are many forms of witness: the direct work of evangelism, by which we make others familiar with the invitation of our Lord to join with him in personal relationship; and ministries of compassion, caring and witness, by which we do the work of Christ in the world. The two are closely related: a mission relying on word only, but lacking in meaningful deeds, is hollow. Conversely, a mission that takes the form of deeds alone can't claim to be any different than that performed by any secular charity.

Mission, in other words, takes many forms, and functions on many levels. All our individual mission activities take their place in the overarching mission of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The word "mission" also has another, more specific sense: that of a particular mission project. Think, for example, of the the late Dr. Albert Schweitzer, dedicating his life to operating his remote jungle hospital in Lambaréné, in the West African nation of Gabon. Dr. Schweitzer's hospital can be spoken of in the singular as a medical mission.

Note the absence of the "s." But that's only because there's one of them. Talk about Dr. Schweitzer's hospital along with the journeys of Scottish missionary David Livingstone in East Africa - the "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" guy - and what you've got is "missions" (plural).

Some of the more tradition-minded among us prefer that usage. They would rather speak of missions in the plural. By that they mean a collection of individual mission projects, to which their particular congregation sends money and, occasionally, volunteer workers as well.

Those who prefer "missions" to "mission" sometimes have a rather sharp boundary in mind as to what qualifies as Christian mission. "Missions," in their view, have more to do with activities that take place far away - either in the geographical sense, or in socio-economic terms - than the more familiar work of the church in its own local community.

Yet, I understand that work to be mission, as well. A fellowship meal that provides seniors much-needed opportunities to socialize with others. A confirmation class that plants the seed of faith in a young person's heart. A worship service that calls forth the praises of God's people, comforts them and inspires them to respond to God's call in their lives.

Those activities are mission, too.

When I was a kid, we had offering envelopes in our church that were divided into two sections, separated by a perforation. One side was printed with the words, "For Us." The other declared, "For Others." The perforations allowed the money-counters to literally tear the envelopes in two without actually opening them, so one portion could go to fund church programs in the local area, and the other be deposited in a benevolence fund, from which the congregation's general-mission payments were made, as well as designated support for particular mission workers.

The only problem with that was that the boundary-line between "Us" and "Others" was never all that distinct. In ministering to people on the local level, the congregation is, without a doubt, doing mission, just as surely as it's doing so in sending dollars to support mission co-workers overseas, or to send care packages to a refugee camp on another continent.

All this gets extremely complicated, on the presbytery level, when we begin to speak about per capita funds that are earmarked for what's often called "administration" and those that derive from "general mission" giving.

Yet, is even that distinction so clear?

Some of our per capita funds, for example, go to cover the costs of judicial process: when an investigating committee carries a complaint through to its judicial conclusion. Is THAT mission? Read the Preamble to the Rules of Discipline, which is among the most deeply theological portions of the Book of Order. The purpose of church discipline, the Preamble maintains, "is to honor God." It exercises discipline, among other things, "to preserve the purity of the church by nourishing the individual within the life of the believing community... to uphold the dignity of those who have been harmed by disciplinary offenses; to restore the unity of the church by removing the causes of discord and division." Disciplinary process can seem divisive at times, but when it functions at its Spirit-guided best, it leads to reconciliation between people who have been at odds with one another.

Sounds like mission to me.

And what about that money that goes to pay the electric bill at the Presbytery Office? Most people would call that "administrative overhead" and would feel uncomfortable if any of their general-mission giving made its way into electric-company coffers. Yet, the same people wouldn't think twice if some of the dollars they send to a Presbyterian hospital in India were to be used to pay their electric bill. Is the electricity over there fundamentally different from the electricity over here?

It should be pretty clear, by now, that, in the mission-vs.-missions debate, I tend to come down on the side that favors dropping the "s" whenever possible. To me, that bears witness to the fact that Christ's mission is one. And, if we truly pay heed to the full implications of the language, it helps us never to forget that the "mission field" is everywhere. Even right outside our front door.

What do you think?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

New Heidelberg Catechism Approved

At its most recent meeting, the Presbytery voted to approve the new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. This project, based on work by an ecumenical panel of scholars who went back to the original German text, has resulted in a translation that is clearer and more faithful to the original than the translation that was rather hastily assembled around 1966, when the Book of Confessions was being put together for the first time.

It has recently been announced that the new translation has been approved by the necessary number of presbyteries, so it has now become a part of the Book of Confessions.

The translation is a joint project of the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is a treasure of our common Reformed heritage.

You can access a copy of the new translation online, in the electronic version of the first volume of the booklet of proposed amendments that were sent to the Presbyteries.

The Heidelberg Catechism was composed at the instigation of Elector Frederick III, who ruled over a territory in present-day German that was then known as the Electoral Palatinate. One of the new Protestant rulers who were then flexing their political muscles, Frederick wanted a contemporary statement of faith that counteracted Roman Catholic teachings and that could be used to school young people and adults in the essentials of the faith. Written by a panel of theologians of whom Zacharius Ursinus was the leading member, the catechism seeks to unite the best of both Lutheran and Reformed doctrine.

The Catechism is divided into fifty-two sections, called "Lord's Days," which demonstrates that it was intended be used as a basis of weekly preaching and teaching throughout the course of one year. Ministers were encouraged to preach on the Heidelberg Catechism weekly, often at a Sunday evening service, to increase the knowledge of the people of God.

The clean, contemporary language of the new Heidelberg Catechism makes this centuries-old Christian classic sing. It's well worth exploring, either in an adult education class or in personal study.