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.
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.
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?