It starts with the person in front of you

28 Jun 2024 by General Secretary, Rev. Jane Fry in: General Secretary

The ‘mission’ word. Innocuous enough but capable of generating intense and paralysing confusion and disagreement. A brief Google search suggests that the word was first used in Jesuit communities in the 1590’s to describe a ‘sending abroad’ among other things. In the church, the word was used to describe God’s sending of the church into the world to proclaim – in word and deed – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

At some stage in the usage of the word, it was adopted into the business world where it eventually took on an entirely different character now captured in the process and language of corporate mission ‘planning’ and related activities.  Not surprisingly, the new corporatised understanding of ‘mission’ – definition, purpose, and process – then found its way back to the church so that now mission statements, mission planning and the whole paraphernalia of corporate mission practices are now quite familiar, normal expectations in most Uniting Church congregations. 

I’m a big fan of any process that leads to increased clarity of purpose and the responsible organisation of resources to achieve that purpose (i.e. stewardship). However, I’m much less convinced that the ‘missio Dei’ – God’s sending of the church into the world – can ever be fully described or captured in a ‘mission plan’. 

Put simply, mission starts with baptism when we are claimed by God for God’s purposes. 

Rev. Bill Crews was a recent guest preacher at Campbelltown Uniting Church. While I might have misremembered, Bill made a comment along the lines of ‘mission is as close as the person in front of you’. I’ve been pondering that comment ever since. I remember many occasions at Chatswood South when a stranger would arrive, sometimes on Sundays but more often during the week. Invariably, they would be nervous, unsure of themselves and a bit circumspect about church – not knowing exactly what to expect when they were approaching their ‘long shot’ or ‘last resort’. Their needs were various and sometimes complicated – nothing that could be simply or easily fixed with a handout, although a cup of coffee and a sandwich were usually welcome. In all of these encounters, the first thing to do was always to sit down and simply listen. This was never just the responsibility of the minister. The church was busy during the week, and I wasn’t always there. Responding to these encounters was simply a normal part of church life – a simply expression of Bill’s comment that ‘mission is as close as the person in front of you’. The work of a disciple is to respond with compassionate attention to the person or people ‘in front of you’. 

I don’t know how this compassionate attention – and I’m very sure that it’s a characteristic of most congregations – could even be captured in a mission plan but it might just be the most important thing that the church does. 

Over time, patterns emerge. Noticing that the people who turned up on the doorstep most often were locals who were in the grip of a variety of mental health issues, led to the realization that mental health services had been contracting in the area over a period of time. Those services had included opportunities for recreation (art classes, book groups) and for community. Minimally, they provided a safe place for people to gather, to connect, to make friends – the withdrawal of those services had an immediate impact on the lives of those who had relied on them for companionship and community, as well as for practical help and support. This is an obvious starting point for thinking about congregational mission – who are the people on the church’s doorstep looking for community and support?

From this perspective, mission can be simply summarised as compassionate attention which leads to organised kindness and care, but it still starts with the person in front of you.