Recently I served as the chairperson for a search committee that was seeking to hire a new professor of missions and missiology at Calvin Seminary. That task meant that I had the chance to bring myself up to speed a bit on the current state of conversations about missions and where some of the primary foci are in the field of missiology.
As most people well know, the most significant shift in missions in the last half-century or so has centered on the fact that the majority world is south of the equator, where the majority of the world’s Christians now live as well. So missions has definitively shifted from the old paradigm of “from the West to the rest” to a situation in which the two-thirds world is sending missionaries to Europe and North America. What’s more, as Europe and North America have become ever more secularized—witness all those folks who check the “None” box on Gallup polls when asked about religious affiliation—congregations realize that they have themselves become mission outposts in their own neighborhoods.
Or, perhaps better said, congregations are beginning to understand the new situation in which they live and work and witness. But as with any paradigm shift, this new view of a shared mission task is taking a while to sink in. Preaching can be a major help in shaping people’s attitudes toward the local missionary task now shared by everyone in the church.
When I talk to seminary students about their upcoming preaching careers, I often remind them that no single sermon is remembered for very long. Even sermons that go over well and that garner lots of wonderful comments at the narthex door sooner or later—and it’s very often sooner—fade from people’s memories. What sticks for people is the pattern of any given preacher’s sermons. What are the themes that the preacher hits again and again, week to week, month after month? What words, phrases, emphases, and priorities build up in the congregation like a lovely residue over time? Those are the things—far more than individual sermons—that shape the congregation’s lived-out theology.
If this is so—and if it is true that people need to learn how to exercise missions right here at home—then how might preaching accomplish this?
The obvious answer is for the preacher to look for regular opportunities to translate the Bible, the confessions, and the theology of the tradition into a missions context. Sermons can present not just how believing Christians understand this or that part of the Bible, but how they can talk about their understanding with those who have no prior background in the faith. If this is done routinely over a long period of time, people will eventually catch on to the idea that framing the faith in ways that are friendly to those who are curious about Christianity is just something one does as a matter of course.
This also means that preachers should think about some of the bigger themes of the faith in a missional context as well. As we enter the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, how might we frame the passages, stories, and events surrounding these seasons for a wider audience of “None” folks?
Following are a few ideas about what this might mean. I share them in the hope that they will spark even more creative ideas in the minds of preachers reading this article.
Advent is a time of anticipation that something better is coming. It looks back on the expectation of a Messiah’s arrival in our time and space, but it also looks also forward to the return of that Messiah to usher in a new heaven and a new earth.
This yearning for something new, something better, something hopeful is still present in the hearts of people. Certainly it is true that some seem resigned to despair, to nihilism, to a live-for-the-moment mind-numbing existence that seeks to distract people from the emptiness of modern life. But listen to what people say (especially at the extremes of life) and you will still detect a hope that what we see around us is not all there is—that something better might yet come from Someone stronger.
Advent hope can look like “pie in the sky by and by,” but it can also fill up this present time with the truth that God in Christ has reconciled this world to himself and will make all things new. That is very good news, and it needs to be shared with neighbors who fervently wish that such a thing could be true.
Yes, Christ’s birth has been larded over by more Hallmark hoo-ha than you can swing a Bible at, and yes, the season has been reduced to sappy sentimentality and arguments over crèche displays on public property. But somewhere just beneath the consumerism of the shopping mall and the politics of those who decry mangers at the Town Hall are embers of hopefulness that on this “Silent Night” we will still hear what truly brings “Joy to the World.”
In an ironic twist that modern people can appreciate as much as anyone else, a tiny baby in diapers was more important than any king, queen, president, or prime minister who ever lived. This same theme of the unlikely hero comes up again and again in some of the most popular movies today.
Maybe we don’t get far with our neighbors by plastering “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” placards onto the shopping malls we frequent, but finding creative ways to communicate that life does have a reason might still connect with people who often feel unmoored from any centering purpose in their lives.
God’s truth has always been manifested to unlikely people in unlikely places. God cut through ignorance with revelations of cosmic meaning. God broke down dividing walls so that Jesus could come to stargazers from Baghdad, fishermen from Galilee, tax collectors on the take, prostitutes with a past, and lepers without friends or family. Jesus comes not to those most likely to become disciples, but to those least likely, including a great many of the people with whom we work, the people we live next door to, and the people we don’t understand but whom we may be able to understand if only we do what Jesus did: sit at table with them and listen.
If these kinds of themes come through our preaching—not just once in a while on Mission Emphasis Sunday but every week and in as many ways as possible—then the idea that we are all engaged in a missional enterprise will start to sink in. And once that happens, only the Spirit of God knows what might happen next.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.