A friend who has read Diana Butler Bass’s latest book told me the other day about a point Bass makes repeatedly. Basically, as I understand it, Bass argues that the church has been too busy asking how questions that it no longer asks why questions.
I haven’t read the book but the insight struck me as true. We ask ourselves how we are “doing” church but we don’t talk about why we are bothering with it. Ashes To Go, an exciting idea that takes the imposition of ashes out of the church on Ash Wednesday, is still basically a how conversation. How do we impose ashes, not why are we bothering with this liturgy? What does Ash Wednesday mean in this day and age? (Why and what questions are closely related.) Perhaps, we think, the answer to the why questions are obvious but few things with Christianity ever are.
These questions are particularly pressing in the Episcopal Church as we prepare for a General Convention this summer that will be asked to make decisions about restructuring and pass a budget that deals with the painful reality of substantially diminished income. Both these questions—restructuring and budget—are how questions. How do we be a church and spend our money in light of the realities of church life in 2012?
The answer that has been given to the underlying why questions is, simply, “mission.” We are told we must be structured for mission and we must spend our money on mission. But what is mission? Why is it important? This conversation does not appear, to my knowledge, to have been had. And it is a particularly important conversation to have because mission is in danger of becoming a buzzword, meaning different things to different people and so losing its force in dialogue.
To take one example, the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church, Stacy Sauls, last year proposed a resolution calling for a special convention on church structure. It reads, in part: “The Special Commission shall be charged with presenting a plan to the Church for reforming its structures, governance, administration, and staff to facilitate this Church’s faithful engagement in Christ’s mission to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:18) in a way that maximizes the resources available for that mission at all levels of this Church.”
The text thus claims to answer the why mission? question. It does so in a way that is faithful to scripture by pointing to Jesus’ “inaugural address” in the Gospel of Luke. (We should note, of course, that Jesus is here quoting the prophet Isaiah. There is little thought given in this resolution to what Jesus “adds” to this Isaianic mission, though of course he must add something or the Gospel would no longer be good news but good olds.)
But is Luke 4 the only way to think about mission? Hardly.
What about when Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”? (John 10:10) Or when Jesus is asked what to do to perform the works of God and he replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”? (John 6:29) What about when Abraham is told that if he follows God’s commands to get up and go, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), a promise repeated in Genesis? What about Jesus pre-resurrection commands to “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2) and post-resurrection commands to, famously, “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) There’s a whole whack of Pauline passages to consider as well, of course.
None of these are contradictory and all form a piece of the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ. Nor is God’s mission necessarily something best learned by pointing to individual passages. Rather, I’d have us consider the entire witness of the people of God as recorded in the Bible. But these few verses certainly complicate the picture of mission put forth in the Sauls resolution.
The recently-released budget for the next three years of Episcopal Church spending points up exactly why we need to be having a conversation on what we mean by mission. While the narrative to go with the budget mentions mission in its first paragraph, there is almost no explanation as to what the budget drafters think the word means. The result is that the conversation about the budget has been almost entirely about how questions, not why ones. Every decision in the budget is one rich with missional implications—cutting funding for youth events but increasing it for policy advocacy is a missional decision, for instance—and I want to talk about the what and the why before talking about the how.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of questions I’d like to think about in the run-up to General Convention
- What is the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ?
- What does the church have to offer the world in this generation?
- Why is the Christian witness significant/important/meaningful in this time and place?
- Why does the Episcopal Church exist? What is the unique offering that Episcopal followers of God in Christ can make to the world?
I have some thoughts on all these questions and hope to get around to sharing some of them. For now, though, I hope we can change our budget and structure conversation away from one that pits Episcopalians against one other in a scarce fight for money and power and towards one that starts asking what and why before asking how.