Mike Pears is pioneering urban mission – and urban mission training – in Bristol. Here he reflects on the implications of ‘the Nazareth Manifesto’ for our own engagement in mission.
Luke 4 lays out some foundational understanding for the mission of Jesus which I find deeply challenging.
Firstly, Jesus’ public ministry is preceded and characterised by a profound inner experience. Jesus, like Israel, is declared God’s son (Exodus 4, Luke 4) – the question posed by the wilderness experience is “will you look like a son when under pressure?” In other words, is this sonship the genuine article or is the image only skin deep?
These wilderness challenges are centred around the temptation of self service; will I let ministry, vocation or profession define me? Will I let it become the source of my security and identity? As a congregation, will we allow ourselves to gain an influential name or reputation which will attract others to us?
These are extremely difficult questions to answer. However, I do believe that engaging in certain kinds of mission and ministry will bring us face to face with exactly these questions in our personal and congregational lives.
Engaging in partnership with other churches means laying down the right to control what goes on – we will not get things all our own way; we are challenged to put the welfare and mission of another congregation before our own – we will have to take risks and pay for that which will have no visible benefit to our own congregation.
I am sure that partnership will contain elements of wilderness where we will face some difficult and testing questions. However, my belief is that the Holy Spirit has led us this way and that the very act of entering into partnership with other congregations could be profoundly good for us if we have the courage to be honest with ourselves and God.
Secondly, I understand Jesus’ mission mandate to be as much social and political as it is spiritual and personal (Luke 4:17-19). Good news to the poor and the declaration of a new Jubilee is as much about societal transformation as personal transformation; and as much about life now as eternal life in the kingdom to come. Therefore the call on our lives is to embrace the full scope of this mandate.
Let me illustrate with one example. Like many cities, Bristol is a divided community. On the one hand it enjoys the highest personal average income in the UK outside of London; on the other it has large areas of entrenched urban poverty which have remained stubbornly unchanged since WWII. Successive councils have been unable or unwilling to deal with the problems and as a result Bristol’s education and health facilities are amongst the poorest in Britain.
Perhaps from our perspective, the most troubling thing is that this divide is actually embodied within our churches; to all intents and purposes we are not so different from the world. In communities and congregations there is an economic, social and geographical divide which is entirely contrary to ‘Good News to the poor’ and any declaration of Jubilee.
We need to take a very deliberate step to live out the gospel mandate in broader terms – it will have direct economic, social and geographical impact for individual Christians and congregations; finances will be given, people will get practically involved in social issues and they will visit, pray for and possibly move to areas of the city that are only names on a map at the moment. Compared to the size of the overall problem, we are taking small steps; our prayer however is that, as we take small (and ‘prophetic’?) steps, God himself will act.
Thirdly, Jesus’ announcement of the extent of his mission led to an attempt on his life even before his ministry had started (Luke 4:23-30). In retelling the stories of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus was declaring again the very reason for Israel’s existence – that as God’s covenant people they were to be a “blessing to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). This theme is developed strongly in Luke and Acts as the most marginalised in society are repeatedly the focus of Jesus’, and later the church’s, ministry.
Surely the call on the church is to be focused primarily on the margins of
society, to pursue relationship with ‘the other’, to cross boundaries which are
ethnic, religious, economic, and class orientated.