The story of God’s mission in Jesus straight away introduces us to three of the essential characteristics of any true missionary enterprise. If our mission doesn’t look like this then we’re deluding ourselves that we’re really engaging in Christian mission at all.
First, real mission involves a journey. At the most basic level it means travelling outside our comfort zone. More than that, it involves going out into the world rather than staying inside the stockade. More even than that, it means going to new places - not necessarily new places on the map of the world but also places where we don’t normally go in our own communities. That might be the pub, or the school gates, or the elderly people’s lunch club.
When he moved to live near us, my Dad said he was more than happy to join the local Methodist Church but he drew the line at going to the elderly persons’ lunch club, because he said he was sure that he wouldn’t have anything in common with the other people there. It was impossible to test this hypothesis, because he wouldn’t try it even once. But even if it were true, is that a reason not to go?
As Christians we’re supposed to be on a journey, and that means being prepared to go not just to a different church but into totally new situations where initially we may feel uncomfortable. Mission is about meeting new people and trying new things. But, of course, it’s a challenge - something that’s much easier said than done.
Second, effective mission is characterised by weakness. God’s mission in Jesus begins on a bed of hay. It doesn’t depend on having loads of resources. It doesn’t depend on having all the answers. It doesn’t depend on instant success. It grows instead from tiny beginnings, as small as a mustard seed or a baby in a manger. Setbacks and rejection are an inevitable part of the process.
Someone was asked why he’d moved from England to Silicon Valley in California. He gave a number of reasons. It has the best infrastructure in the world for IT companies. Lots of people there are willing to invest in IT. There's lots of groundbreaking research going on. But, crucially, it doesn't matter in California if you try something out and it fails. There people are always ready to give you another chance. Weakness and failure are seen as phases that we all have to go through.
If our mission isn’t characterised by failure and weakness then it isn’t real Christian mission because it means we’re not taking enough risks, we’re playing too safe. But, unlike in Silicon Valley, weakness isn’t a temporary phase that we’re supposed to grow out of. It’s a permanent characteristic of true Christian mission patterned on Jesus. His mission began on a bed of hay and reached its culmination on a cross. True Christian mission should always be risk-taking. It should always make us vulnerable.
Finally, real mission always gets a mixed reception. Some people welcome and embrace it. They’re like the shepherds in the Christmas story. Other people are hostile and reject it. They’re like King Herod in the parallel story about the magi. And then there are the fence sitters, the people who hear the shepherds saying wonderful things about Jesus but reserve judgement or turn a deaf ear because they don’t want to be challenged or disturbed.
They’re the mirror image of a Christian community which doesn’t engage in real mission because the members prefer to play safe and talk only to themselves. In the same way the fence sitters and the deniers don’t respond to real mission because they feel safer or more comfortable sticking to their own certainties or their own established way of life. They do hear the shepherds but they pretend not to have heard them or shout them down.
If we don’t get a mixed response to our attempts at mission, if everyone’s kind about it, and encouraging and says they’re sure to be along next time we do something, it can't be real mission. We might be engaging with the community, but we’re not engaging in Christian mission until we get a mixed response.