Thursday, September 06, 2007

Adventures in Ecumenism (IV): from unity-for-mission to unity-as-mission

During a break-out session at a recent ecumenical gathering, the group leader asked each of us to share how we became interested and involved in ecumenical dialogue. One rather astute participant shared that the purpose of church unity is to advance the church's mission. The disunity of the churches is for many a stumbling block to Christian faith. The move to greater visible unity among Christians can be seen as the removal of this barrier. So unity is for the sake of mission.

There is a long historical precedent behind this perspective. The contemporary ecumenical movement has its roots in the missionary experience. Although it is on the right track in its effort to unite ecumenism and evangelism, this unity-for-mission perspective does not go far enough. Note that I am not criticizing the adequacy of this perspective as an initial personal motivation for engaging in ecumenical dialogue. Rather, I am asking whether the relationship between intra-Christian unity and extra-Christian mission this perspective proffers is adequate.

So, what's wrong with the unity-for-mission formula? The unity-for-mission formula places an interval between ecclesial existence and missionary enterprise. The formula instructs us to "get our own house in order" first, then we can turn to our public mission in the world. This attitude assumes that mission is something the churches do after or beyond being the church. Such an interval is inappropriate because the church is missionary by her very nature. The church's being is in her act of mission. The interval does not recognize this and so leads to negative implications for both unity and mission. On the one hand, unity becomes instrumental to some other action, rather than a part of that action. Such an instrumental approach to ecumenical dialogue easily leads to abandoning the task when it does not bear immediate fruit. On the other hand, mission becomes propaganda, since the convert is being colonized into an already existing church culture, rather than being called to share in the church's missionary existence.

So, if the unity-for-mission formula is inadequate, what is the alternative? How can we properly relate unity and mission? The alternative formula I would suggest is unity-as-mission. This is not meant as a reduction of the church's missionary act to her internal unification. Rather, the process of unity itself is seen as a form of the church's missionary existence. The church is missionary by her very nature, which means concretely that she participates in God's reconciliation of the world to himself, announcing the message of reconciliation in Christ and practicing the ministry of reconciliation (cf. II Cor. 5:18-19). This missionary existence includes the reconciliation of humans to each other, both within the church and outside of it. Acts of Christian unity are parables of God's reconciling work and as such participate in God's mission. Therefore, movements toward Christian unity not only instrumentally serve mission but also inherently participate in mission.

Any thoughts?
How do you understand the relationship between unity and mission?
Whatever its relation to unity, is mission a good motivation for ecumenical dialogue?
Are my criticisms of the unity-for-mission formula warranted?
Is the unity-as-mission formula an adequate alternative?
What other alternatives might better express the relationship between unity and mission?


WTM said...

I like you positive bit, and think you are right on. But, I think you slip a bit in characterizing the unity-for-mission position.

You write: "The formula instructs us to "get our own house in order" first, then we can turn to our public mission in the world." The problem is that the interval that you see applied here doesn't have to be there - that is, it isn't in any way 'necessary'.

The implication in my mind when first thinking about unity-for-mission is to improve the state of the church's witness. Of course, this gets very close to unity-as-mission (unity-as-witness?).

vanilla said...

"The church's being is in her mission."

Well said.

JohnLDrury said...


Thanks for your insight. You are right that for the unity-for-mission formula a temporal interval is not necessary but rather contingent on the situation of the church (although I wonder if there's ever been an age when the church has got her house in order). However, the formula seems to imply necessarily a logical interval between unity and mission, which is the problem I wish to signal. Any talk of mission seperated from the church's being is dangerous.

Also, beware of appeals to "witness" to wiggle out of the missionary task. It's easy to just sit around being the church and call that witness. It requires more intentional thought and action to point the church to its missionary existence. "Mission" is a more concrete and more outward-moving term, and so talk of "witness" is filled out concretely by it.


The AJ Thomas said...

In a far less lofty and more pragmatic sense I would suggest unity-by-mission. The truest unity I have experienced between Denominations (Catholic, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Presbyterian, Baptist in one example) has always come through mission. When we work towards a common goal we experience unity. In fact I think this is the essence of healthy vs unhealthy ecumenism. Do we find unity in embracing a common cause or in letting go of cause all together and just be together? If we could take the leaders of all denominations on a short-term missions trip or too a soup kitchen for a few days I think it would be an excellent compliment to all the dialogue.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Unity cannot happen as long as human beings, no matter their "stripe" (race, religion, politics etc.) are looked upon as means to an end...Unity FOR mission is such a "cause"...

Unity AS mission is a great value, but we will struggle with our diverse opionions about where lines are drawn when it comes to "truth claims" and then decide just to agree to each one a voice...equal in power as another's....and then seek to do works for humanity's sake...affirming difference, while defending our position and, yet, maintaining a healthy dose of humility when it comes to reasoned discourse...

Kellen said...

Interestingly, last week I became distracted by my thoughts as I was attempting to translate the Greek words of Evagrius of Pontus, and I began to think about precisely this question. I came to a conclusion at the end of a long train of thought I can no longer recall, and I scribbled at the top of my page, "Partnership as witness??"

In other words, I couldn't agree more with you on this point. And how refreshing it is to encounter those in our midst who share this perspective. I think this is the kind of witness the world will be likely to be surprised by and respond to positively -- surprised, that is, by the joy of fellowship in a common Gospel....

...I hope you're doing well there in Princeton. If you're ever through Chicago, let me know. I live here and would love to grab a beer or coffee.

All the best,