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.
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?