Farewell messages never feel adequate, with so many more challenges to identify, concerns to articulate, gratitude to express, and hopes to inspire.
But one more time, I want to encourage us all to recapture a robust vision of God’s all-embracing vocation for the church. God’s dream is for a world restored and reconciled to its intended purposes, and the church has a vital role to play in saving humanity from the seeds of destruction we call sin.
This message is not new. God’s dream for salvation is embedded in Scripture, with the story of humans created as a functional community of social and responsible beings who will guard the integrity of creation. We see continual efforts, from Genesis to Revelation, to create a covenanted peoplehood. Created communities of 12 were modelled within Israel and by Jesus, with the task of living according to the already-present and the still-coming kingdom of God.
The early church, monastic movements, the Anabaptist vision and missional perspectives all point us to this task. At the heart of this vocation is the compelling vision that the very best gift we can offer to a suffering and sinful world is for the church to be the church—not necessarily church as it has come to be, but church as it was meant to be. The church and all of the organizations it engenders need to address the gulf between what is real and what was intended.
This seems so obvious: Of course we want the church to be what it was intended to be! But do we really? Or have we given up on “being the church” as the primary strategy, and replaced it with other strategies whose goals seem easier to reach?
We have become adept at engaging in worthwhile efforts without including the compelling vocation assigned to the church. We can communicate passionate evangelistic messages, create compelling resources, and participate in peace and justice concerns and other good ministries, without ever connecting them with “being the church” as the foundational vocation, and without forming communities of disciples who are equipped to participate in God’s dream of restoration.
Where do we look for evidence that conviction for the role of the church is taken seriously? Everything from governance structures and strategic planning, to educational processes, and the focus and passion of the ministry itself, help to identify how we view the function of the church. Churches can be:
• Initiators of ministry: This is a ministry of “our” church.
• Targets for ministry: We are here to serve the church.
• Channels of/Partners in ministry: We want to work through/partner with the church.
• Supporters of ministry: We ask for the support of the church.
• Inspirations for ministry: We are a Christian organization.
But the church was designed to be the paradigm for the objectives and priorities we set: a living community of justice, peace, equality, compassion, forgiveness, community development, advocacy, inter-faith engagement, ecological witness, reconciliation, and so on. These are not simply ministries we support, initiate or inspire. Nor are they simply activities we do with, or through, the church. Nor is the church simply a vehicle for services.
Our key offering to the world is a credible, living, visible and real alternative in peacemaking, ecological healing, justice-bearing and equality. The church thus becomes a sacramental presence: a place where the saving grace of God is proclaimed, offered and experienced. This is an awe-inspiring vocation, compelling enough to make it our very highest priority.
May it be so.
This is Robert J. Suderman’s final From Our Leaders column as general secretary of Mennonite Church Canada. He retires this fall, to be replaced by Willard Metzger.