Doing Mission – The Value of Position

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There’s a lot of talk about mission, but we don’t often hear from the practitioners themselves. There are lots of books about mission, some, even those coming from a Faculty of Practical Theology provide a lot of theory. What is missing isn’t so much the truth of what they say, but how to bring it to fruitful ministry. Most missional literature focuses on what it is about. What is missing is how to do it! How does the rubber hit the road? This article seeks to address “how to do it”!

Getting the Soil Right

To explain what I mean, an analogy from the garden comes to mind. Getting the right plant, fertiliser, water and sunshine are key elements for a successful garden patch. Or so it seems. More recently horticulturalists have urged us to get the soil right first. Time spent working up the soil is the first priority. If the soil is healthy, the plant will be too. Jesus obviously makes this point in the parable included in the first three gospels, the parable of the Sower. Is this dominance a statement of value in itself? The issue for Jesus is not just the seed, but where it is planted. Even the seeds planted in good ground vary in fruitfulness. You could say, fruitful ministry depends a lot on position.

The issue for Jesus is not just the seed, but where it is planted. Even the seeds planted in good ground vary in fruitfulness. You could say, fruitful ministry depends a lot on position.

So, as I’m coming off ten years as a practitioner of mission and prior to that forty years of pastoral ministry, I thought to put some thoughts to paper that have helped me see a little more clearly how mission can be fruitful. This paper, will address the importance of position in doing mission.

What is Position?

What do we mean then, by position? Well, you will readily recall one of the slogans from the Real Estate people when they carry on about “location, location, location”. Positioning in mission is just like that. Rodney Stark in one of his books[1] makes a case that the early Christians were an urban movement. That came about because Paul deliberately targeted the “God-fearers” of the synagogues of the great urban centres. He preached the gospel in the synagogues of those centres. The Godfearers were seeking the high morality of the one and only God of the Jewish faith, but baulked at the strictness of Jewish Law. When they heard of good news of forgiveness and hope in the context of grace, not law, they responded warmly. Paul, had position clearly in his mind and it worked!

Let’s take a couple of examples current to our own time to make the point. Look at one common to so many churches, the soup kitchen. It draws in homeless or needy people nearby to the church each week and provides an opportunity for chatting and encouragement. It’s a valuable ministry, showing to the neighbourhood that Christians are a compassionate people. They are “Good Samaritans”. It’s also a popular ministry amongst the church people themselves. It certainly seems to tick all the biblical boxes about loving the poor, the widow and the fatherless. It’s a winner all round, for the community and the church.

However, looking at it from a missional perspective can paint a different picture. Quite frankly the poor, the widows and the fatherless don’t attend. Instead those who come, though no less needy, are people locked in the CentreLink world where mental health issues and poverty and particularly dependence issues abound. From my experience it’s not so easy to track these people towards the gospel. You can pick it up in a number of ways. For instance, mostly the devotions played out at these events are received with silent acceptance. Sometimes some will respond and attend church. Many don’t and those who give the devotions at the soup kitchen on behalf of the church often leave with questions running through their minds like, “What were they thinking about when I was speaking?”. Is the silence based on an acceptance that this is the cost the religious people put on the event? Or is it that they really are exploring the gospel?

My hunch is that it is the former, if only because so many of them never go on to pursue the gospel at a Bible study or a church meeting. So using the idea of position, I would say church soup kitchens are good for the low income dependency people, but low on tracking people further into the gospel. It’s certainly not a waste of time and Ken Morgan’s book “Pathways”[2] is outstanding in helping a church in setting up a process for these people to explore and own salvation. Writing from an Aussie situation Morgan’s strategies are ever so valuable for Australian Christians seeking to make the most of ministries like soup kitchens that have an extremely limited position of outreach. So what should we say about the soup kitchen ministry? It works, it benefits a lot of people who are in the majority dependent on welfare, but it doesn’t take much to see this is only a tiny sub-section of our broken society. The powerful sorrows of those suffering domestic violence, the many caught up in drugs, let alone the idolatry around science and consumerism dominate the social landscape over much of the city. I’m not for a moment suggesting that soup kitchen ministry isn’t valuable, but to make the point that where we position ministry is important both biblically, and socially. Soup kitchen ministry is what I would rate as a low position ministry.

Soup kitchens are good for the low income dependency people, but low on tracking people further into the gospel … what I would rate as a low position ministry.

Take another example from the contemporary world of mission in a secular society. This time the example is the ministry of street chaplains. My experience with them has been over ten years developing their formation and practice in the State of Western Australia. Starting from scratch they’ve developed across the state to twelve centres and hundreds of chaplains. They’ve formed warm and valued partnerships with other social providers such as the police and local governments, and through also using the model of the good Samaritan, have shaped a smarter way of evangelising that responds to people’s interest rather than seeking to create it.

High Position Ministry

This is what I rate as a high position ministry. Why? Well in a number of ways. For instance in relation to key social stakeholders. The Police, Local Governments, Indigenous workers and many more who are addressing social dysfunctions are all engaging with them. This result of rubbing shoulders means the stakeholders themselves are being introduced, addressed and aware of the gospel through the words and deeds of the chaplains. This is vital ministry in itself to key community people many of whom see limited progress in their own endeavours, or at least are aware of those limitations, and have their mental radar searching for a way forward. Wow! The chaplains, working with God are seeing results. Those stakeholders don’t miss it. This is good positional ministry.

The streets are also good for ministry. Every day the media use the streets as a landscape for their sessions. Our screens are filled with the sorrows of those on drugs, or victims of social misbehaviour. A chaplain might spend an hour getting a vomiting girl through to a better condition, then negotiate a taxi before finally ringing her mum that she’s on her way home. That generosity, given freely by a (voluntary) chaplain has a powerful effect on the girl. It’s a good witness for the Lord! It’s high position ministry. The people on the streets love them.

It’s not been my purpose in this article to pursue the Scripture background for high position ministry. There’s another time and place for that. The point is that missioners should strategise around the position their ministries take them. The above are given as examples only. If this article gets traction I will post the next one on how power works when doing mission.

[1] Stark Rodney (2006): Cities of God, Harper, San Francisco

[2] Morgan K (2017), Pathways: Local Mission for All Kinds of Churches, K L Morgan, Melbourne.