Kenda Creasy Dean begins the fifth chapter of Almost Christian with a beautiful story from Texas. It is about a high school football coach who encouraged the fans from his wealthy district to show love and blessing to a team on their schedule made up of juvenile offenders from a local youth prison. You can read the story here. It sets the tone for a chapter on mission and imagination.
The theme of this chapter is that God enters the world through people like us (88). This entering the world is modeled by Jesus Christ’s self-sacrificial love and the same love motivates true religion:
Instead of lowest-common-denominator Christianity in which everyone is happy if people just get along, missional churches ratchet up expectations by consciously striving to point out, interpret, and embody the excessive nature of God’s love…nothing undercuts the human instinct of self-preservation like sacrificial love (89)
This entering the world in self-sacrificial love is mission. When I visit churches to talk about campus ministry, I always say that I do not look at myself as the lone “missionary” at PSU Berks. A lot of these churches are Evangelical Congregational, under whose bookkeeping I am a missionary in the Global Ministries Commission. Thus, I am often invited as the “missionary” speaker for the week. But I want the churches to see that in my mind, CSF is a team of missionaries on the campus. Furthermore, as a challenge, I try to help the congregations see that they are all, in their daily lives, missionaries. Mission is not one department in a church only for people who are good at it, instead mission is at the root of all we do. Dean says that, “The fact that we have turned the word ‘mission’ into an adjective testifies to the American church’s frayed ecclesiology” (89). She quotes Alan Hirsch in saying that the church does not have a mission but rather God’s mission has a church. More specifically, God’s mission at PSU Berks has a community called Christian Student Fellowship.
Part of the mission of the church is to its own young people: “Just as God came alongside us in the person of Jesus Christ, we best represent Christ with young people by coming alongside them as envoys of his unconditional love” (93). The church must translate the gospel to its own children. But that is only the first step, as churches invite young people to join in the church’s mission: “A missional imagination assumes that young people take part in the church’s mission – that every Christian teenager is a missionary called to translate the gospel across boundaries, not because she is capable or even interested, but because she is baptized and is therefore sent into the world as Christ’s envoy” (97)
Applying this to my own ministry with college students, I recognize that though I do not need to learn a new language in the way a person going to another country must , I still need to, in some way, learn a different language. First of all, I am now over 30, I am married and have a child on the way. Further, I grew up in the church and am seminary educated. This means I look at the world differently then most college students. I need to interpret their world in order to speak into it.
Second, this is not just a challenge for me. Students who grew up in church have learned to speak church language. In many ways, communicating the gospel to their peers requires speaking in a different language. This may be why those students who come to Christ while at college, with little to no background in the church, often seem most at ease in reaching their peers. They know what it is like to be on the other side, they know the language!
Third, Dean speaks of how young people are suspended between adulthood and childhood (she uses the technical term “liminality”). Such a transitional part of life is also a place for creativity, insight and openness to new ideas. Middle school, high school and college students are all at times in life when they are deciding what they believe and how they want to live. It is vital for the church to reach out to them; within this it is vital for the church to encourage its own young people to reach out to their peers.
Giving young people mission and purpose, encouraging them to live for something bigger then themselves (and there is nothing bigger than God’s plan to renew all of creation through Jesus Christ) is the way to grow and disciple Christians. Of course, that is easier said than done!