Some months ago I was speaking at a denominational conference in Scandinavia. It was a gathering of pastors and other church workers. In many ways this was a denomination in good health. They had grown in numbers over the last ten years, partly because they had some good ministers in local churches, partly because they attracted good leaders as a denomination and partly because, although some churches had closed (and needed to), they had also planted new churches and welcome some independent congregations into their midst.
How had they achieved this healthy outcome? Meeting their key leader (a kind of Arch-bishop) gave me some clues. First he knew how to care for and develop the ministers in his charge. That is an impressive achievement by itself. Second, as a denomination they knew how to exercise a degree of entrepreneurial innovation by welcoming others. Third they understood how to develop healthy communities within local churches.
However, when I asked this gathering of leaders how many first time converts were they seeing, the answer was rather disappointing. They were good at keeping the Christians they had, developing their youth, winning back the lapsed and attracting Christians from other traditions who were moving into town. That is encouraging it its own way (plenty of churches don‘t know how to do these things) but that achievement is all about church health and not really about mission.
This particular denomination was beginning to realize that mission and not just church health needed to be their future agenda. Of course church health is potentially a good place from which to begin on the rocky road of mission but it is not actually mission by itself.
I sense that many denominations in Europe have engaged in church health practices and that represents an improvement over where we have been, but we have a huge chasm to cross in terms of moving from health to actual mission. That is cusp of change that I think may be coming.
Of course that raises many other questions, not the least being what exactly do we mean by mission? We are not talking solely about evangelism, or the measurement of all mission by first time converts, but we are seeking to describe a landscape which is significantly different than church health.
So how is mission different from community service, from a concern for health factors and how does it relate to the evangelistic mandate? This is an ongoing debate in which I am now engaged.
I suggest that community service and church health both begin with a focus on the church. It is the church that offers goods and services to the community in the hope that the community will respond. Church health looks largely (though not exclusively) at the internal life of a church in the hope that a healthy church will overflow into mission. There is nothing wrong with these approaches in and of themselves and indeed they have a good deal to commend them but they are not necessarily the core of mission. Mission begins not with the church but with those with whom we seek to connect. We allow the mission field to shape our imagination.