A New Mission for the Church?

Another post on Quaker Heritage Day 2011. For more, see my earlier posts. For my inspiration, all credit goes to God, C. Wess Daniels, and the awesome Friends who were part of the discussion.

Wess's first topic of the day (after his introduction) was a redefinition of the word mission. I feel like it was an opportunity to reclaim the word, much like Carol Spencer inspired me to reclaim the word holiness last year. He started by asking us what associations we had with the word and these ranged all over, from the saving of souls to military campaigns. I personally think of the haunting movie with Jeremy Irons & Robert DeNiro, The Mission.

As I see it now, the word "mission" for a postmodern church or meeting means something combining the secular nonprofit organizational meaning of a purpose for being, as in a mission statement, and the Quaker meaning of a leading, or a God-directed purpose. It means the work that a particular church or meeting is called to do and be, and Divinely fitted to do, and needed to do. I think it could be related to Walter Wink's concept of the angel of an institution, but I don't really feel qualified to address that connection.

So then Wess proposed a very interesting idea, that the mission of the church, broadly speaking, is to be a midwife to the spiritual life, of an individual or a community. Here are some of the interesting points that were generated:
(some come from Wess and some from the audience, they built on each other)
  • the midwife brings experience and training
  • the midwife trusts the mother to be competent
  • the midwife is not in charge or control of the labor
  • the midwife is not the baby or the impregnator of the mother, nor the one doing the labor, nor the one who will keep the baby
  • the midwife serves a particular area; she is mobile but not homeless
  • the midwife doesn't show up where she's not wanted or just on game day
  • the midwife is committed to the whole process, for better or worse, regardless of outcomes
Now substitute "minister" or "the church" for the "midwife" and read the list out loud to yourself.

The church trains and prepares and brings faith that a person or community can have, already has, a spiritual life. The church/minister has the role of accompanying the person who's developing their spiritual life - not in charge of creating it or saying where it will go, although they may have some experience of seeing how things often progress, and can be reassuring along the way. The church has to be flexible but not unmoored. A minister serves a community as a whole and people as individuals. The church has to be in it for the long haul.

I know I want to spend more time contemplating and discussing this image. Does it speak to you? Would your meeting or church be open to thinking about its purpose this way?

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Blogger Rik Panganiban said...

thanks for sharing this. I have my own notes that I keep meaning to blog up, but haven't gotten around to it. So this is so very helpful.

2/23/2011 6:40 AM  
Blogger Micah Bales said...

Thank you for this post, Robin! It really speaks to my own sense of the Church's mission, yet re-frames it in a way I had never considered before. While midwifery is not an image that would normally occur to me, it is a beautiful one, and very apt!

Micah Bales
The Lamb's War

2/23/2011 1:13 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

I'm dubious about this one: "the midwife trusts the mother to be competent." At least in this context!

What we're really supposed to trust is rather that "God is competently at work within the mother." What's being born knows when and how it's due. The community (or individual) may not have a clue about that.

And the church might really have some responsibility here beyond "midwifing". Some "seed" may need to be planted that goes beyond what an individual (or community) would consciously welcome. "Spiritual harassment"? Dare we say that the recipient is "asking for it"?! Sort of a slippery, slimy cliff-edge here... so let's try for a better way of describing the situation!

At the deepest level, we all want the Spirit to be openly born and living actively within us. At the conscious surface, we aren't so sure... What happens to our security if we consent?-- Will we at least get spiritual child support? Or will we end up on some sort of spiritual welfare, thrown out on the streets with a child we can neither control, nor bear to leave, nor sustain by our personal strengths!

Something needs to seduce our fears away... and our fearful consciousness will naturally distrust Christ's courtship! "Spiritual panderers," anyone? Hmmm! No, this sounds more like it: the church as go-between. As arranger of opportunities for these lovers, Christ and our selves, to meet.

2/23/2011 10:37 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Robin, thanks for the write-up and your reflections on what we all discussed.

2/23/2011 10:45 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I'm going to start from the end: Hi Wess, I'm glad you liked it. But aren't you supposed be to taking some silly little test this week? For those who want more on this topic, I recommend this post from Wess's blog last year.

Forrest, I think the fact that you can quibble this long about this idea is a sign that it's a powerful image. It's a metaphor with rich possibilities and not a complete correspondence between the original and the new interpretation.

Micah, glad you like it. It was breathtaking in the room when Wess introduced the concept.

Rik, I'm glad you did post today about your impressions!

2/24/2011 12:35 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

As a poet, I have due respect and due caution towards "powerful images."

Quibbling is needed because a powerful image can lead us right back to Egypt... in the sense of Moses & that really artistic calf.

Yes, we need to respect the current understanding of people we approach-- and we also need to recognize that what they're sure of might ultimately be something they need to break lose from. Expertise in the way things have been can be respected without being idolised (which is a danger implicit in your midwife model.) & maybe the best model is more like "We all need to get knocked up by God & take things from there!" (?)

2/25/2011 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Sarah Hennessey said...

I'm a former Quaker and current Catholic sister and the "midwife" model is one that has come up a lot recently in some of our deeper discernment as sisters. We talk about "midwifing" and "hospicing" at the same time. My community of 1200, 50 years ago now recieves one new member a year. And we see our selves as needing to "hospice" through the radical diminishment while also "midwiving" the tender new flames of mission.

I think your descriptions of the midwife metaphor and birthing the spiritual life are very helpful. And yes, it falls apart at the same time since we are talking of the Spirit who will blow where she will!

I just wanted to add the hospice image. The families in my faith communities bury their grandmothers and birth their babies all in the same year. The church/minister accompanies the faith community through birth and death.

2/25/2011 4:05 PM  
Anonymous mandy shepard said...

I just want to add that I really love Walter Wink.

2/27/2011 10:03 AM  

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