This is part four of a four-part series (click to read part 1, part 2, and part 3) on a question that Dr. George Hunsberger asked in his last lecture at Western Theological Seminary: “What difference does it make when you put the word missional in front of the word church?” In this lecture, Hunsberger offered nine affirmations to clarify how the word “missional” relates to the church’s identity, focus, and vocation. After all, if “missional” can mean anything, then its powerful impact on shaping our understanding of the church is functionally minimized. In the previous offering (part 3), the discussion centered on a robust missional focus, which propels the church toward collectively joining in God’s activity beyond the church walls and in all the world. Here, I address the last core quality: the vocation of the missional church.
The root understanding of the word vocation is “to call,” implying “a summons.” It is broader in scope than what is typically understood as a career or profession. To have a vocation is to respond to one who calls or one who summons, resulting in an orientation or posture of submission and action toward the caller. As part of God’s grand mission of redemption, the church is summoned and then sent to represent his reign and kingdom. What was stated previously regarding our missional identity and focus applies to vocation as well: “being a missional church is all about a sense of identity, shared pervasively in a congregation that knows it is caught up into God’s intent for the world. It comes from having heard, one way or the other, the still, small voice that says, ‘You are mine. I have called you to me. I join you to my compassionate approach to the whole world for its healing. You are witnesses to what I have done and what I will yet do.” The church responds to the call of God to be his witnesses. This mission of God defines our vocation and our call.
A congregation discerns both how their vocation is to be manifested in a particular time and place and its congruence with God’s grand mission of redemption for his Church of all times and places. The geographic, ethnic, economic, and social milieu of a congregation's location will shape its character and sense of missional vocation, resulting in diverse expressions throughout a denominational system. A one-size-fits-all approach to mission is contrary to discerning a missional vocation. In discerning vocation, a congregation must ask the questions, “Where are we?” and “Who are we?” Interacting with our traditions in our local context will lead to fresh appreciation of historical resources for mission, as well as confrontation of what hinders our missional vocation. “Missional engagement today tests and refines and reforms that tradition as new potentials in it are discovered.” Missional vocation emerges as the congregation enters into a dialogue with its local context and its tradition, allowing a genuine contextual missional expression. The calling of the congregation will give expression to the unique giftedness found in the congregational community as they explore and engage their context. This dialogue will refine the discernment of what unique gifts the local congregation offers on behalf of the whole church.
The vocation of the missional church becomes an artistic expression of the local congregation. Artists instinctively see the world differently and present expressions of beauty that can build bridges to a deeper reality. Makoto Fujimura, in his book Culture Care, states that “Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God; it finds its source and its purpose in God’s character. God out of his gratuitous love, created a world he did not need because he is an artist.” He further states that “artists have a great capacity to see someone who is ‘other’ as their ‘neighbor’” and be “reconcilers of division and fragmentation,” while learning to “be adaptable and blend into an environment while not belonging to it.” The artist “should point to beauty and healing,” which “reminds our neighbors and ourselves of who we are.” The Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh stated it this way, “I feel there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
The unique gifts of a local congregation emerge from a dialogue with its tradition and its local cultural context. The expression of those gifts is the congregation’s work of art: creating beauty, seeing the other, being reconcilers and healers, reminding our neighbors who they truly are as images bearers of God. Our missional vocation is anchored in our tradition and moves out in faith for a dynamic interaction with our local context like the work of an artist portraying the beauty of God’s redemptive work.