Church should break boundaries, says Chicago-based priest and professor

AUCKLAND — God’s job description is mission, Jesus’ is evangelisation, and ours is discipleship, says priest and professor Fr Anthony Gittins, CSSp.
But the concepts of mission and evangelisation rarely feature God and Jesus today, he told 40 people at Laidlaw College in west Auckland on February 23.
Fr Gittins, from Manchester, is a professor of Christian Missions and Ministry at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He tied his talk to the concept of missio dei (the mission of God), a phrase coined in 1934 by German missiologist Karl Hartenstein.
Fr Gittins said it seemed to him the word mission had been degraded when every institution, like McDonald’s, had a mission statement.
“The subject of mission is God,” he said.
Talking about mission means we are talking about the way God operates. But that brings us to realise that there is nothing we can say about God that makes much sense — because, by definition, we cannot comprehend mystery.
God knows that we cannot know him, Fr Gittins said, so God missions his own self, in Jesus.
Jesus does mission, he said. “But if you think about the way mission is being used now, it rarely features God. Likewise, evangelisation rarely features Jesus.”
It’s as though these ideas have been reduced to Church programmes, he said. Since mission has brought Jesus down to earth, he gathers people around him — “and their job description is discipleship”.
The Greek word for disciple means learner, Fr Gittins said, and the only qualification needed for a disciple is a willingness to be taught.
There are two ways to learn, he pointed out. One is the academic way, involving study, exams, assessments — learning about something. “But Jesus is not asking us to learn about him. He is asking us to learn him, and that mode of learning is the apprentice method.”
The only model for discipleship is “learn from me”.
Jesus had only a short time in public life to gather his disciples and to teach them so they could continue the missio dei. There is a wide consensus, Fr Gittins said, that there are four broad elements of evangelisation: Proclamation; Witness; Dialogue; Liberation.
We are called as Jesus’ disciples, he said, but we need to become evangelists.
Each disciple should be able to say how she is proclaiming — and witnessing, and dialoguing and liberating.
“And my guess is we can all score ourselves high on one of those four and low on at least one other of those.”
But disciples are called to koinonia (close community) and, if we are in a community of faith, then we need to ensure that someone else is taking care of the elements we are not doing so well on.
This is proclamation, but with our mouth shut, Fr Gittins said. “If proclamation is with your mouth open, witness is doing it.”
Jesus does mission through dialogue. One feature of dialogue is that it changes both parties, Fr Gittins said.
“And God changes. Why? Because God is in relationship. And because God listens. So if there’s mutual listening, there’s mutual modification.”
The second feature is that the outcome of dialogue can’t be known in advance. A lot goes under the name dialogue these days that’s not true dialogue, because the outcome is known.
If Jesus had a programme he would know what he was going to do on any day, but he didn’t know — he did not know who was going to reach out to him when or how.
The promise of God’s coming can be distilled under one word — restoration, said Fr Gittins. Another word for liberation is restoration, he said. When Jesus talked to Bartimaeus and asked him what he wanted, he said, “Jesus, that I can see again”. He just wants to be restored.
If we constantly go back to those four elements then it will be straightforward for us to go back and see what it is for us to be disciples in the 21st century, Fr Gittins said.
But there is also another list of four elements we can use:
Encounter; Table fellowship; Foot washing; Boundary crossing.
“Viktor Frankl said ‘To love, you must encounter’.”
We cannot love the poor, Fr Gittins said, because the poor is an abstraction. We can only love one at a time.
“If someone says, ‘I love the poor’, ask them to name them.” You can’t love in general, because there are no people in general. There are only people in particular.
Table fellowship
It has been said that the main reason Jesus was killed is because he ate with all the wrong people at the wrong time, said Fr Gittins. Jesus calls people to discipleship by table. Jesus’ table fellowship was radically equal and radically inclusive.
On the other hand, we exclude people and we do it in Jesus’ name.
If we do table fellowship right, we are living mission, Fr Gittins said.
There are said to be two ways of eating, Fr Gittins said. We eat with our friends, and we also eat with our enemies who we hope will become our friends. The Church does only the first.
Foot washing
If I wash someone’s feet, it makes my head lower than their head, so it’s an antidote to being in a superior position. “So the question for me is ‘How do I shape up here? Who’s foot do I wash, who’s foot do I not wash?’”
Boundary crossing
This just means reaching out across my comfort zone.
“We have to ask ourselves what do we have to do and what boundary do we have to cross. It doesn’t have to be far from home, and it has to be far from boundaries of privilege and comfort and power.”
Only if we do boundary crossing can we say we are doing mission as Jesus did it.
Fr Gittins said that Christians often talk about the Church having mission. Instead, he said, we should be talking about the mission having the Church.

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