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In his article “Formation for Mission” in the Winter 2014 Anglican Theological Review, Thomas Breidenthal, Bishop of Southern Ohio, proposes a framework for equipping disciples for mission within the process of faith formation.
Breidenthal defines mission as God’s reconciling work. He reminds us that we do not have a mission of our own but are invited to participate in God’s mission, which is first and foremost the reconciliation of God to humanity through Jesus Christ.
He also highlights a few ways in which this can be done poorly.
First, we can assume that the mission is ours, rather than God’s, and seek to engineer our mission plan accordingly. We can also become so bogged down in day-to-day church operations that we lose sight of God’s reconciling mission or even begin to think that survival is the mission that we must address above all.
In contrast to these errors, Breidenthal lays out suggested practices for those who seek to participate in God’s mission. He particularly emphasizes liturgy and self-criticism.
He points out several specific elements of our Eucharistic liturgy that are important for shaping us as Christian disciples. The Liturgy of the Word, the Prayers of the People, the exchange of the Peace, and the Offertory are all held out as examples of what it looks like to live a reconciling life, examples that can help shape our understanding of mission.
I agree that it is essential to recognize our liturgy as formative. Such an understanding requires continued education about how the liturgy (and not just Holy Eucharist) is structured to help shape our understanding of God and our community.
(For an excellent introductory text with a concise treatment of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Episcopal Church, I heartily recommend The Liturgy Explained by James Farwell of Virginia Theological Seminary.)
The other way in which Breidenthal would have us conduct formation for mission is in willingness to be self-critical, to understand our shortcomings and ways in which we could do better. This means evaluating any number of current church and community practices to evaluate what works, what doesn’t, and what is downright harmful to the community.
Although Breidenthal doesn’t mention it specifically, I believe this understanding of mission points to a final area of emphasis: We must learn to take discernment seriously. We cannot rely solely on our own initiative, or the initiative of individuals within a community, to guide us on our way.
This means trusting both our theology and practices of discernment, so that we can more clearly hear God’s call in our individual and communal lives.
In this regard, two texts I’ve found extremely helpful personally are the somewhat academic Awakening Vocation: A Theology of Christian Call by Edward Hahnenberg and the more accessible Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community by Suzanne Farnham and others.
I know there are many other cherished resources for exploring vocation, discernment, liturgy, and institutional self-examination. I invite you to share in the comments any that you’ve found particularly helpful.
Ian Lasch (@ianlasch) is an M.Div. junior at Virginia Theological Seminary.