Monday, March 03, 2014

"Mission Creep" in Faith Formation

Mission creep:That idea popped into my head this morning as I ruminated on life in the Church (big "C") today. Mission creep, according to the definition linked above, arose in the mid-1990s as a descriptive of what happens (predominantly in a military sense) when a particular goal of a project is achieved and then expands to new, and unanticipated, parameters. We can recognize mission creep in that way. Most adult alive today can point to an event in our military history as an example. For some, it was the Korean conflict. For my generation, it was Viet Nam. The recent, and prolonged, conflicts in the Persian Gulf, centered for the most part in the United States' actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are also examples (but then, for the sake of the example, one would have to include post-WWII Palestine under British control, the 1980s Soviet campaigns in Afghanistan and the Iran/Iraq wars). You may get the point. From a conflict-based perspective, mission creep is apparent and probably universally allowed as unacceptable. Yet, violence (achieving success in its aim or not) tends to beget violence. War begets war. Still, my point rests not on the use of this idea as a military concept, but as a socio-religious one. Please bear with me as we unpack this thought:
As churches become materially aware of the general decline in the acceptance of institutional religion in our society, many are responding by forming strategies of response. We are looking at core values, seeking out the basic essentials of our mission (what we are called to do and be by God) in the community and forging plans to enable our survival. Given that there is no one real source of decline that we can point to with any sense of unanimity, and that denominations, judicatories and local faith communities all express some degree of distinctiveness, is it then any wonder that right now there are any number of books, programs, consultants and scholars who are working to describe both the issue and at the same time offer an effective and marketable solution? Mission creep in this sense is not so much about having achieved a victory and then working to formulate a response to newly revised parameters of ministry in an expanded context. We are instead on the back end of the mission creep that built the institutional church that many of us have been formed in, and that is in the process of reforming into something else in this present age.
I had hoped to be led by God into a reflection of how mission creep can be a good thing in church life. After all, aren't we all called  to mission? Mission expansion should be a good thing! Mission is our bread and butter, the expression of which defines a church in its relationship to the community in which it finds itself bound in service to the proclamation of the Gospel...and yet.
And yet too often we get the idea that building up mission in the Church is about our survival. We want to exist, to thrive, to be relevant to people...and yet because that has been such a "granted" concept for so long we wind up stumbling when what we perceive as mission winds up not kindling much of a response at all from the folks "out there" in the community. Survival of that sort of mission ideal might not be viable, not when the mission creep is attempting simply to reassert ways of being that got us here in the first place. We are justified, according to scripture, by faith; not just because we happen to exist.
When mission creep overtakes a military mission, the answer is relatively a peace that might endure at best or simply withdraw, at worst. But in viewing our world history of late, can we note any peace that has been able to be sustained?
In like manner, being a part of a church that places a premium on its traditions and history, I struggle to form responses to this new mission environment we are living in that might encourage me to innovate as a leader of my church while at the same time maintaining some coherent (and pastorally needed) tie-in to what we have been in the past. One of the signs of the kingdom of God is that what has been old is being made new...but what does that look like, and how do we avoid tinkering it into a justification for institutional self-preservation?
What I am seeing in the church, in my church and in the leaders I work with in the wider community of organized religion that just might work for us in our evolution and growth as the Body of Christ in the world today is a willingness to look critically at our selves (and our expectations of self, other and even God) and roll back the institutional mission creep of the past decades. It is not sustainable. What is sustainable is getting back to the basics of what Jesus modeled for us, to answer his call to follow him and learn once again what it means to be disciples of the Christ. With that reset comes an awareness that all the rest of "church" in our lives is really meant to be a support system for the basic work we are called into as followers of the living God in Christ. Traditions, prayerbooks, orders of ministry, sacraments, even the Bible itself are tools for mission....they are not the mission in and of itself, ever.
And our mission? To know Christ and to make him known in the world. We accomplish that by keeping his teachings, remembering the story of our family of God through the millennia, practicing repentance and forgiveness, proclaiming the Good News, seeking/serving Christ in all persons and striving for justice and peace. In my church, we call that the Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, pp 304-305). When we step outside of those promises, we start to engage in mission creep. When we keep them as a practice, then they provide a tight mission focus. Still, perhaps this is our moment, when we as a generation recognize that what worked in one age, an institutional church that not only represent the establishment but in fact is the establishment is giving way. Our mission reset takes us back to the basic practice that started the Church in the first place. We are remembering that we are, through time, simply this...a group of disciples gathered to follow and learn from Jesus; and apostles commissioned to go out and proclaim Jesus to the world.
We just have to remember to keep the mission....and avoid the.....yes, creep.


  1. our church,St Stephen's Waretown is hosting a lenten program that reminds me of your post.It is a video series led by Diana Butler Bass "embracing Spiritual Awakening" it deals with the mission of the church at this time.When reaching out to others one of the conclusions seemed to be that non or non practicing Christians wanted our personal experiences of God not so much our teachings,creeds etc.what is your feeling on that Father?

  2. Maureen, I think Diana Butler Bass hits the nail on the head. What makes us memorable as people of faith, and what draws people to seek community within the Church is an awareness among the faithful that our primary area of activity as the Church is NOT in the church. It is "out there" and among "them." And with that, things like creeds and teachings lack context and thus substance. Teachings, creeds and prayers are the fuel of our practice, but our focus is always beyond the "us" of the church gathered. It is, I think, at its best when it is visible, brightly so, and accessible to people where they are (and not where we wish they would be).