Mission not about ‘scalp-hunting’ for Jesus

MissionMission must not be anxiety-driven, must resonate with people’s needs and longings, and must witness to the love and joy of Christ, says Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, a leading missioner in the C of E who found working in a hospice for the dying transformed his understanding of ministry. He spoke to TMA's Roland Ashby.

By Roland Ashby

September 15 2015When he was a little boy, before he went to sleep at night, Stephen Cottrell’s mother would tell him that if all the little boys of the world were lined up and she was given a choice about which one to choose, she would choose him. “And when I was bad-tempered she dealt with it by holding me and hugging me, until the rage had subsided. Not only was I healed, I was transformed in love.”

It is the same with God, he says. “He shows wonderful affirmations of love. He says ‘I hold you, I choose you, I long for you, my heart flames with compassion and love for you’.’’

Bishop Cottrell tells congregations the reason they are in church is God’s great love for each of them in Jesus Christ. “Jesus became the one who holds us. Think of him with his arms outstretched on the cross. Through him God is saying ‘I want to hold you and go on holding you’… with the crucifixion we see what love looks like when it goes on loving.”

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Prayer, for him, is about connecting with this love. “Prayer is the lover coming into the presence of the beloved and saying ‘I love you’, and by ‘lover’ I mean God, the great lover who comes to me and says ‘I love you’ and through the affirmation of that love I am changed; my will is united with Christ. My times of prayer and contemplation are fundamentally about opening up to God’s love.”

In Melbourne recently to lead clergy study days and a week-long parish mission at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Bishop Cottrell said mission is powerfully illustrated by the story of the little boy, who after hearing the priest in his sermon say Jesus must live in your heart, afterwards asked the priest, ‘Jesus is so big and I am so small, so if Jesus came to live in my heart, wouldn’t he burst out all over the place?’ and the priest replied, ‘Yes, that’s how it works’”.

“Mission flows out of this ‘abundant heart’ – living joyfully and sharing profligately the Good News of Jesus Christ. We also need to remember the first words spoken by the risen Jesus (to Mary Magdalene in St John’s Gospel): ‘Why are you weeping?’

“Mission shouldn’t be anxiety-driven and it’s not about ‘scalp hunting for Jesus’. Evangelism isn’t about converting people. That’s God’s job. God is the missionary and the Holy Spirit is the evangelist. My job is to be, first of all, a living signpost. Each of us needs to ask: In what sense is my life a signpost to Christ? When people meet me, do they, in any sense, encounter Jesus Christ?

“Secondly, every Christian is called to be a good companion – to walk alongside others, to listen and serve.

“Only God can convert. Conversion is a sacred mystery and it’s about the free response of the human spirit to what God has done in Jesus Christ. All I can do is bear witness to it, to point to it.”

Mission is also about seeing – and acting on – opportunities to witness to it. “For example, I was having coffee at a Melbourne café last week and overheard two young guys in their 20s at the next table. They were talking about why the fish is a Christian symbol; they had no idea and were putting forth various theories. After a minute or two I said, ‘look, excuse me, I can’t help but hear your conversation’, and I explained the significance of the symbol.

“Now there are people who are growing up in a culture where they know very little about the Christian faith. They’ve probably never been to church, and in a funny kind of way, when the culture reaches that stage, the Christian faith actually becomes quite an interesting novelty, and I think that’s the stage we’re moving into.

“Previous generations knew just enough Christianity to be kind of vaccinated. We kind of successfully inoculated the culture against the Christian faith by giving people just a little bit of it – and then they’re immune for the rest of their lives! Now many know nothing and, in knowing nothing, don’t have nearly as much hostility as some people think they have.”

Young people, he believes, tend to be more interested in the question "does it work?" than "is it true?". “Their questions are: What difference does it make to my life? How does it equip me for life? How does it satisfy my longing for self-realisation and self-fulfilment? And whereas quite often in previous generations our evangelism was doctrine-led, my hunch is in the current culture it needs to be spirituality-led.”

Effective mission for local churches, he says, is not about inviting friends to church events, but “making common cause with the issues that people really care about in the world”. “In my experience churches which are flourishing are those who are doing things in and for their community which resonate with the longings, needs and questions of the community, and out of that relationships grow which lead people on a journey.

“The common features of churches that are growing, both evangelical and catholic, are 1) They are serving their community, and 2) There is what I would call a place of nurture somewhere in the church – such as courses and events – where those who want to – and who do not feel pressurised to – can find out more about the faith.

“The catholic tradition of beauty in worship and engagement with the arts also resonates with our culture. In Britain the churches that are consistently growing are the cathedrals. One of the reasons is that that they have the resources to put on a style of worship that is astonishingly beautiful and draws people for whom beautiful music and liturgy feed their spirit.”

His advice to clergy would also be not to be afraid to challenge people to make a serious commitment and go deeper in their discipleship. “That’s why I became a priest. When I was in my early 20s I talked to my parish priest about my confusion about whether I might have a vocation and he challenged me hard to put it to the test by working in a hospice in South London, where he had contacts.

“That same day I packed up my job and started as a Ward Orderly in the hospice the following Monday. In some ways I think I learned everything there about ministry, and most importantly learned that God was present in the dying, and that death was not the tragedy our culture teaches us.

“I witnessed many miracles in that year – of people being reconciled to themselves and to God, and being released into death, rather than being restored to life. Death was the healing; healing arrived at the point when a person could say ‘Father, into your hands I place my spirit.’”

“It was a liberating and transformative experience from which I went on to study for the priesthood.”

Bishop Cottrell’s mission at St Peter’s Eastern Hill included a children’s play, Where is the Green Sheep?, and three talks on the themes "Incarnation – the God who shares our living", "Passion – the God who shares our dying", and "Resurrection – the God who resets the compass of our lives." See them here

Bishop Cottrell’s books include From the Abundance of the Heart – Catholic Evangelism for all Christians (Darton Longman and Todd) and Hit the Ground Kneeling – Seeing leadership differently (Church House Publishing).