Encountering God's love is foundational to mission

Effective mission depends on personal experience of the love of God in Jesus says Ken Morgan, co-ordinator of the parish renewal program.

By Ken Morgan

May 5 2016For God so loved the world…” Just about everyone can complete the rest of this, the second best known bible verse (the best known, of course, is Psalm 23). The go-to verse for every evangelist, it’s tempting to place all the emphasis on the phrase “whosoever believes”. Yet unless we come to grips with “God so loved”, we’re in danger of missing the point of the verse, and possibly the rest of the New Testament.

As we’ve reviewed the parish renewal program, it’s clear that there has been a strong emphasis on strategy – The key questions have been “Who is God calling us to reach first?” “How can we help people experience the love of God by serving them?” and “How can we create a pathway that invites those people to meet Jesus and join his church?”

These are good questions: important questions, vital questions. But as we’ve looked at the success and limitations of the parish renewal program, we’re recognised that there are questions that are even more fundamental. These are questions about spiritual renewal, or as the contemplatives might put it, the “renovation of the soul”: questions like, “How are we experiencing the love of God?” “How are we responding to God’s love?” “How do I personally express God’s love to others?”

We live in an age with increasing emphasis on the experiential and the immediate; the idea of reality being personal, rather than empirical, combined with the existential ‘now’. The result is a society that cares little for reasoned apologetics (or any reasoned argument about anything) and even less about the afterlife. In this environment much of the religious narrative about there being a rational argument for God and an urgent need to escape judgement after death is struggling to find an audience.

Society’s preoccupation with the subjective in the very short-term combined with a constant deluge of unattainable ideals in the media means we live in a world where people struggle to merely feel okay about themselves.

In this environment, generous expressions of God’s love and personal stories about experiencing God’s love find a welcoming, even hungry reception. And this is our missional opportunity.

John 3:16 makes it plain that God’s love sent Jesus into the world. Subsequently, Jesus sent his followers into the world in the same spirit (John 20:21). The propelling force for mission is the love of God. And in the current age especially, it’s the compelling motive for people to become followers of Jesus. Loving God and loving our neighbour are not just ethical imperatives, they’re the keys to being effective in mission.

The implication for the parish renewal program is that a parallel emphasis on personal renewal is essential. For our efforts in mission to be effective, we must be living day-to-day in response to the love of God.

Just before Easter the newly formed Parish Ministry Support and Growth team took a day out of our work schedules for a spiritual retreat. Led by Carol Clark, we worked around the theme of the woman at the well in John 4.

Jesus surprised the woman by ignoring the social conventions around Jews hating Samaritans and men looking down on women. He esteemed her by sharing his incredible news – he was the long-awaited Messiah. Amazed and excited, the woman sped back to town with her news, “Come and meet the man who told me everything I’ve ever done! Could he be the Messiah?”

The woman’s encounter with Jesus propelled her into mission, telling all the townsfolk about her experience and inviting them to meet him for themselves. Likewise, we must experience Jesus and drink of his living water if we are to be propelled into mission with a story that compels others to come and meet Jesus for themselves.

Through the process of the retreat each of the team had opportunity through various activities to encounter Jesus personally. Each of us returned with a story to tell.

Similar retreats will become a feature of parish renewal initiatives into the future. Our prayer is that as people experience an ongoing renovation of their souls by encountering the love of God in Jesus, they too will be propelled into mission.

Ken Morgan is co-ordinator of the parish renewal program for the Melbourne Diocese.