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Embodying Mission in a Local Church

Overhead shot of a town and church

What is our mission? Why is it our mission? And how do we accomplish it?

When I was asked to wrestle with our Sabbath School theme for this quarter, I agreed with some fear and trepidation. I have a somewhat complex relationship with the idea and reality of “mission.” My family tree is full of good-hearted, well-intentioned missionaries that spent their lives in various parts of southern and central Africa, convinced, as the lesson describes, that “we should be aligning ourselves and our church with God’s priority—the saving of the lost.” And there were blessings that came from that conviction. I remember visiting my grandfather’s grave in Malawi a couple years ago. It was my first time traveling to the country where he had died working as a medical missionary, and I was moved to tears at the stories shared by those who remembered him, including those whose lives he had helped save.

Yet I am also aware of fundamental problems in Adventist approaches to “mission work” in the past and present. I wonder where we have blurred the line between the gospel project and the colonial project. Should we celebrate the fact that there is a familiar structure to our dress and food and Sabbath services no matter what part of the world we find ourselves in, or see in it a disconcerting sameness that suggests we are duplicating the wrong things? What does our language betray when we describe whole cultures and communities as “lost”?[1]

I’ve also wondered about the tendency to describe those who have moved from Adventism to another Christian community as “leaving the Truth”? How do we reconcile that language with our fundamental belief #12 that “the church is the community of believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior”?[2]

This week’s Teacher Comments suggest several motivational reasons for engaging in missions. The author highlights what they believe is “unique” to Christianity first and then what is “unique” to Adventism, including the fact “that Jesus is the unique source of life and salvation, and people need to know about Him . . . that Jesus is coming back a second time, and that this coming is visible, literal, and imminent . . . and that God calls believers to loving obedience and serious discipleship.” The latter point, for the author, includes such a strong emphasis on obeying God’s law that they put it on equal level with the gospel itself, declaring that “we believe that both the gospel and God’s law are vital and go together harmoniously like the two oars of a boat.”

There is much to unpack in these comments, but I want to note in particular just how tightly the author ties our mission to proclaiming a specific set of beliefs, first about how Jesus is to be understood and then about how we are to behave in light of those beliefs.[3] Yet I wonder: is our mission primarily to proclaim a message? Or is there something more that we might be missing?

Over the past few years, I have been wrestling with questions of Adventist ecclesiology and identity and have been particularly interested in the mission and purpose of the church as something more than a collection of individuals proclaiming the same verbal message. What if the church is called to be something even more than it is called to say something?[4]

This focus has been deeply enriched both by my doctoral work and the multi-cultural church community I’ve been privileged to lead. I have begun to understand mission as, at least in part, the “church as foretaste,” a community of people living into the rhythm, logic, and light of the coming Kingdom of God. We have begun speaking at our church of embodying (not just proclaiming) the Revelation 7 vision of “every tribe, nation, tongue, and people” praising God. 

As we have wrestled with questions of mission and culture and identity in our community, we landed on a key verse—a verse that is also referenced in this week’s Teacher Comments. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love first. What might it mean to be a community that loves first, shaped by a God that loves first? What would it look like to frame some of our relatively unique Adventist perspectives—for example, our understanding of the Sabbath or the absence of hell—as a reflection of a God who loves first?

Alongside questions raised by the week’s lesson, the following queries might expand reflection. How would you define the mission of the church? Do you think it is called primarily to say something, or to be something? How would framing our mission as “loving because he first loved us” change the current approach to mission in your context?

May these conversations be filled with intention and curiosity and joy.


Notes & References:

[1] For a highly accessible book that touches on the question of Christianity and colonialism, see Vincent J. Donovan,  Christianity Rediscovered. Orbis Books, 1995. For a more challenging resource, see Emmanuel Lartey, Postcolonializing God: An African Practical Theology (SCM Press, 2013).

[2] For a helpful survey of several of the predominate expressions of Christian ecclesiology, see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (InterVarsity Press, 2002).

[3] For more on how profoundly Adventist prioritize “belief” and “behavior” over “belonging”, see Richard Rice’s classic, Believing, Behaving, Belonging Finding New Love for the Church (Leigh Johnson, 2002).

[4] For a thought-provoking proposal to reframe our Adventist understanding of the church and its mission, see Tihomir Lazić, Towards an Adventist Version of Communio Ecclesiology: Remnant in Koinonia (Springer Nature, 2020).


Rochelle Webster is the senior pastor of the vibrant and multi-cultural Paradise Valley SDA Church in San Diego, California. She recently completed her Doctorate of Ministry from Duke University Divinity School in the area of Leadership and the Christian Tradition, with a focus on Ecclesiology, Eschatology, and the Sabbath.

Title image by Sander Weeteling on Unsplash.

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