The first command is ‘Go’.
In the stripped down version of Abraham’s blessing from God in Genesis 12, the first element is ‘Go.’
This is the directional word that sets the trend for the people of God. From now on, they have an assigned task, they are’ sent out’- a ‘missio’ in Latin.
The people of God have a mission.
It’s outward looking, forward –facing
Actually, Abraham’s mission was not precisely any of these things.
His mission was first to actually ’go’ – to move. Not metaphorically, in a ‘It’s been a real journey.’ X-factor kind of way – Abraham was told to pack his belongings and move house. Or re-pitch his tents, leaving the city of Haran (in what was then Upper Mesopotamia and is now in the south east of Turkey) and travel through the Fertile Crescent to what we now call Israel.
It was forward facing if he didn’t want to trip up as he walked. It was outward looking – because he was outdoors looking around.
But the place he was called to was definitely not the place he started.
Many (most?) church programmes are based on an ‘attractional’ model. Come into church and see what we’ve provided for you – the most obvious definition of the word ‘church’ being the building that the people of God meet in – rather than church being ‘the people who gather’ (the original definition). Most Christians’ understanding of the aim of ‘outreach’ is to pull people into the church building for one purpose or another. Few would say their mission was to go out into the community and do whatever programme they have in mind there, where the people are.
‘Come in’ is diametrically opposite to ‘Go out to.’ How did that happen?
Most people blame the Emperor Constantine. He inaugurated the era of ‘Christendom’ where Christianity was the officially sanctioned religious option. The Church legitimised the authority of the ruler as being part of God’s providence and the ruler recognised the church’s structure as having authority within the land. This synergy (be that good or bad) existed across Europe for more than a thousand years, in various forms. During this time, the church was the place where people gathered for many reasons, not just worship, but as a place where rents were received, tithes paid, manorial courts were held, where social business was carried out. This church did not have to go out to the people – by necessity, they came in.
Then the industrial revolution changed the pattern of living, as people transferred from a rural life to the cities; the church (in its many forms, by now) was no longer the legal, financial and social hub – it was one factor that was a part of the life of the city, along with law courts, public houses, civic societies and the mills and factories of the Industrial era. In 1851 in the UK, the census recorded that there were more people living in cities and towns than working on the land. (Thank you, QI, for that fact!) The central role of the church had been taken away from it – but the idea that people came to the church had been firmly entrenched. Hey, this was an idea that had worked for nearly 1500 years!
It is notable that as Christian reform movements happened, one quite common element was that the reformers went out to the people – Wesley with the Methodists and William Booth with The Christian Mission being two obvious examples. The early day Christian Mission continued this ‘going out’ theme with the use of various premises for their meetings – an ice-house, a jam factory, a boat-house and a dance hall, amongst others.
It is also a fundamental characteristic of the current ‘missional’ church movement that its direction is relentlessly outward – Christians going to the places where people meet, being salt and light in locations where they can meet a need, start a conversation, be a blessing and start a community there.
Going back to Abraham – he obeyed and he went. Not perfectly – but he went. He left behind people that were dear to him, practices that had nurtured him, the familiar, the comfortable – and he struck out into the unknown, trusting that he was called.
It may be time for us to think about going, too.
And when we’ve thought and prayed about it – to go.