Bill Steadman
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The Evolving Concept of Mission within Congregations of The United Church of Canada

Bill Steadman

This study is an examination of the evolving concept of mission within The United Church of Canada, and the implications that are presented for the funding of the mission of the church.

The roots of the concept of mission are traced from the biblical record of the Greek Testament. The ways in which the early church interacted with, and thrived within, the cultural, social, political, and economic realities of the first centuries C.E. are outlined.

The impact of the revolutionary changes implemented in the wake of Constantine’s acceptance of (some might say promotion of) the Christian faith are reviewed in detail. While there is clear evidence to suggest that the church thrived and expanded within the Roman Empire in the centuries preceding the rule of Constantine, that emperor did establish a climate for the church to be viewed in a new light. The political and social acceptance of the church brought a new understanding of the relationship between the church and the world. To be a Christian was the accepted norm within society.

That understanding shaped much of the missionary activity up to the mid-twentieth century. The desire to preach "to the heathen" or to share the gospel "to the unchurched" was often linked to the expansionist economic interests of western enterprises. Mission for much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could be characterized as "from the west to the rest."

After World War II, with the growing influence of the World Missionary Councils, and the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, a new sense of partnership began to arise within missiological circles. Within The United Church of Canada, a pivotal point in the church’s understanding of mission can be traced to the Commission on World Mission, established by the General Council in 1962, and which reported in 1966. Suddenly mission was no longer something we did to others, but mission was a "six continent reality" in which all parts of the inhabited world were considered appropriate sites for the mission of Christ. Encouragement was offered to expand the nature of the mission to include agricultural support, social workers, engineers, business advisers, accountants, etc. The report of this Commission on World Mission also urged the establishment of an Interfaith Dialogue position in the General Council office. Suddenly the call of Christ involved working with the very faith groups that the church sought to convert just a generation or two earlier.

In the changing realities of the 1990’s, where authority of leadership is challenged, and where centralized power is reduced through a new branch-plant mentality, the church also has moved to an understanding of mission that is more local, hands-on, diversified, and concerned with people’s basic needs. The final chapters of this thesis examine the views of a sampling of congregations responding to a survey on mission sent to them in the late summer of 1998. The information provided helps to paint a picture of the understanding of mission within the United Church today at the local level, and provides some pointers to the way in which stewardship education and mission promotion must be conducted in the future. Unless the church comes to grips with this movement to a locally-based mission, the mission activities of the denomination as a whole could be in peril in the very near future.