Gerry O’Brien looks at the missionary facts of life ‘ and decides that it doesn’t have to be like that

At the end of February, I was involved in organising a buffet supper. A local curate was going to Russia to work with a church planting pioneer and help to provide English language ministry for the many nationalities there who find it more congenial to worship in English than in Russian. Initially I thought it would be an opportunity to stimulate interest in the church development work that he would be undertaking. It might provide an appropriate occasion for his friends in the Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship (on whose committee he had served) to say farewell, and for friends in his present parish to gain insight into this new assignment that he was taking on. Since I am on the staff of the Intercontinental Church Society, under whose auspices he would be going, I felt some measure of responsibility for the disruption that his move would inevitably cause – and it seemed natural that the Society’s supporters in the Diocese would appreciate the chance to meet the young man they would be invited to pray for in the coming months and years. So the idea was conceived of a big bun fight.

We got down to the business of writing letters to invite people to the supper. There were plenty of Jeremiahs who opined that you can’t get people interested in mission these days. Conventional wisdom had it that no one would be prepared to turn out on a February evening. Vicars have been known to tile an entire diocesan mailing in the bin, so that hope did an invitation from me have? “sides most churches are fully committed to supporting their own missionaries, so there wasn’t much point in bothering, was there?.

I rather rashly set myself the target of assembling 100 people for the supper, and I’m sure that some of the old hands were just waiting to see how I would extricate myself from the embarrassment of finding that on the night only a handful would turn up. However the responses started to trickle in – just two or three a day. One day we had eleven, but then it was back to three or four, but the total passed the 40 mark, then 60 and grew inexorably towards the magic hundred. I advised the caterer that we were on target for about a hundred, but then events took an unforeseen turn, rather like they did for the Sorcerer’s apprentice.

The responses kept coming in. I was told that the hall we were using could accommodate 160, so when we passed that number I started feeling just a little uneasy. When the acceptances hit the 190 mark, we needed some radical rethinking on the catering and some creative thinking about car-parking – the car park could only take 40 cars.

At that stage we started turning people away, and with some last minute cancellations we had around 180 on the night – and from all reports an awful lot of people had a really good time. From our point of view many of the guests seemed to be getting quite enthusiastic about the Russia project – and a fair number have signed up as prayer partners as a result.

So what was the magic ingredient? I doubt that it was ICS. In fact, I’ve often quipped that we’re the best kept secret in the Church of England. No, the magic ingredient was Jonathan. People were clearly getting excited about the project because someone they knew was involved.

Now I’m not saying anything revolutionary or world-shattering here. Martin Penis wrote in last month’s New Directions that in an increasing number of churches, people are cutting down their support of established missionary societies and increasing their support to individuals. The upshot is that mission agencies may have to go with the flow and encourage support for designated individuals. However I’d like to put in a plea that we take a long hard look at the implications of person-oriented support, as Martin Penis calls it, because I agree it’s a fact of life, but I don’t think it’s an unqualified “good thing” – and I’m not saying that just because I work for one of the mission agencies.

f From a local church point of view, it does foster a closer link between supporter and supported and it does result in greater financial and prayer support. However, as Martin Perris points out, mission arises primarily out of the nature not of the church but of God Himself.

Mission activity should not be perceived as the private fiefdom of “sending” churches.

The reasons are obvious. We are part of a universal Church and it would therefore seem very strange to propound a doctrine that we should take a special responsibility for those (and only those) who the Lord calls from our own congregation. What happens if twenty people from our church are called, but no one is called from St Whatnot’s down the road. Should the congregation at St Whatnot’s expect a contribution holiday?

We all know that callings are not evenly distributed amongst our churches. For instance something like 50% of Anglican ordinands come from 1% of Anglican congregations. Surely we need to have a passionate concern for God’s kingdom to be extended (by whoever he chooses) and not to be partisan about whether it is someone from our church who is doing it.

Of course there will be a special place in our hearts and in our prayers for the people that the Lord has called from our parish, but we must balance our interest in individuals with a wider view. It is this wider view that a mission agency has to take. It would be very serious indeed if we were driven to appointing the best funded worker rather than the best suited one to a particular task.

So how do we get interest in mission into a higher gear in our own churches? One way would be to exploit the Private Member’s motion I currently have before the General Synod. It calls upon PCCs to commend to the people on their electoral rolls the principle of being on the mailing list of at least one of the PWM mission agencies. The motion has already received the enthusiastic support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the debate will be resumed at York in July. If your commendation is enthusiastic and the take up rate in your parish is good, we could go a long way towards improving the information flow to individuals in your church about mission activity. There’s nothing like a steady drip feed of good news coming through your letter box to fan the glowing embers of mission interest into flame.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of General Synod. He is also on the staff of the Intercontinental Church Society, one of tire PWM mission agencies.