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Pastoral leaders are congregational theologians. The issue is not whether one is a theologian, but what kind of theologian.
Thousands of local churches have lost their moorings in terms of their basic purpose for existence. Churches do not exist for the building of great institutions, but for embodying in all they do the will of God for the world.

Emil Brunner’s famous statement captures it: “The Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”

What does it mean by to be a theologian of God’s mission?

First, it means claiming the biblical story.

God is active in the affairs of God’s people from creation to consummation. God’s mission is cosmic. It is the universal activity of God to bring peace to the ecology of the earth and to all human relationships.

If the biblical story means anything, it means that all humans are ultimately connected in spite of apparent differences in race, tribe, geography, language, religion or culture. We belong to the environment in which we live. We belong to each other.

Everything that God intends for the church is intended for all who will respond to that intention. This is the realm of God’s mission.

Second, being a pastoral theologian means remembering that God is also active to assure the reign of God in this cosmic realm.

God acts decisively in our midst for fulfilling promises of blessing to those who participate in the mission by deeds of liberation.

Third, it requires the pastor to proclaim the cross and resurrection as the central event of that blessing.

As I note in my book, “The Calling of Congregational Leadership,” in the death and resurrection of Jesus, “God was crucified as an act of identifying love with the pain, suffering, humiliation, oppression and alienation of the human family.”

Fourth, the pastoral theologian must share that missional people live in hope.

The realities of the pain and suffering abide, but we live in hope for a future consummation of God’s mission. We wait for a “new heaven and a new earth,” where peace for all shall reign.

The final dimension of God’s mission for the pastoral theologian is its ethical content.

The mission thrives in the context of the rule of God. Only as the congregation is centered in the teachings of Jesus, connected to neighbors in love and committed to a messianic future where justice will prevail can we find the energy to serve.

One caution that must be offered in response to the plethora of missional church literature these days is the tendency to offer a description of one kind of church as missional.

Unfortunately, the characteristics one often reads is of a church that is contemporary in worship style, new in terms of its formation, growing in terms of size and innovative in everything it does.

Rather, the challenge of contemporary pastoral leadership is to plant the vision of a new order of the Spirit mentality within the fabric and framework of every congregation, regardless of its size, age, organization or theological perspective.

How is such a mission embodied within the fabric of local churches? There are at least three ways.

1. The central opportunity of the pastoral leader as theologian is in the pulpit – preaching is the proclaiming of the mission of God.

When it is done well, God’s people are both informed and inspired to invest themselves in the work of caring for others through deeds of mercy and actions of justice.

2. The leaning community of the church also provides the forum for missional theology.

When have you seen a Sunday school class enlivened with a study of God’s work in the world in ways that transform us into actors of the Spirit for the common good?

Renewal of the learning process for all ages through the learning of the biblical story is an unfulfilled agenda.

3. The congregation engaged outside itself in projects of service, extending hospitality to the outsider and engaging in social change are true missional communities.

Each of these challenges calls all congregations to live out of their fullest identities as outposts of God’s work in the world.

May God’s Spirit enliven even the smallest church with a new enthusiasm for a hopeful future.

Larry L. McSwain is retired professor of leadership at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga. And is currently a congregational consultant/coach with the Center for Congregational Health, Winston-Salem, N.C. This article is adapted from his book “The Calling of Congregational Leadership,” which is available from Chalice Press.

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