God's mission and chaplaincy

05 July 2023

Gary Hopkins, Ministry Development Officer for chaplaincy

Over recent years, there's been a shift in how we understand mission. We increasingly talk about God's mission rather than the church's mission. What might seem like a subtle language change has deep theological richness.

The rise of churches engaging in mission during what has been perceived as an increasingly secular world meant mission was seen as something the church owned, something the church did and something the church made happen. if the church isn't doing something, God isn't there.

This has never sat comfortably with Wesleyan theology, which recognises God is at work even before we realise God is at work, and even without the presence of the church. We call it prevenient grace: the grace that goes before and is at work in every place, enabling every good work. It takes away some of our arrogance in believing we have to be doing it for it to be God's work, or that God can't act without our say so, or even in the way we want God to. We are not in control.

Increasingly, those reflecting on faith have realised our understanding of mission has narrowed into believing it is something the church possesses and controls, and in some cases these attempts at mission have had incredibly negative impacts on peoples and cultures around the world. There's been a reminder that God works as God wills and God's work is always towards the restoration of the whole creation so that it may flourish: the vision of the new earth and heaven. It is God's continual acting to save and liberate, continuing the narrative found in the Bible from Moses and  the liberation from Egypt, through to Jesus' mission to bring life in all its fullness (John 10:10).

The term given to this understanding of God's mission is Missio Dei. God is at work in the world and the church is invited to join in. We don't possess it, we don't control it, but we are called to be part of it. Our calling is to respond. We immerse ourselves in God through prayer and worship in and we discern what God is doing and join in, participating in God's saving, transforming and redeeming work.

Chaplains have a deep understanding of this approach. They place themselves in spaces where God is already at work. They don't take God to work on behalf of the church, but they go to seek God in places where our churches may not be and discern what God is up to and join in, affirming God's love for people. They follow Jesus' lead by letting go of power and being a presence from God in sharing the good news of liberation (Luke 4:18-19).

Over my time working in this role supporting chaplains, I’ve heard a number of chaplains use the journey to Emmaus passage (Luke 24:13-35) as a way of describing their work – and a very apt story for this season of Easter. I love the journey to Emmaus – it is an incredibly rich passage. It speaks of how easily it is to misunderstand what God is up to, or not even notice it, or doubt it, but suddenly we recognise Jesus in our midst and God’s presence with us and gain a deeper insight into what God is up to in the world.

Chaplains speak often of how they help people recognise God in their lives, how they walk alongside people in their journeys and help them make sense of what might be happening. We all have moments where we cannot comprehend what is happening and we need help from another to see what might be real in the midst of it all. Chaplains are placed to be companions on the way, to help find goodness in the midst of challenge and messiness, to be the loving presence that each human needs.

What I particularly admire about chaplains is how vulnerable they allow themselves to be, how much they let go of power, control and the temptation to possess how another makes sense of their world. Everything they do is invitational, with no expectation that other people will respond in a particular way, but with great hope that God is at work for good.

Something profound resonates with the Emmaus journey here. Jesus does not impose himself on the disciples. When they arrive in Emmaus, he goes to walk on and leave it at that, but the disciples decide to invite him in. In that act of connection, they discover God in the midst of what is happening and a deeper understanding breaks through. Chaplains spend much of their time wandering around with people, hoping that they discover the love of God, but never pushing an agenda – and in the midst of this, God breaks through and hearts are strangely warmed.

So if God is at work in the world and chaplains are getting on with that work, why do they need church? Or a better question might be, why does the church need chaplains? Chaplains flourish when they are well supported, when they feel they are rooted in a loving God-community. It’s the same for all disciples. We need Christian companions to help us discern and celebrate God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. We need community so we may ‘watch over each other in love.’

But more than this, Christian communities need chaplains so they gain an insight into God’s mission. Chaplains notice and recognise God in daily living in all sorts of places as they participate in the Missio Dei. If we take notice of what chaplains are up to, we might get a greater sense of what God is doing in the world, and if we’re really paying attention, we might even stop what we’re doing in other places and join in.

As disciples of the risen Christ, we are all called to join in with God’s mission, and when we’re well connected through the Holy Spirit in community, and to God and each other in deep love, we are able to enable each other to live out our calling.

We’re not always as well connected as we could be. So if you’re not connected to a chaplain, why not make the effort to reach out and ask about their work and their role – maybe you might discover something new about God’s work and discover your heart burning with love. And if you think there are no chaplains about – then you might just be surprised where they are if you do some searching. Chaplains crop up in the most amazing of places – and for their incredible vocations I give thanks to God!

Originally written for the Methodist Recorder, 5th May 2023.