Mission is a hot word in the Christian world, and it means a lot of things to different people.
For me, mission is about movement. It’s purpose. It’s intention. It’s hard-thought and hard-fought acts of service and love for the greater good.
To give it a clear definition, I’d say mission is intentional action that fulfills an important purpose. And the truth is, we always live life “on mission” in various ways.
You can be on mission when you go to the grocery store to get food (intentional action) so that you can feed yourself, your family, or others (important purpose; after all, we’d starve if we didn’t eat). You can be on mission when you cheer for your team: buy the shirt or ticket to the game; paint your face; yell loudly; boo the refs; invest your heart and soul; or donate your money to the college (intentional action) so that your team will win the game/championship (important purpose).
Mission is what gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in life. It also has a very important relational dynamic to it as well.
One of the ways I think about mission is similar to the game “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon." In that game, you pick an actor and then connect that person back to Kevin Bacon by the fewest relationships (degrees) possible.
Mission can also be thought of in degrees, and perhaps it is useful to recognize we do serve others in varying degrees. Here’s what I mean — consider this a 3 Degrees of Mission (stay with me because I start at 2 degrees — you’ll see why).
2 Degrees of Separation
Here I help others to help others.
This is perhaps the most common way we can serve other people. We give money, donations, or gifts to an organization, church, or nonprofit. We give clothes to a local shelter, food to a food bank, money to a favorite nonprofit, tithes to a church, financial or material support to missionaries, and so on.
In this realm, we are really 2 degrees away from the people who receive the help. You might think of this as a way we empower people to help others by giving wind to the sails of others' efforts to help people.
At the end of the day, we invest in other people, who in turn are doing the work of serving others.
1 Degree of Separation
Here I help others.
I give of my time at the food shelter or food bank. I personally assist a family in need. I hand out a meal or money to someone on the street. I mentor at a younger kid at their school. I build the ramp for a family, clean the gutters of the elderly.
Here I am personally engaged with those I am serving. There is no middle person; rather, I am giving what I have to the benefit of others firsthand.
An important distinction here is that there is still a bit of disconnection between me and those I serve. This will make sense as we look at the next degree.
0 Degrees of Separation
Here I am the others I am serving.
This is incarnational ministry, which means I am living in the world with those whom I am serving. In one sense, this might simply mean my family, my co-workers, or my neighbors. It’s those people in my small group or circle of friends.
Here there is no "us and them." It’s all us. I am in the same boat as that person. Their concerns are my concerns because we inhabit the same world. Here service is very much based in relationship. It’s not about giving away money or resources (though that’s not excluded). It’s not about building something for someone (though that’s no excluded). Things are much messier here than in the first two degrees because this is real life. It deals in relational currency, and because I can’t escape into another place I must face conflicts and tension in my ground zero world. This is perhaps the most difficult and most rewarding world of serving others.
Another way of this becoming a reality is that those whom I serve in the 1 degree world become my 0 degree world. Instead of assisting the people who live in those apartment homes, I move to live in those apartment homes. Instead of going into the neighborhood to offer help, I move into that neighborhood. In doing this, I have become part of the world in which I seek to serve.
We need each degree in our lives. To live fully into the missional calling means I consider how I serve in each of these degrees. As I move closer in degree, I must be more intentional and focused on why I am serving who I am serving in that world. I can’t be incarnational with many people, only those in my neighborhood or walk of life. And so each circle gets smaller as each degree demands more of me in time, energy, and resources.
So, I’m asking these questions: Where am I serving in these three areas? Could I fill in an organization, group of people, or person in each category?
What about you? What does each degree mean for you, and how is it lived out in your life?
Written by Mark
The 12:12 Project is sponsored by Katy First United Methodist Church.