In discussions of the mission of the church, Emil Brunner is often quoted: “The church exists for mission, as fire exists for burning.”
Nice quote: catchy, memorable. And malleable as well.
What did Brunner mean?
I doubt he meant what some who use his quote mean. For them, “mission” is the central activity of the church (good, perhaps), without which the church ceases to exist (well, okay, maybe) and by which the church is strengthened and flourishes (um, I’m not so sure).
Let’s look at it this way: What is the purpose of fire? To burn. To consume. To expend itself. Fire is not about self-preservation. It is about self-denial. It gives of itself, one flame passing to another as it is exhausted.
To say that “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning” is to highlight the self-giving of the church, which is patterned on Christ’s own self-giving. It is to lift up as ideal a kind of “institutional carelessness” of the church. The church is truly the church when it is expending itself in mission, with no thought for expanding itself by mission (so-called).
Indeed, a missional church may be, by the accepted metrics of certain “leaders,” a “dying church.” It may be ministering to its community in powerful, effective ways, but with no impact on the size of the congregation. It may be salt and light in its community, and still post flat or even declining worship attendance and congregational giving. It may even be acting, through its mission, in a way faithful to the gospel, but with the result that they lose members who are scandalized by such active involvement in the community.
Has such a church failed to be faithful?
What does it mean to be ‘on fire’?