St Willibrord's Day is 7 November. My apologies for the late posting of this, due to absence from my office.
In-People and For-People
Dear brothers and sisters,
I must confess that I didn’t notice it at first. It wasn’t until a letter of congratulations arrived that I realised that the day of my election as bishop, 7 November 2009, was also the Feast of St. Willibrord. I don’t want to speculate on the deeper meaning of this coincidence, especially as I am a bishop in Bonn and not in Utrecht. But seeing as the election synod was not intentionally held on that particular commemoration day, I take it as a small sign from “above” about the missionary aspect of the church – and therefore of the office of bishop, too.
It is a long time since the days of St. Willibrord when one was able to bring people to faith with a fiery sermon or a small miracle. I haven’t yet managed to do that, at any rate. And I know many Christians who are happy simply if nobody loses their faith as the result of listening to a sermon these days. Some people think you can advertise faith like you can advertise a tin of biscuits. I don’t agree because that would be to identify or confuse advertising and public relations with mission and preaching. But the two differ in one essential point.
Advertisers draw attention to the advantages of a product – which we as a church also do when we advertise the gospel, of course. But when a famous celebrity advertises a certain product, nobody seriously believes that they are convinced that what they are saying about it is actually true. We might even think it’s likely that they don’t use the product at all.
Mission and preaching are quite different because they require a credible preacher. Whether they like it or not, preachers are – and always have been – part of the message. Jesus would not have found any disciples if he had not lived by what he preached. And St. Chrysostomos is said to have invited anyone interested in the Christian faith into his house to live with him for a while. In other words, he was convinced that the guest would come to faith as a result of his personal example alone. I don’t know whether we would dare today to invite someone into the vicarage or bishop’s residence in an attempt to bring them to faith. We might even be a little worried that they could see a side of church life that could prove to be a deterrent.
If we want to bring the gospel to the people, we need to demonstrate it in our own lives. Missionary Christians cannot be like those portly sports dignitaries who march in with the athletes at the Olympic Games despite obviously not having done any sports themselves for years. The people who listen to what we say and come to us as spiritual advisors and worship leaders have a keen eye for whether we are being authentic or merely playing a role. And the same people will quickly notice and react with disgust if they see that the behaviour of the church’s representatives has nothing to do with the gospel.
What really matters in mission and preaching became clear to me when I read “The Man Without Qualities” by the German-Austrian writer Robert Musil, who died in 1942. In his uncompleted novel, Musil makes an interesting distinction between “for-people” and “in-people”. For-people live for peace, love and justice – but not in peace, love and justice. When they stand up for something, they have already lost sight of what they are standing up for. Musil argued if we live in peace we wouldn’t have to stand up for it, because we would radiate peace naturally through the way we live our lives.
This immediately reminds us of the scriptures that tell us that as Christians we live in Christ. So the question is: Do we really live in Christ, in the Gospel, in the Kingdom of God? Or are we only standing up for them?
I believe that people today have a very keen sense of whether we as Christians are in-people or for-people. And on this distinction hangs the outcome of all our missionary efforts. Of course it is important to plan good campaigns and inspiring events. But what ultimately counts most of all is the personal testimony of our lives. On that point nothing has changed since the days of St. Chrysostomos or St. Willibrord.
In the name of the Anglican and Old Catholic bishops in Continental Europe
Bishop Dr Matthias Ring, Bonn
|Old Catholic Church in Hannover|