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New Year’s (Missional) Resolutions

If the broader, more secular culture invites us to make New Year’s resolutions, what might our Christian missional resolutions be instead?

Where do you normally find yourself at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve? Are you a stay-up-late-and-party kind of person? Perhaps you prefer to keep things low-key in the peace and quiet of your own home? Or maybe you acknowledge a new rotation around the sun by gathering with friends at church for a time of worship? Being on the west coast, we have the advantage of celebrating New Year’s with church friends at a more reasonable 9 p.m., as our kids watch the ball drop at midnight in New York City. Every year, however, whether we’ve marked the occasion with fancy parties or quiet family gatherings, the conversation at some point turns towards the inevitable keeping or breaking of New Year’s resolutions.

Of course, Advent roughly begins around the time there is a call for “buy nothing Christmas” or the encouragement of “Giving Tuesday” amidst the Black Friday shopping craziness. Advent calendars, whether of the traditional chocolate or west coast craft beer variety, mark our days as we move towards an annual celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. And then there is the season of Lent, on the other side of New Year’s Eve that invites us to renounce certain practices or preferences in order to prepare our hearts and minds for the somber events of Holy Week. For years now I’ve been “giving up self-denial” for Lent and it’s working great! But lodged between Advent and Lent is the more secular event of New Year’s that bridges the gap between our seasons of Christmas and Epiphany in the Church. While New Year’s traditions have pagan religious roots stretching back 4,000 years to the Babylonians and renewed under the Romans, what are we as Christians to make of this widely held cultural tradition of ringing in a new year when we’ve already begun a new liturgical church year back in Advent?

Some of our Christian ancestors approached the secular New Year’s celebrations as an opportunity to re-commit their lives to the Triune God. Within the Methodist tradition, for example, John Wesley encouraged the revivalist Anglicans in his fold to hold “Watchnight” services and re-align themselves with the Covenant-making, Covenant-keeping God of Israel we know in Jesus Christ. From this tradition, we have the beautiful Covenant prayer that makes for a wonderful congregational act of re-dedication as the new year approaches:

“I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, Praised for you or criticized for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service. And now, O wonderful and holy God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, Let it also be made in heaven.” Amen.

Now, I know that, as spiritual descendants of John Calvin, the enthusiasm of this Arminian-influenced prayer makes us want to pull back a bit. After all, when it comes to being Reformed Christians, we would counter Wesley’s claim and say instead, “we felt our hearts strangely cooled” rather than give any ground to unnecessary emotionalism. (I like to teach my students at the college, “I had an emotion 20 years ago; I didn’t like it.”) But even so, there is something lovely about beginning a new year acknowledging both who and whose we are, redeemed sinners, saved to be sent, witnesses to the gospel in this sin-sick and beautiful world. It led me to wonder, if the broader, more secular culture invites us to make New Year’s resolutions, what might our Christian missional resolutions be instead?

Resolutions for others
As we start this new year of our Lord 2020, what might we commit to that would have a powerful and positive impact of Christian witness where we live, work and play? As a missiologist (professor of mission) in the Reformed tradition, I am particularly curious about how the gospel is translated from one culture to another. While our Holy Scriptures were originally written in ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, Christianity is utterly translatable into any current or future human culture or language we can imagine.

That reminds me of a wonderful, godly gentlemen who was an elder in the congregation I served in the Maritimes. One day he rounded the corner by the church to pick me up for lunch, and his 1990s Buick LeSabre car was vibrating with the surprising sound of rap music. I opened the door and smiled taking my seat. “Wow, I had no idea you were a fan of rap music,” I said, teasing the elder. “Oh, sorry Pastor,” he replied, fumbling to turn off the radio. “I can’t stand that stuff . But it’s the only music my grandson listens to and I figure if I’m going to have a good relationship with him, I need to know his culture.”

If we are to relationally engage our family, friends and neighbours with the gospel, then we could set for ourselves a missional New Year’s resolution of attending more carefully to where the Triune God is acting in the world around us. I call this “praying attention” to God’s activity and it does require the focus, discipline and action of one called and claimed by Christ in baptism. Missional theology acknowledges that the very nature of God is that of a missionary God. Our God is a sending God and the “sentness” of Son and Spirit offers the church its identity as a saved and sent people, God’s witness in the world. As David Bosch argued in Transforming Mission, “The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanding to include yet another ‘movement:’ Father, Son and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.”

We are missionaries of a missionary God without ever having to leave home. But what does it mean to adopt a missionary lens as a New Year’s resolution, to more intentionally “pray attention” to God? It means reading the culture around us and watching for signs of the Triune God’s activity wherever there is evidence of grace, love, justice and reconciliation as a foretaste of the healing of the nations. For example, when I work with local congregations, I often ask people in a workshop format, “If you had to prove the existence of God to me in this community, where would you take me?” People sit for a minute or two before offering suggestions of a local food bank, senior’s complex, community centre offering supportive classes to single parents and so forth. Often where people want to take me to prove the existence of God is well beyond the walls of the church. And that’s good. We need the church as the place of equipping the saints for the work of ministry, but that ministry takes place all over our community as we are scattered from Monday to Saturday.

Considering our circles
A missiologist who has been helpful to me in this work is David Fitch and his amazing book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. In it, he offers an image of three circles that we spend our lives moving through on a weekly basis. The first circle is the “close circle.” This is where we gather in small or large numbers with fellow Christians around the Communion Table. Here we are recipients of God’s grace and we are fed by our Lord and Saviour as Jesus Christ himself is host. This circle is essential, for without a Christian community for celebration of Word and Sacrament, we wither and succumb to Sin. But we do not stay in the “close circle.” At the benediction, we are sent as witnesses to the gospel out into the world. We return to our homes whether that be a house, apartment, condo or college dorm room. As David Fitch says, “the incarnational presence of Christ does not remain in the close circle but is extended to a second space in the neighbourhood.”

The second circle is wherever God has placed us to live – that is, the “dotted circle.” This perforated circle is the place where people come and go for meals and conversation, but our role is special here. In this circle we are the host and are able to be attentive through hospitality and conversation and the discernable presence of God. In the dotted circle, the space is still defined by Christians (as host) but there is space for neighbours and strangers to enter in and watch what God is doing in people’s lives as followers of Jesus practise core disciplines such as reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with the least of these and Kingdom prayer.

Of course, a missional New Year’s resolution requires more than praying attention to the presence and power of God at work in our Christian communities and in our homes. To give a nod to a Kuyper-like awareness of the total sovereignty of God, is to note that “every square inch” of Creation belongs to God. Therefore, we are called as missional disciples to pay equal attention to the presence of the Triune God in places where we are not in control; places beyond our homes and church communities. This third circle is called the “half circle” wherever we find ourselves out in the world – the hockey arena, the coffee shop, the workplace, public school or local gym. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Triune God is up to in these “half circle” spaces where we can point gently to the presence of Jesus among us as we interact with others? Fitch argues that Christ’s presence goes with us as much into the world as in our churches and homes. “Here we discern Christ’s presence as a guest among the hurting and the wandering. In this half circle, the question is never whether Christ is here or not. Rather it is whether his presence will be welcomed.”

These “third spaces” have become a wonderful opportunity for Christians to meet their neighbours on “neutral ground” where we come not with power or authority as host but rather as guest and friend attending to the activity of the risen Christ.

Praying attention to God as a missional New Year’s resolution brings with it the promise of transformation for both us as believers, and those who are not yet followers of the Risen Christ. It changes our perception of the world and offers us the surprising joy of God’s revelation. Recently, I attended a fundraising dinner for a mission organization where I serve on the Board. Each course was catered beautifully by a Christian chef who described his work as creating dishes that were edible metaphors with a focus on the gospel. After dessert was served, plates of sour lemons were passed around. Eyebrows were raised. We were instructed to take a lemon and taste it to confirm that indeed our night was ending on a “sour note.” Then, we were given packages of something called “mberry” – all-natural miracle berries from West Africa. We sucked on the berries for a couple of minutes and were invited to taste the lemon again. This time, the berries actually changed our taste buds, and sure enough biting into the lemon tasted like enjoying a delicious orange. The chef’s point was made. By grace, our perceptions of this world are transformed. In this New Year of our Lord, may we commit to “praying attention” to Father, Son and Spirit at work in our lives and the lives of those around us. Until the Kingdom comes . . .


  • Ross Lockhart

    Ross Lockhart is Dean of St. Andrew's Hall and Professor of Mission Studies at Vancouver School of Theology.

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