Christian Mission as the “Befriending of Others”

Mark and I received the typeset proofs of The Pietist Option yesterday. While it’s exciting to see the book laid out for the first time, it also means we’ve reached the stage where we can’t make any but cosmetic changes to the text. What we’ve written, we’ve written. So it’s a shame that I only just came across a piece that would have helped me flesh out an argument in ch. 6, “The Irenic Spirit: Unity, Mission, and Witness.”

In contending that the unity of the church is inseparable from its mission, I note this passage from our denomination’s Covenant Affirmations document:

Evangelical Covenant Church logoAt the end of his life, Jesus declared his disciples his friends, meaning they shared with him a common passion for his mission in the world (John 15:13- 15). Covenanters, as Mission Friends, have broadly understood mission to be the befriending of others, and all that God has created, in the name of the One who first befriended us.

“So what is our mission,” I ask, “if not ‘the befriending of others… in the name of the One who first befriended us’? How can we engage in such reconciliation if members of our own body readily accept estrangement from each other? If the Great Commandment… animates the Great Commission… then a missional church should take the shape of an ever-widening circle of ever-deepening intimacy, with Jesus Christ at its center.”

I’ve been taken with this notion of mission as befriending for a couple years now, but haven’t found much more reflection on the idea in Covenant literature. So I’m glad that co-teaching the denomination’s history course for new pastors led me to research the 1976 decision to ordain women, and so to encounter Jean C. Lambert.

Jean Lambert (1962)
Lambert majored in History at North Park College, from which she graduated in 1962 – Covenant Archives

The ninth such ordinand (1982), Lambert pastored churches in New York and Stockholm. Despite earning a PhD in the philosophy of religion from Union Theological Seminary, she never fulfilled her desire to join the faculty of the Covenant’s seminary at North Park, instead teaching first at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City and later at universities in Africa. Historian Phil Anderson has called her the first female theologian of the Covenant. Sadly, Lambert died of ALS in 2008. (You can learn more about her in the current issue of The Covenant Quarterly, via a profile by Covenant pastor Kelly Johnston.)

One of Lambert’s writings was a contribution to Amicus Dei, the 1988 Festschrift that Phil edited in honor of former North Park president Karl Olsson. In fact, this blog is named after Zenos Hawkinson’s essay in the same collection. So I’m embarrassed that it was only last week that I noticed Lambert’s piece, “Befriending in God’s Name: Preface to a Missionary Theology of God as Friend.”

Starting with Covenanters’ historic identity as “Mission Friends” — and comparing it to similar language in the history of the Quakers (the “Society of Friends”) and a late lay medieval movement known as the “Friends of God” — Lambert suggests an absence of reflection on friendship:

What may it mean to name as “Friend” the Holy, whom the heavens cannot hold nor earth contain? What may it mean for human beings to call ourselves God’s friends? Particularly important since we call ourselves an evangelical people, a people committed to Christ’s mission in the world: does our sense of the friendship of God influence our interpretation of evangelism, and of mission?

To start to answer these questions, she draws on the work of feminist theologian Sallie McFague, who emphasized biblical descriptions of Jesus as friend as an alternative to “hierarchical and power-obsessed models of God” and “the theologies developed to warrant them.” The “mutually egalitarian” language of friendship “has particular complexity and mystery,” producing paradoxes of freedom, inclusion, and maturity. Yet it strikes McFague — and Lambert — as a rich metaphor, helping us to understand our joy in God and the importance of companionship with God and each other.

So what does this mean for mission? Lambert proceeds to sketch a “missionary theology of friendship.”

Jean C. Lambert preaching in the 1980s
Lambert preaching at North Park Covenant in Chicago in the 1980s – Covenant Archives

First, she reconsiders faith as a response to common human experiences of loneliness, alienation, and disorientation. She imagines a woman alone on a rock in darkness, afraid and angry, being approached by Jesus for the first part of a continuing conversation

in which attitudes and actions inimical to the friendship are identified and grief-marked for future reference. These lead gradually to a revision of life. There are moments of delighted discovery, in which the Christ allows one to know him, as well as carefully accepting what one hesitantly discloses. There are moments of gasping terror, as the reality of who he is opens a previously unknown vacuum in one’s being. Most significantly, perhaps, friendship with Jesus Christ gradually leads to “dawn,” to light shed on the whole world—first pale, then more brightly—until discernment becomes possible. The neighbors on other rocks, so to speak, become visible, along with sky and land, and one begins to feel connections with them and to accept them as related to oneself.

…For some such reasons, it seems appropriate to me to describe Christian life as friendship with God in Jesus Christ which brings unity and harmony to the disoriented self, thereby enabling relations with other people and the world. Fruits of the relationship are freedom to love and to take responsibility in the world as fellow-creature and friend of any who will likewise take the risks friendship requires.

The good news of the Gospel, then, can be understood as “news of the friendship extended to us by the Source of life in all the astonishing fullness of that divine self-disclosure in Jesus. It is the news that God’s friendship is meant not only for us but for all creation.”

There’s a strong ecological concern in Lambert’s piece that I’m glossing over for sake of space. But at least as friendship might shape “a theology of our mission among our fellow human beings,” Lambert proposes three “moves”:

1. “Instead of gearing all energies to getting a message told, a missionary’s primary call is to establish relationships… A Christian does not make friends in order to buy a hearing for a verbal message. Rather, a Christian makes friends because God has made friends, and he or she understands that ‘friendly’ is the mysterious secret of the love of God in the world. Friendship among people is, at best, the mirror into which we can look to see God reflected—just there, in front of the glare of our own faces.”

(Incidentally, she also suggests implications here for scholarship, “by granting concern not only for accuracy in observation, integrity in reporting, and creativity in suggesting possible application, but also by granting a posture of openness, humility, and respect toward whatever is a subject for study.” All of which should be familiar to anyone who read our book on Pietism and higher education.)

2. “Conversion ceases to be an accurate label for the still essential process of having one’s life ‘turned around.’ Instead it might be better to think of ‘finding and being found.’  Instead of seeking conversion expressible in assent to standard verbal formulae, the Christian in mission seeks, through becoming a friend, to elicit a response of affection and loyalty. This means loyalty not only to her- or himself, but also to the Friend in whose name she or he attends to the other, listening intently for the other to begin to let the true soul show.”

3. “Instead of responding to a commandment to ‘go and do unto,’ the missionary responds to, and offers, an invitation to come along and be with.” Here Lambert is thinking about the Great Commission, and suggesting that the nature of the authority given to Jesus “emerged gradually in the awareness of the hearers and eventual disciples who were surprised to discover it. They had responded to a simple invitation: ‘Come, follow me.’ Only afterwards did they begin to grasp whom it was they had followed, and whom they had come to love, trust, and grant their loyalty.”

It’s a rich, rewarding read, and certainly helps me think more deeply about our claim that mission is “the befriending of others.” You can find the full essay (along with the rest of Amicus Dei) digitized in the Frisk Collection of Covenant Literature.