The mission of God’s people is always prevented by the Holy Spirit. No, that isn’t as heretical as it at first sounds! It’s a reminder that the way we use and understand words changes over time. To our ears the word ‘prevent’ often has a negative meaning, suggesting that something is stopped or hindered. We might say, ‘I was prevented from reaching my destination,’ for example. But the root meaning is ‘to come before,’ from the Latin venire meaning ‘to come’ with the prefix prae meaning ‘before’. This was surely what was in John Wesley’s mind when he spoke of the prevenience of God’s grace: it is grace that ‘prevents’ us, or goes before us. That is a distinctively Methodist emphasis which is especially helpful and relevant in our approach to mission today.
It resonates well with the missiological thinking which underlies much of our approach to contextual and cross-cultural mission today. Maybe John Taylor’s comment that the missionary task of Christians and the Church means ‘finding out what God is doing and trying to do it with him’, is a more recent re-statement of Wesley’s emphasis on prevenient grace. When Sue Hope says, ‘Learning how to interpret the Spirit, spotting the footprints of God in the earthiness of the ordinary life of a local community and following them into the unknown is at the heart of true mission,’ perhaps she is articulating something similar to Wesley for our contemporary context.
Is the movement of our mission to bring Christ to community or culture, or is to bring our community and culture to Christ? A proper understanding of prevenient grace suggests that neither model is adequate. A true grasp of the prevenient grace of God and the prevenient activity of the Holy Spirit, will remind us that God is already present in the culture and the community where we intend to engage in mission. It is a mission which has already begun, because the Spirit has preceded and ‘prevented’ us. So mission is essentially a task of immersing ourselves in and becoming embedded in a culture or community in which God himself is already a willing and long-term participant. It is a necessary consequence of the doctrine of incarnation. Our mission is, as I heard Neil Richardson express it recently, ‘the bodying forth, in word and action, of God’s will for the world’. Perhaps Peter made one of the earliest discoveries of the importance to Christian mission of a proper understanding of prevenient grace when he found that the Holy Spirit was already active in the hearts of Gentiles (Acts 10).
Our task in pioneer mission and ministry is certainly to be innovative. It is to find creative ways of sharing the gospel in a culture that has largely lost sight of many of the traditional landmarks of the Christian story. It is to reimagine what being an authentic disciple of Jesus might mean in our community and to dream of what church could become in our context. But it is God who is the real innovator - the groundbreaker, the missionary, the planter. The God of mission whose Spirit preveniently works in individuals and communities to create in them an awareness of God’s loving purposes even before they know it, is the true pioneer missioner. And Jesus, the Word made flesh, already immersed in the lives of those people and places, is both the ‘pioneer’ and the ‘finisher’ of faith and mission.