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Is Called to Common Mission—really about mission?

by Tim Huffman (Professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio)

May 11, 1999

In this speech from May 11, 1999 at the second Mahtomedi free conference, "Upholding Lutheran Confessions", Tim Huffman argues that Called to Common Mission is really more about calling the ELCA and ECUSA to enter into common bishops rather than common mission.

photo of Dr. Gordon S. (Tim) Huffman, Jr.It is good to be with you. I thank you for the invitation to address a topic which is both my calling and my passion. I also want to commend you for the courage of your work. There are many people in many parts of this church who have had serious concerns about the process we’ve been through with the Concordat and CCM, but who felt unable or unwilling to express those concerns. The big difference from two years ago is that now people know that it’s o.k. to say no to this proposal, and that they are not alone in their concerns and objections. I thank you for that good work.

I also bring you greetings from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and especially from two of my colleagues who have had the courage to write and speak publicly against this proposal. Wally Taylor, Ogram Professor of New Testament Studies, and Walter Huffman, Professor of Worship and Dean of the Chapel, have authorized me to say that they join me in opposing CCM, although I alone am responsible for my words today. Indeed, the more I talk with people outside Trinity Seminary, and especially with parish pastors and laity, the more I see a deep disquiet about this particular proposal. (And because I have been specifically asked a couple of times, I also bring you greetings from my father, whom a number of you remember from the 20 years when he was a District resident/Bishop. It would interest you to know that although, like most fathers and sons, Dad and I have had our theological differences, on this question we completely agree.)

Cards on the table: I deeply desire communion with Episcopal colleagues and friends, and I can find no reason to justify our being separate. In fact, I spent several years functioning as an Anglican while living in Scotland and Hong Kong, and I developed deep affection for Anglican people. Moreover, much of my ministry has been ecumenical in character, and I am one of many who want ecumenical cooperation, but not this particular proposal.

CCM, the proposal now before the church has two quite different aspects. It is really two qualitatively different proposals bundled together.

  1. Ecumenica: do you want to be in communion with the Episcopal Church?
  2. Ecclesiological: do you want to alter your polity and theology to incorporate the (so-called) ‘historic episcopate?’

To use the much abused marriage analogy, it’s like asking, “Would you like to get married? Will you have plastic surgery? Just one answer, please.”

The requirement of a single answer to two qualitatively different questions makes for poor theology and poor decision making, but it is a deliberate linkage. “If you want the former, you have to justify why you do not want the latter.” So there’s been a rather clever shift here, to make it seem as if the ELCA is anti-ecumenical if it refuses this package deal.

But let’s be clear who is putting up the barriers to ecumenical agreement here. The ELCA has dropped the long-held Lutheran requirement for subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, not just for fellowship with the Episcopal Church, but even for Episcopal priests who would serve Lutheran parishes. It is the ECUSA that is maintaining its requirement that other churches remake themselves along lines that Anglicans approve, a requirement rejected by all other Protestant churches in the world. Now we are being told that the vote is really about mission: that we need to approve this proposal because it is urgently needed for our mission. [Cf. briefing by H.G. Anderson to bishops of ELCA, followed by bishops’ statements from Regions 8 and 7 [q.v.]; Marty to Church Council.]

So is CCM really about mission, or is that merely the strategy to sell a proposal that cannot be sold on its own merits? It should gladden the heart of a professor of mission to hear that a major proposal to the church is about mission. And the good news here is that the decision to market this as a mission proposal reflects the conviction that the church cares about mission, and that it would adopt the proposal if only it could be convinced it is a mission proposal.

Alas, my heart is not glad. Indeed, I must protest the use and abuse of the church’s concern for mission to persuade it to adopt a proposal with a different intention. And I must express amazement that something advertised as a mission proposal should generate such passion. When have people been threatened, vilified, attacked, marginalized in this church for opposing a mission proposal?

I would offer my response in twelve points.

The ecumenical movement does have its origin in the modern missionary movement. The 1910 World Missionary Conference brought together representatives of churches engaged in ‘foreign’ mission, along with a few representatives of those churches produced by such missionary effort. Edinburgh is sometimes seen as the beginning of ecumenism, and its branches did produce both Faith and Order Conferences and Life and Work Conferences, which came together in the post-war period as the World Council of Churches.

But it is a mistake to make a too-ready identification of ecumenism with mission, because the two branches from Edinburgh have grown far apart. Let us remember that the motivation for Edinburgh was not the end of denominations—something really unthinkable to its organizers—but the overcoming of the denominational fratricide that was occurring on the ‘mission fields’ in Africa and Asia. [Latin America was deliberately ruled out of the discussion.]

But the goal of Edinburgh was the end of fratricide, not the remaking of the denominations themselves. By the grace of God, during the last century this goal has largely been accomplished among the mainline Protestant churches. We not only do not try to undercut each other; we actually cooperate in many ways in many places. This is especially true of ECUSA and ELCA. This goal is far from fulfilled in other relationships. More of that later.

This proposal--CCM--did not come from groups involved directly in mission; nor would it. In 25 years of direct mission involvement, and nearly 40 years of close contact with direct mission, I have never heard a single missioner say, “Our mission would be stronger if only we had the ‘full interchangeability of ministries with Episcopalians.” That would bring a chuckle from missiologists.

This proposal is, rather, the product of persons whose experience lies elsewhere than in actually doing mission, and the arguments show it.

Whether this proposal is missional depends, of course, on the definition of terms, which seems to be the primary effort of ecumenical theology. If mission were to be defined as Canon Bob Wright does, as ‘everything that the church does,’ then of course this is a mission proposal. But so would be any proposal of any kind, so long as it involved the church; an agreement with Starbucks to supply coffee for after the service would equally be a mission agreement. But if we understand the term ‘mission’ to have real content, to refer to something rather than to everything, and thus to nothing, then the question is more problematic.

What do we mean by ‘mission?’ I suggest the thumbnail definition that mission is ‘the church reaching beyond itself with the Gospel.’

Then we ask, is this proposal about mission?

That part of it that deals with internal matters is not about mission. And almost all of this is about internal matters.

The historic episcopate is not about mission. At this moment in history, there is almost a direct correlation between distance from the historic episcopate and effectiveness in mission.

Restriction of ordination to bishops in historic succession is not about mission.

Special rites for installing/ordaining bishops are not about mission.

Who lays hands on whom is not about mission.

Who celebrates communion in whose presence is not about mission.

Who has joint liturgies with whom is not about mission.

Liturgies are not themselves mission, although they can be hoped to equip for mission. Even grand joint celebrations are not themselves mission, although they also could be hoped to equip for mission.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the proposal that are about mission, and aspects that could be about mission.

The diminishing of the priesthood of all believers is about mission, but negatively.

The joint planning and approval processes could be about mission, but that cuts both ways; they are probably as negative as they are positive.

What are the supposed mission advantages of this proposal?

Let’s address the specific points made by each of the advocates.

A year ago, at the Southern Ohio Synod Assembly, I pressed Bishop Anderson to go beyond the few micro-mission examples he could give of a congregation here or a Native American ministry there that could be done jointly, to ask whether there was really any missional argument to be made from the macro-missional perspective. In his briefing to the bishops in Tucson in March, Bishop Anderson attempts to do that. It’s important to take his arguments seriously, and to ask whether he has made the case that CCM is really about mission.

Bishop Anderson speaks of:

Joint planning to evangelize the US. Sounds good! He says, “The task of mission is too overwhelming for us to do it by ourselves. There are 90,000,000 unchurched people in our country, the fourth largest mission field in the world. There are over 17 unchurched people for every member of the ELCA.” But what assumptions are at work here? Are not both churches already engaged in outreach? Is the ELCA really trying to do it all alone? Is the Episcopal Church doing nothing, but if we adopted CCM, suddenly we’d add their resources to our own? And what stands in the way of joint planning now? Surely this is not a serious argument.

Bishop Anderson continues, “We can’t meet the mission challenge unless we can draw on the clergy rosters of both churches to serve in key areas.” Again the question arises, are we not doing that now? Are only Lutheran clergy at work? Or does this mean Lutherans will employ the Episcopal priests who have no churchly employment—the non-stipendiary priests? Whether that would advance mission as Lutherans understand it is open for discussion.

“Many synods have joint mission work on hold until full communion gives them the green light.” Really??!! Is full communion really needed before synods can have joint mission work? If there are places where joint work is on hold, is that not really a tactic, holding projects hostage to churchwide action? Is there anything these two churches could not do together if they had the will?

I would respectfully suggest that almost any conceivable joint mission work is doable right now, and that using just a touch of creativity would solve the few remaining problems. From the Lutheran perspective there are no bars to cooperation in mission now. Rare indeed is the instance where Lutherans are stymied in doing mission, absent interchangeable ministries. Let us hope that projects will not be held hostage to CCM approval as a tactic to try to force compliance with demands that are not themselves missional. There have been a couple of stories of Episcopal bishops pulling back from joint work following Philadelphia, but that’s because they’ve chosen to express their disapproval in a hurtful way, not because they had to.

As to the tiny and isolated examples of ministries where Lutherans need some sort of personnel from other churches, we now also have to ask, “Can we not do this in collaboration with our Presbyterian or Reformed or UCC colleagues?” The landscape has changed.

Bishop Anderson makes one more argument, which I shall address later.

Following the Tucson meeting the bishops of Region 7 made a statement supporting CCM, saying “Our participation in God’s mission to the world through the church can and will be genuinely enhanced by an agreement for full communion. We believe that clear witness to our unity in the gospel with our Episcopalian brothers and sisters is a faithful response to the gospel we are to proclaim to the world.” [ELCA, 4/9/99; 99-84-JB] Unfortunately the bishops offer merely assertion rather than argument, so that there is little to do but challenge the assertion. No it will not be enhanced.

Martin Marty, in his winsome public letter to his congregation which was really for the Church Council [Exhibit K, part 2c], offers eight specific brainstorms about projects Lutherans and Episcopalians could do together [pp.2-3], but Marty appears not to notice that almost all could be done today, with no need for either full communion or the historic episcopate. The only exceptions are joint ministries and congregations, but even there he notes that some are happening under the ‘interim’ arrangement, and ignores the fact that we have other church partners already in communion with us, if Episcopalians refuse to cooperate. In sum, seven of his eight ideas fail to establish any mission rationale at all for adopting CCM. The eighth comes later.

The only real missional advantage of this proposal is that Lutherans could serve Episcopal parishes. While I’m sure there are a few Episcopal parishes and a few Lutheran pastors who would be excited about that, I would suggest that generally speaking, there are few big advantages to this, especially given the significant over-supply of Episcopal priests, and the growing shortage of Lutheran pastors. And while I do have my eye on a particular position, that of Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, this is hardly an argument for a major alteration of Lutheran policy. Indeed, a genuine concern for mission would focus on inspiring more young Lutherans to consider full-time ministry in the church, establishing more congregations, getting people out of church buildings and into engagement with the world God loves.

There is not the slightest evidence that the so-called ‘historic episcopate’ represents any missional advantage for 21st century North America. None!

For 350 years this year, Lutherans in North America have been organizing in ways that reject the European episcopate. Both intuitively and explicitly, Lutherans of every description, of every theological persuasion and every ethnic background have had this one consistent organizing principle: no European episcopate. That’s actually rather remarkable, considering our varied history. North American Lutherans have always known where to get the episcopate; they never needed anyone to bring them the gift of the episcopate. They simply have rejected every suggestion that they import it, somehow concluding that whatever value it had for Europe, it was not suited for North America. That places a huge burden of proof on those who would argue that suddenly this era calls for the European style episcopate in this place, especially in the face of the evidence of the last 30 or 50 years of church history in North America.

Let’s note a couple of things from that recent history.

Without the historic episcopate, North American Lutheranism is the only mainline church body that has not suffered significant losses in recent decades; the ELCA is the largest Lutheran church in the world, if you are counting active members of congregations; and the U.S. is the country with the largest number of active Lutherans in the world today. All this has been achieved in challenging times and without benefit of the historic episcopate. As a scholar of mission, I would have to conclude that these facts would seem to have missional significance! We hardly need to ask what the experience of the Episcopal Church has been.

Bigger is not better. About a dozen years ago Lyle Schaller questioned the formation of the ELCA on the principle that church mergers (sic) usually result in a whole that is less than the sum of the parts. I doubted him, and I suspect most of us did, but he was completely correct. The ELCA does much less structured mission than its components did 12 or 30 years ago. We establish a fraction of the number of congregations we did in the 60’s or 70’s or 80’s, something that especially grieves my father, who helped establish more than 100 congregations in his tenure. We have far fewer overseas missionaries. We are still well below the budget we projected for churchwide a decade ago. A lot will go unsaid here, but the facts are beyond dispute. More produced less.

So would our mission be harmed rather than helped by CCM? Inevitably some effects would be harmful. We would certainly be more inward looking. With the internal changes, people will be sorting people, asking ‘Is he/she in the historic episcopate or not?’

We’d spend a lot of time on terminologies, which affect theologies: ordained or installed? Pastor or priest?

We’ll have vestment creep: will there be miters? Rings to kiss? Are the purple shirts domestic or are they from Canterbury?

More troubling, we’d have episcopal record-keeping and pedigree inspection; we’d have countdowns to the time when the ECUSA might regard us as completely transitioned, so that they could declare full communion. And when that time arrived, there would be a few surprises in store!

We would re-open the question of the diaconate; CCM specifically pledges us to continuing study of that which we have settled.

We would have two groups of pastors: those in and those out. And make no mistake, this is the real issue: bishops in the historic episcopate are needed to produce pastors/priests competent to confect the sacraments. This is the issue between Canterbury and Rome; this is what (Presiding Bishop) Frank Griswold identified as the issue with COCU [‘unreconciled issues relating to the ordained ministry]; this is what Anglican friends around the world have told me is the real issue, and the reason they think the ELCA should say no.

We would also be less flexible. I always teach my missiology students that the most important quality for effective mission is flexibility. Yet CCM involves a layer of commissions, separate ones with each ecumenical partner, consulting about all important issues. There are new layers of planning and approvals. It is already a process of years to get any significant mission initiative through the ELCA. How much more involved will be joint mission approvals? In an age when adaptability and flexibility are needed more and more to reach out to a diverse and fast changing society, accretions of bureaucracy are deadly to mission. Indeed, the CUIC agreement specifically recognizes this problem.

CCM will also hinder our mission by weakening the core Lutheran teaching regarding the priesthood of all believers. Here I confess my frustration that there has not been righteous indignation over CCM’s abandonment of Luther’s teaching of the universal priesthood of all believers. This is a key matter, not because of taste or tradition, but because the center of Lutheran teaching is justification by grace through faith, and its corollary is the priesthood of all believers. Having been justified, we have no further need for a priest. Christ, the Great High Priest, has done all that is necessary. Of course there is no need for sacrifice; but also, no one need be set apart to speak to God for us. We have direct access. And no one need be set apart to speak to us for God.

Let’s tread carefully here. Do we not need intercession? Do we not need the assurance of God’s love for us? Yes—but no special group is set apart to do that, because we are all set apart to do that. All intercede, all proclaim the Gospel, all assure sinners of forgiveness. Where does that happen? In baptism, where our liturgy says, “Through Baptism God has made these new sisters and brothers members of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus.” [p.124, LBW]

We need no class of priests because we are priests to each other. We priest each other. And then, ‘to avoid confusion’ as Brother Martin said, certain ones are set aside for public leadership. But the means of grace are in the hands of the people of God, not special priests. Even the sacraments, even the office of the keys, belong to the people and may, in Luther’s eyes, be exercised by lay people. Luther argued that “even women” are permitted to perform baptism, which is the more important of the sacraments. How then could it be maintained, Luther argued, that only a special caste within the church may lead the sacrament of the altar?

Listen to this fine description of ordained ministry found in the agreement the ELCA will approve with the Moravian church in August:

Within the community of the baptized and for the sake of due order, we understand the Spirit to lead the Church to authorize men and women publicly to represent within the whole Church and to the world the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments through what is traditionally called the pastoral office.

Note that this is a beautifully functional definition of ordained ministry, in contrast with CCM. I wonder how we as a church can use such different understandings in our dealings with different partners.

There have been many contortions used in the process with the Episcopalians to avoid reference to the priesthood of all believers. It is asserted that the churches are in agreement on this, and then Anglican euphemisms are substituted for Lutheran theology. This remarkable reticence to use the phrase ‘priesthood of all believers’ is found even in Lutheran resolutions.

What has happened is that Anglican terms like ‘the ministry of the whole people of God’ and ‘the ministry of the laity’ have been substituted as if they were synonyms for the priesthood of all believers. They are not. Ministry, service, is not priesthood. The ‘ministry of the whole people,’ far from being Lutheran, is not even specifically Christian. Every faith community around the world, even sects and cults, would agree that all members have their service to perform. [‘Show up, pay up, shut up!’]

Nor is the priesthood of all believers ever reducible to the ministry of the laity, which is what CCM does. The April 1998 version laid out the logic in clear, if odd, terms: “We agree that ordained ministers are called and set apart for the one ministry of Word and Sacrament, and that they do not cease by ordination to remain members of the laity and to share with them in the priesthood of all believers.” [par. 7]. After protests, this was altered to read, in the November and current version, “and that they do not cease thereby to share in the priesthood of all believers,” [par. 7], removing the words but not the idea that the ordained are still laity and, as laity, are within the priesthood of all believers. But ordained persons participate in the priesthood as ordained persons, not as honorary laity; and the single priesthood encompasses both. There are not separate priesthoods for laity and clergy, but one for all. That is why American Lutherans have always rejected the term priest for their ordained role. CCM invites Episcopalians to regard ELCA pastors as priests, not as fully equivalent to priests. Some of us are happy to let Anglicans and Roman Catholics call themselves priests, but please don’t call me a priest. At stake are both the functional understanding of ordained ministry and the priesthood of all believers. This has direct missional implications.

Christians bear the means of grace to the world out there.

Lay Christians witness with priestly authority.

And no group of lay Lutherans ever need suffer a famine of the sacrament.

Laity are full partners as final arbiters of truth and practice and justice and doctrine.

Laity even, according to Luther, exercise the office of the keys.

That all of this contrasts with Anglican practice is clear.

Why it is abandoned in CCM is a matter that should cause deep concern.

Those who have been involved in trying to get mission initiatives through the church know that you can grow old waiting. There is no reason to imagine that a joint planning process that adds layers of approval to an already interminable process will do anything positive for mission in an age when change is so rapid that only streamlined processes hold any hope for mission that is contemporary. Nor will the years of figuring out what the new structures and processes require be an advantage.

“The quality most necessary for effective mission is: flexibility.”

It is possible to identify areas in mission where ecumenical agreements could be very helpful. Unfortunately, none of them involves the ECUSA, precisely because we already have the tools to cooperate, if only we have the will.

Where we need ecumenical work for the sake of mission, and this truly is in the spirit of Edinburgh 1910, is in relationships, or lack of relationships, with Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches, both of which regard us as nearly the enemy when our mission touches people or areas they regard as exclusively theirs. I would make reference here to Latin America, Eastern Europe, and ministry with Hispanics in America. And we also need ecumenical work for the sake of mission with the conservative evangelical groups and movements, both inside the US and overseas, since they often regard mainline Christians as their perfect target group, taking us back to the situation of 100 years ago. These are quite serious mission challenges, and that is where our ecumenical energy would go if mission were indeed the motivating concern.

It is possible to imagine ecumenical agreements truly motivated by mission and centered on mission. Let’s imagine, for example, an agreement that aimed to transcend the true divisions within American Christianity: the divisions caused by race (11 am Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week, and the ELCA has failed conspicuously in its goals to become more inclusive) and the divisions caused by economic disparity, which is sometimes even more segregating than race. And let’s imagine that eight church bodies with 15 million members agreed to work and grow together ecumenically, with a special focus on these matters; and to be really wild, let’s imagine that three of the eight denominations were historically black churches. Now that would be an agreement worthy of the word mission.

Well, as you know, I’ve described what has in fact happened in the COCU process. In January the participants shook off the decade-long torpor caused by the insistence of the ECUSA on the historic episcopate, and decided to move ahead with or without the Episcopalians. As you also know, the ECUSA has backed away from this truly missional ecumenical proposal, because it fails to address the “issues of ordained ministry.” And what about the ELCA, a “participant observer” in those discussions and now invited to be a direct participant? Indeed, what about the ELCA? We have had virtual silence on this major ecumenical advance. Could it be because of the contrast between it and the CCM? I would respectfully suggest that churches motivated by a missional ecumenism would be beating down the door to try to be part of CUIC (Churches Uniting in Christ, the newly adopted name for this effort) rather than twisting arms to make over the ELCA.

What about the larger abstraction, namely that to be in full communion with the Episcopal church visibly shows our unity in the Gospel, and thus contributes to God’s mission in the world? This is the final argument made by Bishop Anderson and Martin Marty, and the only argument made by many who allege that CCM is really about mission. In Bishop Anderson’s words, “Ecumenism is mission.” Marty argues, incorrectly, I would add, “the basic and most effective and profound ‘mission’ we have is to be the church, to show forth the unbroken body of Christ.”

In other words, ecumenism might or might not enhance our mission, depending on the specifics of the proposals developed. But to argue that ecumenism itself is mission is to confuse what feels good to insiders with our missional calling to reach out to the world with the gospel. Ecumenism may serve mission—or not—but should not be confused with mission.

Finally, a seldom spoken ecumenical observation. CCM is a unique proposal. It is the only ecumenical proposal in which a major church is asked to alter itself significantly to be acceptable to the partner. The explicit vision here is that CCM would be a model for bringing Protestants to a structure, and particularly a structure of oversight, capable of recognition by Rome and the Orthodox churches. It does thus represent a significant decision about our future. Shall we remain clearly Protestant, emphasizing ties of communion to Protestants, or shall we align ourselves with the Anglicans in their quixotic quest for recognition by Rome? This really would incorporate the ELCA into the Anglican view, not just of ecumenism, but actually of their place in Christianity, as a bridge group that hopes to unite the western catholic church, with the historic episcopate as the centerpiece. Unfortunately for Episcopalians, it is a view that has failed, as the last two years have shown in a painful way. In August, 1997, the ELCA said, “Not now; not in this way.” July 1, 1998, the Vatican reaffirmed the 19th century rejection of Anglican ordinations by Pope Leo XIIII in Apostolicae Curae by elevating it to binding canon law, infallibly taught doctrine, thus apparently closing forever the door that Anglicans believed had been bypassed in their dialogues with Rome. And in January, 1999, the other 8 churches involved in COCU, comprising 15 million American Christians, decided not to be held hostage any longer to Episcopalian demands about the historic episcopate, and forged the most exciting and the most missional ecumenical agreement in 50 years. With all our love for the Episcopalians, and I mean that most sincerely, we do them no service if we encourage them to hold to their expectation that the approach they have been using will bear fruit. It has been left behind by both sides, by both Protestants and Roman Catholics, and only this single ELCA possibility, left over from an earlier era of ecumenical thinking, remains.

This is a moment in history, but not in the way we’ve heard. Our decision here will either perpetuate the Anglican self-understanding as a bridge group between Protestants and Catholics, with the historic episcopate at the center, although events have shown that to be impossible in this age; or it will say, “That day has passed, and the 19th century attitudes of centripetal ecumenism are not adequate for 21st century challenges.” To reject this proposal is to say that we are committed to the new age of ecumenism, an age of ‘mutual affirmation and admonition’ [Formula of Agreement], of ‘complementarity’ [Moravian agreement], of ‘unity in diversity’ [CUIC] and of commitment to clear missional cooperation [CUIC].

This will be painful for our friends in the Episcopal church, and it might cause them to withdraw temporarily. That would be painful for us as well. But if the ECUSA does withdraw temporarily, I hope it will be to reflect on the words of Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in his sermon last October commemorating the work of William Reed Huntington, the source of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886-1888. Bishop Griswold said:

"Because we are creatures of incarnation and therefore history, the process of stripping [away those things in our several traditions which occlude (church) unity] bumps us up against all the givenness and specificity of our particular traditions which have enabled us to appropriate the Gospel, and asks us to discern in them what is authentic and enduring, and what may once have been essential, but is now in danger of becoming an idol of denominational singularity."

To the degree that mission is impacted by ecumenical agreements, we advance mission by rejecting this proposal. It should be put to rest, so that we all can move forward more constructively for a new ecumenical future, one in which we might really be motivated by mission, and one in which we will accept one another as the Christians we know we are, and then ask how we can reach out to the world with the Gospel.