What Do You Mean By That?
As a United Methodist, I often find myself asked about some of our unique use of words. “Annual Conference” for example, is both a geographic term (a region in which a bishop has authority for clergy and local churches) and an annual meeting in which clergy and laity gather to worship and conduct business for their geographic region.
When I’m with seminary friends or reading an academic theology book, the word “practice” has a particular meaning. This past week I stayed with family in Houston while I had several meetings. I used the word “practice” in conversations about short-term mission and was asked to explain what I meant. Can someone “practice” at mission? Don’t they just go and “do” mission work?
Merriam-Webster defines practice as to carry out or apply, as in “practice what you preach”, and to do or perform often, as in “practice politeness.” A second definition states that practice means to work at repeatedly so as to become proficient. My younger brother is a jazz musician and has the piano from our childhood home. He still practices and makes his living playing the bass guitar. On a rare occasion I can pick out a few notes from one of the pieces I played when I was 12, but other than that, I can’t play. Without practice, I’ve lost everything I learned.
In academic theology, the term “practice” has an even more specific meaning. Practical theologians have different definitions, and I’d like to share two with you that illuminate why I believe people can “practice mission.” These definitions come from Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass.
Defining Christian Practice
First, Volf and Bass define practices in a way that emphasizes Jesus Christ and our communal being as the body of Christ (in other words, not simply as individuals). “Christian practices are patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God as known in Jesus Christ.” This means that the things we do as gathered people in response to God’s love and grace shown to us in Christ are practices, and that these may change through the years. These practices are things like gathering on Sunday for worship, praying together, taking communion, helping each other and our mission work. These practices can change over time. The language we use, the way we sing, who is allowed to be in leadership – these might change, but the point is we gather in response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
The Practice of Mission
A second definition is by Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass in the same book: “Christian practices are things people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.” I love this definition because it describes what I hear United Methodist Volunteers in Mission say they are doing when they go on a short-term mission trip. They go together in teams to work together with people who are in need – whether that need is due to a tornado or hurricane, or due to systemic poverty, they work together. The work they do addresses fundamental human needs – working on houses, schools, water wells, offering health and dental services, praying and worshiping together. And at the heart of it all, they work together in mission because they see God at work in the world and know they are called by the Spirit to participate in that work.
Yes, people can practice mission. We practice mission because God loves us and the world, and the Spirit of God calls us to reach out in compassion to one another, working and praising, participating in God’s mission to reach out in love to all the world.
Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life – quotes taken from pg 3 (Volf & Bass) and pg 18 (Dykstra & Bass)