Last month I attended the Wild Goose Festival and had the opportunity to hear a presentation by the hosts of the Failed Missionary podcast and the author of The Very Worst Missionary. The conversation revealed a lot of pain and questions around the practice of mission, in particular, evangelical short-term mission and mission placements of a few years. To be up front, my experience in short-term mission is in the United Methodist Church structures, not the evangelical church, and there are some differences. However, I am familiar with a wide variety of texts on theology of mission, and the conversations I heard spurred me to look closely at the questions raised.
Questions From Experience
To begin, I started listening to the Failed Missionary podcast. A number of things struck me, but one has echoed in my mind for days. At the end of one episode, one of the guests asks “well, what is mission?” struggling to put a definition to their experience as a missionary. The person being interviewed and the hosts had all spent a few years outside the U.S. in a missionary placement, yet they had never been given a solid theology of mission that provided a framework for their ministry. This led to frustration and disillusionment, and ultimately, theological dissonance and abandoning of their work in missions.
Because each of the people being interviewed acknowledged that their initial foray into mission work began with an experience in short-term mission, I felt that this blog would be a good place to explore the question “what is mission?” What is this thing we call mission? What are we doing when we enter into the practice of Christian mission, whether that is a two week trip outside the U.S., a one week trip to help with disaster recovery, or a Saturday helping at the local food bank community garden? What is mission?
The question of what is mission is one that deserves to be wrestled with by people as they seek to faithfully live out their discipleship. In United Methodism, the question of what is mission might be answered differently depending on who was asked the question. For example, long term missionaries will take into consideration their context and the struggles of the church where they work, those trained to work as part of Early Response Teams might answer keeping in mind the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, and short-term mission teams may answer in the context of the places and people they have served, whether far from home or just across town.
Wait, What’s a Missiologist?
Two missiologists I have found to be helpful in beginning to answer the question “what is mission?” are Rev. Dr. J. Andrew Kirk and Prof. M. Thomas Thangaraj. First, a missiologist is someone whose work is the disciplined study of mission and theological reflection on the practice of mission by the church.
Second, the definitions presented by these missiologists are presented as provisional, and part of a larger academic conversation on theology of mission. They do not present their arguments as settled, but as furthering the discussion of the church’s practice of mission. I am always interested to hear what people who are engaged in short-term mission think when they hear these definitions, and learn together how these might inform their understanding of mission going forward. So now, the tentative definitions.
Definition of Mission
Kirk asserts that “mission is, quite simply, though profoundly, what the Christian community is sent to do, beginning right where it is located.” This grounds mission in the words of Christ at the ascension to the disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Mission, in this definition, is not just something that Christians do in other places, but is something they do right in their own communities. Kirk also states that while mission is “fulfilled in different ways according to particular local circumstances, the obligations of mission are the same wherever the community is established.” The obligations of mission are to bear witness to the “meaning and relevance of the kingdom”, which means that the church is to show in its life, worship and work the call of God to do justice, love kindness and live in humility.
Thangaraj helpfully defines mission as something that is more than an activity of the church. He states that while mission does mean being sent, “this ‘sent-ness’ is not… spatial. It is rather a quality of being”. That we are sent to be the church in mission does not mean that we must travel, but our being sent as the church in mission defines how we are to live, beginning right where we are located. Thangaraj and Kirk are clear that mission does not require travel, but a new understanding of the church community. What we must understand about ourselves as church, then, is that “mission happens in a network of relations.” Thangaraj describes mission as happening in the context of relationships between people. Mission, therefore, requires that we are to consider deeply how to act in mission with responsibility, solidarity, and mutuality. Responsibility means we listen deeply to others and acknowledge our responsibility to care for them as beloved children of God; solidarity means that as we listen deeply to the other we are mindful of how we are interconnected; mutuality means a recognition that mission is something we share with fellow Christians, both giving and receiving, not something that we do FOR others.
What Do You Say?
These tentative definitions of mission are quite dense, and may be explored more deeply in future posts. But for now they are a good start as we consider the question of “what is mission?” Whether a person has just signed up for a short-term mission trip and is wondering what they’ve gotten into, or if a person has just come back from their annual summer mission trip and want to reflect again on their experience, the question of “what is mission?” is a good place to start the conversation. How do you answer the question “what is mission?” Join in the conversation!
Kirk, J. Andrew. What is Mission? Theological Explorations. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2000), 24, 36
Thangaraj, M. Thomas. The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission. (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1999.), 48