Transcending Mission – some further thoughts

Moving house has meant little time for blogging but I’ve continued to process thoughts and ideas from the Thinking Mission symposium. It’s a bit disjointed but here are some of the things bubbling round my mind.

While Stroope is right that using the word ‘mission’ is problematic it is here to stay. What will be more important in the years ahead is using it with more care, recognising the power dynamics and avoiding the colonialist / coercive undertones, questioning its use and critiquing the industrialisation of mission. Since reading the book I’ve looked at people’s Facebook and blog posts with different eyes and note how easily we (and I include myself) fall into the trap of using mission language as if we, the mission people, are the answer. “God has called to do missions, now we are here and the Spirit is at work” or “we are surrounded by needs that we have been able to meet thanks to your prayers and support”. We need to change our thinking around ideas of mission.

Trinitarian theology provides both a vision for the future and a framework to help us get there. Of course the link between the Trinity and the Church is not entirely straightforward and neither is the link between the Trinity and our efforts in mission. The church participates through the Spirit in the ministry of Christ that was given him by the Father. Our witness and gospel proclamation comes from the ongoing work of the Spirit, the person and work of Christ as well as the ‘mission’ of God to the world and will be shaped in three main ways:

  1. Participation is not simply about us participating in what God is up to in the world; it is us sharing in the life of God through the Spirit. This is of particular importance for the way we relate to others because the fundamental relationship we have with our sisters and brothers in Christ in other cultures is sharing together in fellowship in God. As we think about the future of mission, partnership should be the hallmark of our work because all believers share in the body of Christ.
  2. Trinitarian theology gives central place to the church which exists, in part, because of the mission of God is to reconcile the world to himself. As we think about the future of mission the church is central to it.
  3. Our conceptions of ministry and ordination. In the early years of the church the missionary task was the preoccupation of ministry; thus Ignatius’ encouragement to Polycarp to “exhort all people that they may be saved”. As we think about the future we need to think about what it means to be ‘called’ and ‘sent’.

These themes can be challenging for mission agencies and Stroope’s ideas call for a new paradigm.

Most agencies began in response to specific cultural and historical events and while they have adapted over the years there is no guarantee the model will survive. If mission is a work of the church then the role of mission organisations is not as agencies but as instruments and support services to enable the church (in every continent) to live out its calling. Likewise churches will need to take to heart the need to engage intentionally in global mission and not just send money to a preferred agency.

This is a particular challenge for agencies who, in recent years, have become more involved in development work. Sometimes this is because they want to be more focused on integral mission. Sometimes it is easier to raise funds for such work than it is for church planting and evangelism; sometimes it is easier because we feel we have something to give and can make a difference (though often the best development work isn’t about what we can bring but about encouraging communities to use the things they have).  Can such agencies become the way groups of churches work together (and what might the governance / strategy issues look like)?

It is never easy to redefine relationships and if mission organisations change this will impact their relationships in the UK and in other countries. Often people have become conditioned to ways of working and so answer questions in the way they believe you want them answered. This is particularly true where money is involved, because the choice to give money to a particular project or situation is to exercise power. But to make the issues harder, for agencies to instigate change may itself be a form of colonial power.

But as I ponder I am optimistic.

  • As a Brit I think our awareness of issues and our own colonial legacy means we have a contribution to make in helping open up spaces for others so that they can find new ways of working. For us the key word in the future will be humility.
  • For many years now theological education in the UK has made an effort to grow reflective practitioners (particularly as part of ministerial formation) and if we continue to do this for mission personnel we will equip them to serve in changing contexts and in new ways. A key characteristic will be servanthood and developing servant heartedness.
  • Our own need for missionaries from the majority world into the post-Christian UK, as well as our need for people to help us work with those from other cultures who migrate to Britain means that we will need to create genuine partnership in mission where we are both giving and receiving.

I’m only just beginning to understand the whole subject, and mission organisations come in a whole range of different configurations with different aims and purposes. But it is exciting to be involved at a time of change, to see the possibilities and perhaps to make some contribution to the work of mission.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels