Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Online missions as a form of connectionalism

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

Gavin Richardson recently wrote a piece for UMCommunications entitled "Engage in global mission without leaving your church."  In the post, Richardson suggests that churches can engage in online missions that "could include Skype calls, video testimonies, online prayer rooms and more."  Richardson's suggestions may strike some as provocative, but such a virtual model of missions can help stimulate discussion of what the nature of missions and connection are.

The most obvious way in which Richardson's proposed online missions model challenges traditional definitions of missions is in its understanding of space and travel.  Missions are usually seen as people going from one place to another.  (The term missions derives from a Latin word meaning "sent.")  In Richardson's online model, mission participants are not going from one place to another in a physical sense.  This change is yet another example of the way in which the Internet reshapes how we think about space.

Perhaps more significant, however, is the shift in understanding of the work that constitutes missions in the online model.  Traditional mission trips, especially the sort of short-term mission trips with which most church members are familiar, focus on "doing" something, whether that's leading a Vacation Bible School, building something, distributing food or medicine, etc.  Online missions can't involve the same sort of physical labor, since participants are not physically at the site of their mission work.

Instead, online missions focus on relational and spiritual work and fundraising.  Mission participants can use technology to form digitally-mediated relationships with long-term mission workers in the field.  They can pray for these mission workers and their work, and they can help raise money to support the workers and their work.  The relational aspect seems especially significant to me, as it suggests a relational or, in Methodist terms, connectional model of understanding missions.  The structure of Richardson's proposed online missions places relationship-building at the heart of the mission experience.  Support in prayer and finances flows from things learned through those relationships.  The consequence is to strengthen ministry partnerships across the connection.

Exposing congregants to such a relational model of missions is good way of helping them develop holistic understandings of what mission is.  For long-term, professional missionairies (as opposed to the short-term missionaries most churches send out), relationship-building is the key to any type of work in which they are engaged.  Moreover, such an understanding of missions reflects important theological and ethical principles such as the relational nature of God's self or the need for mutuality in human relationships.

The idea of taking a mission trip through the internet may seem like a strange one.  Yet churches would do well to try this model, especially as a means of fostering conversations about what mission means.

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