Thursday, September 22, 2016

Glory Dharmaraj: From Salinization of Mission to Uberization of Mission

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.

In the timeless twin Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, the hero of the sequel, Odysseus, undertakes two major journeys in his lifetime. The first one is an outward journey full of overseas expeditions and escapades, wars and conflicts, dominance and triumph. The second one is a sober one without much outer paraphernalia but with a deeply ingrained truth of an inner journey. Both the journeys throw light on a key functional tool of his mission: a sailing oar.

Beyond Salinization: A Journey
After twenty years of ceaseless outbound seafaring adventures, Odysseus comes home, and undertakes a second journey. This second journey away from home is a spatial reversal of his former sea-bound journey.

In this journey, the hero carries his sailing oar balanced on his shoulders, as a visual symbol of what he has achieved so far, until he arrives at a place whose people know nothing of sails, sea, or salt. As he is carrying the oar, well-balanced on his shoulders, a traveler from the inland region puts forth a stunning yet innocuous query: “What is the winnowing fan” you are carrying? A functional tool of a life time of work is being misrecognized! A sailing oar for a winnowing fan!

It is the end of an era. It is time for Odysseus to go home. That is what he does. He plants his sailing oar in that unknown soil, offers a ritual ceremony, and goes home! Erstwhile tools are inadequate to navigate a new landscape.

Changing tools of mission
In his book The Death of White Christian America, Robert Jones frames an edificial approach to American Protestant Christianity, and laments the decline and loss of denominational and ecumenical influence over the past decades on the cultural and political landscape of the nation. The three major buildings mentioned in his book are The Methodist Building on the Capitol Hill, The Interchurch Center on the upper west side of New York City, and the Crystal Cathedral in California. What Jones bemoans is the loss of institutionalized Protestant Christianity that has wielded an enormous cultural and political leverage in yester years. His findings do not spell the end of Christianity in America but a yearning to re-imagine and reform it!

There is an unspoken yearning in many of us, white or non-white, for a Christianity that can reform, reimagine and-reinvent, and take an engaging and appealing responsibility with the diverse social, cultural, and religious cultural milieu of our time. As the Protestant Christian world is getting ready to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of Reformation, it is a good opportunity for our own denomination to reinvent and reform the structure and polity, and find new ways to proceed into a renewed missional future, and take transmuted ecclesial action. It is not an easy task. But we need to start somewhere, as we stand on the threshold of another axial age when the functional tools erstwhile mission era are unusable in a newly emerging context.

“Uberization of mission”
During an informal conversation with Harriett Olson, General Secretary of the United Methodist Women, about the emerging Uber entity in rideshare and business, and the healthy imagination we should have for our mission today, she exclaimed with enthusiasm, and uttered, “Uberization of mission”! Indeed, healthy imagination helps us form deeper connections through integrated content strategies, right time, right channel of communication, and creative story-telling that inspires action. What happened to consumer services like taxis with Uber will happen to other areas of business services as well. It is not a question of how, but when.

In the past, businesses and companies relied primarily on their brand name to lock in customers by building trust around their product and offering services. Modern day customers expect convenience, experience and flexibility. They also expect a communal engagement and mutual transaction experience as self-serve as possible. In other words, customer experience is the key point around which all systems, people and processes function. Taxis treated consumers as commodities, and Uber grouped these discontented customers to fashion the largest consumer transportation corporation in which cars are now the commodity. An aggregate disruption! Uber business models are being emulated in other fields, from daily chores like grocery shopping to legal service whose workforce is not full-time employees.

Our historic mission imagination has always been fired by biblical theology and tempered by pragmatism. As we are well aware, theology is an activity of the imagination as much as of reason, in which we seek to transcend boundaries and move forward

We now get a kaleidoscopic view of happenings as they unfold, often in real time, on our computer screens and handheld devices. History is not impartial or identical with truth, but the internet doles out to us a newfound vantage on the totality of passing time. Today we should become more aware of our missional responsibility with our ever morphing culture. The Church needs to develop and forge new ways to enter into a dialogical relationship with the surrounding culture and its people as they are closely linked to questions concerning the value of an individual, core human need, the meaning of human existence, and action, and especially their relationship with one another and creation. At this level, mission engagements should give priority to promoting a renewed and vital synthesis between faith and culture.

In the larger context, mission scholars as well as mission practitioners have a responsibility and burden to offer a more expansive landscape, and create spaces for the students and constituents, laity and clergy, so that they can imagine and dream of their ecclesial future, ritually bury the “old oars,” come up with workable winnowing tools, recognizable gears and apparatuses for negotiating the discontinuous changes in our missional journey. Let us not lament the losses of our cherished past, rather let us clang the bell of warning to the evils of unjust society and dehumanizing values, and create and facilitate spaces for innovating new functional tools!

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