Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
As indicated previously, I had the honor of preparing a document for the Commission on a Way Forward for use in developing their Missional Framework. This is the third post in a series explaining what I sent to the Commission and why. In these posts, I speak about my own writing and am not commenting on how the Commission used that writing or the final Missional Framework they developed.
The document I prepared is structured into three sections: a set of affirmations about mission, a set of affirmations about the church, and a set of values flowing from these two sets of affirmations. In this post, I want to reflect on the affirmations about mission.
As I noted in the introduction to this series, these affirmations were not intended to reflect my own personal thoughts about mission but rather important pieces of consensus on mission United Methodists and others reached over the last half century. In particular, the six affirmations included in my original version, reduced to five in the condensed version, reflect important ways in which missiologists have sought to move past a colonialist model of mission.
At the height of the Western missionary movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly white missionaries went from the United States and other Western countries to mostly non-white countries, where they sought to convert the people there to Christianity and get them to adopt Western culture. This effort often was entangled with political colonialism and capitalist expansion. Such a model of mission has been rightly critiqued for its pride, harm, violence, and misunderstanding of the gospel.
Yet echoes of that model still persist in The United Methodist Church. We still too often think of mission as something that goes from the “haves,” who are more often than not well-to-do white Americans, to the “have-nots,” who are more often than not the poor, people of color, and/or non-Americans. Any decent missiological document, I thought, had to be based on some of the most significant mission theology pieces that have been used to deconstruct such a view of mission and instead construct a view of mission in which all Christians, regardless of who they are, have a part in God’s mission.
The first affirmation, about the missio Dei, is one that relativizes all human contributions to mission. The notion of the missio Dei, that mission belongs to God, undercuts human pretenses to control mission. In particular, it undercuts Western pretenses to control mission, since Western Christians have traditionally been the ones to control mission.
In my longer version, the second affirmation was about the role of the poor and marginal in mission. I cut that from the condensed version in an effort to save space, though I now regret that decision. If the goal is to see mission as something belonging to all Christians, then the affirmation that the poor and marginal have roles as agents of God’s mission is very important. I should have left this affirmation in, and I repent of not doing so.
The affirmations about the missional nature of the church and that mission is from everywhere to everywhere both get at this notion that all Christians regardless are part of mission. Since the church is missional, all Christians should be involved in God’s mission, regardless of background, role in the church, or any other factor. Since mission is from everywhere to everywhere, all Christians regardless of geographic location can be both agents in and recipients of mission.
At the same time that I wanted to emphasize the universality of participation in mission, I also wanted to stress the particularity and therefore diversity of ways in which mission is expressed. I see the two points as intertwined – since all Christians are called to be in mission, we must not expect mission to look exactly the same in all places. If we define just one type of mission as true mission, we run the risk of setting up new forms of inequity in mission.
The affirmation that mission is incarnational draws on a lot of the conversation about inculturation/contextualization in the missiological community. Although understandings of the relationship between gospel and culture vary, missiologists have definitively agreed that respecting cultures and contexts is an important aspect of mission done right and failure to do so was one of the most grievous sins of the colonial era of mission.
An affirmation about the distinctive gifts and graces given to Christians for mission both follows Paul’s writings on spiritual gifts and missiological discussions about the varieties of mission work. Whether one uses the Five Marks of Mission or some other scheme, it is clear that mission contains a broad range of activities. This acknowledgement allows Christians to find their place within mission. Thus, answering the call to mission is not about fitting into one particular box, but about identifying the places in which one’s God-given gifts and graces connect with the varieties of mission work.
The goal, then, of these affirmations, is that none would think about their relationship to mission either too highly or too lowly. One is not more important in mission because of one’s social location. At the same time, no one is excluded from mission because of their social location or other factors, and all have something to give in mission. May we all view our place in God’s mission rightly.