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.
Mission has always been contextual. In part, that means that how mission is done fits (or should fit) the context in which it is done. But it can also be taken to mean that what mission is done must fit (or respond to) the context in which it is done.
A few forms of mission are enduring. Evangelism is a component of mission in all times and places. Mission has always (or almost always) shown concern for the poor. Yet, even within these enduring forms of mission, the activities paired with evangelism and how Christians have shown concern for the poor have varied.
As the Western mission industrial complex was coming into its fullest flowering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the forms of mission it undertook were shaped significantly by two types of contexts which were the focus of a lot of American and European mission efforts: urban centers in the West and non-modern societies outside of the US. How Western Christians understood and continue to understand the components of mission was significantly shaped by their experiences in each of these two types of contexts.
In non-modern societies outside the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, education, women's rights, publishing, famine relief, and economic development. In some of these areas, Christian missionaries were drawing upon longer histories of church expertise and activity (education has been a function of the Western church since the medieval time period, for instance), but in all of these areas, missionaries were also responding to their perceptions of the needs of the mission fields in which they worked.
In urban centers in the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, literacy, poverty relief--including food and clothing distribution, temperance, and women's rights. This list overlaps with the list of mission work done outside the West, and there was at the time discussion of the similarities between work among the urban poor in the West and that in non-Western countries.
In the middle of the 20th century, the range of mission work was expanded through interactions with new historical contexts to include refugee relief and resettlement (especially in response to the refugee crises of the world wars), disaster relief (growing out of post-war rebuilding efforts), and social justice advocacy (coming out of post-colonialism and minority rights movements).
For the most part, all of these previous forms of mission continue today (with the possible exception of temperance and publishing as major foci). In part, that is because the perceived issues justifying each of these forms of mission work continue to exist. There is still sickness and poverty in the world. But in part, these areas of mission work continue because the institutional infrastructure created by previous generations was set up in such a way to ensure continued focus on these particular forms of mission.
But what if we were attempting to develop a set of forms of Christian mission that were responding to contexts in the 21st century and not merely continuing the traditions of mission that we have inherited? What issues might we see as critical for the church to address? This is not an attempt to adopt a "needs-based" missiology but instead an attempt to, as J.C. Hoekendijk argued for, put the world and the kingdom of God into conversation. What areas of mission focus would be suggested by the world in 2018 and the kingdom that were not part of previous models of mission? What particular contexts would these types of mission be most relevant to? In short, what might be "new mission areas" for the 21st century?
Over the next several weeks, I will suggest some possible new mission areas that I see - loneliness, climate refugees, mental health, and others. But I would also like to hear from you readers: What do you see as possible new areas for mission focus in the 21st century? Comment below to suggest topics or email me a post with your take on this question.