Monday, September 30, 2019

Defining Mission: Crossing Boundaries

The following post is based on excerpts from UM & Global blogmaster David W. Scott's book, Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God's Good News Through Mission.

In Crossing Boundaries, I lay out a new definition of mission: Mission is cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news.

While a full understanding of that definition and its practical implications for mission work in congregations is best grasped by reading the book, this series of blog posts briefly examines the four components of this definition – good news, relationships, crossing boundaries, and conversation. This post will examine the component of crossing boundaries.

Last week’s post in this series described the importance of relationship for mission. Yet mission involves something more than just relating to those we already know who are like us in almost every way. It involves being sent across human boundaries to form relationships with those who are different from us.

To the extent that we have relationships, they are probably with people who are similar to us: people of our same race, same social class, same religious beliefs, same political views, etc. Research has shown that people even tend to form friendships with people who have a similar level of attractiveness!

For Americans, the trend to surrounding ourselves with people who are predominantly like us has increased in recent decades, driven by increased mobility, among other factors. New technologies have reinforced our tendencies toward self-selection and self-segmentation. We now use social media to surround ourselves with only the voices and views of those who are like us.

Yet Jesus makes it clear that we must love more than just the members of our own in-group. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:46-48). Those who are like us, those who already love us, certainly deserve our love, but our love must not stop there.

The last verse, rendered in the King James Version as “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” was foundational for Wesley’s theology of sanctification. For Wesley, developing spiritually meant not only growing in love for others, but growing in love for others who are different from you.

There are many types of boundaries that Christians can cross in mission nowadays. Those boundaries include cultural, economic, racial, gender, ethnic, political, linguistic, religious, and more types. These boundaries operate on a variety of geographic scales. We can cross these boundaries locally, within our home countries, or internationally. Although the set of boundaries might be different in each setting, boundaries exist in every setting. Whether we are engaged in local, domestic, or international mission, it is clear we must be crossing boundaries for the sake of mission.

When we cross boundaries in mission, we must be prepared to take both similarities and differences seriously. We must always affirm the core similarity of our common humanity with those among whom we are in mission. At the same time, we must take differences seriously, be mindful of them, and reflect on how they shape the nature of our relationships and each partner’s perception of God’s good news.

Here, I am not saying that we should stereotype people based on the differences we first perceive between them and us. The goal of relationship is to move beyond stereotyped and overly simplified understandings of other people. Such understandings are not helpful to true relationship and are instead harmful.

I am, however, saying that we shouldn’t just dismiss the ways in which people are different from us with an attitude of “everyone is the same deep down, so differences don’t really matter.” This approach downplays the significance of real differences in favor of emphasizing projected similarities.

Such an attitude may at times be well-intentioned, but it can prevent us from really understanding others. We impose on them our way of seeing the world instead of trying to understand them on their own terms. Moreover, such an attitude can be perceived as quite offensive by others when we tell them that core parts of their identity “don’t really matter.”

Part of being human is being different from others. These differences come in many forms. Whatever their nature, our differences from other people are part of what makes us who we are. We cannot understand other people without understanding their unique backgrounds, experiences, and situations in life that help make them who they are.

There is a word that describes the setting in life from which people come: context. Context can be defined as the world people inhabit. There are many elements to context: social context, including gender, age, race, ethnicity, and class; cultural context, including language, worldview, and shared references; economic context, including income level, line of work, and economic system; political context, including political affiliations and form of government; family context; and historical context. Additional elements of context could probably be added to this list. My point here is not to be comprehensive but to suggest the complexity of context.

It is important to understand what a context is because contexts matter to mission in at least two ways. First, contexts impact how we develop missional relationships with others. It is impossible to really know and understand someone unless we can understand them as part of their contexts. It is furthermore impossible to have a good relationship with someone whom we do not really know or understand. Therefore, if we want to develop good missional relationships with others, we must understand their contexts.

In Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God's Good News Through Mission, Chapter 5, I describe steps that individuals and congregations can take to better understand their own contexts, the contexts of others, and how those contexts shape our understandings of God’s good news. This chapter aims to help individuals and congregations cross boundaries of difference with greater comfort and confidence, setting them up for successful conversations, the subject of next week’s post.

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