Monday, September 23, 2019

Defining Mission: Relationship

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 relationship.

As the previous post in this series explained, mission is about good news. Restored relationships is one form of good news discussed extensively in the New Testament. If our mission is to be about good news, then it cannot avoid being about relationship as an end of mission and not merely a means.

If we attempt to practice mission without valuing relationship, we have already cut ourselves off from the fullness of God’s good news. As those sent by God in mission, we must cultivate the restored relationships that God desires with humanity and that God desires humans to have with each other.

Moreover, attention to the connection between mission and love helps us further see the relational nature of mission. Mission is an expression of love, both God’s love for us and our love for God and for others. Love certainly involves actions — love that is not expressed is not love—but it is primarily about a relationship, not a task list.

We love our family not just because they’re people for whom we did something nice once, but because we have an ongoing pattern of interactions, emotional attachments, and reciprocal care. In other words, we love our families as part of ongoing relationships, not as a series of separate actions. Moreover, while there is room for intentionality and regularity in our relationships with our family, it would feel unnatural to confine our love for our family to a particular program of actions, say, perhaps serving them dinner (but not eating with them) every other Tuesday evening.

Another Wesleyan theological insight here tempers Wesley’s emphasis on our active response to God’s love. For Wesley, one of the primary ways in which his followers lived out their responsive love and grew in love for God and others was through their relationships with others. Wesley famously wrote, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.”[1]

When Wesley wrote about “social holiness,” he wasn’t referring primarily to social justice or to small-group devotional practices, important as those may be. He was referring to the importance of practicing love in relationships with real, concrete people.[2] It is impossible to love people in the abstract. One can only truly love specific people with whom one interacts.

Thus, when we think about our church’s mission efforts, the first question we ask ourselves should not be “What should we do for mission in our church?” It should be “Whom should we relate to in mission at our church?” This shift from program-based mission thinking to relationship-based mission thinking is one of the most fundamentally important changes a congregation can make in its approach to mission.

It is even better if your church can ask not merely, “What individuals should the individuals in our church related to?” but “What other communities should the community of our church relate to?” Missional relationships are most transformative (for us and others) when they occur not just with individuals but with entire networks.

This notion that mission is first and foremost about relationships may be challenging, especially to Americans. While individuals may differ, American culture often does not value relationships as much as it does other things. It values money; it values material possessions; it values independence; it values achievement. Yet each of these stands in tension with and can undercut relationships. Relationships take time and attention, and often, we find ourselves short of both. This relational understanding of mission highlights just how countercultural God’s mission can be.

Americans’ lack of relationships also points to another truth about mission— our participation in mission is not just how we share God’s good news; it is how we receive God’s good news, too. Thinking about the story of the good Samaritan, often we are the traveler, and allowing ourselves to be befriended by others is how we receive healing and life.

Chapter 4 of Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God's Good News Through Mission includes practical steps that congregations can take as they seek to build mission relationships with others. It also outlines relational pitfalls to avoid in the process, especially pitfalls that arise in building relationships that cross boundaries, the subject of next week’s post.

[1] John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Preface, page viii, quoted in Steve Manskar, “No Holiness but Social Holiness,” Equipping Disciples,, accessed July 24, 2018.

[2] See chapter 2 of David Field, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease: A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity (Nashville, TN: Wesley’s Foundery Books, 2017), for a good argument about the essentially relational nature of Wesley’s concept of social holiness/social religion.

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