Monday, October 7, 2019

Defining Mission: Conversation

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 conversation.

Previous posts in this series have described how mission involves cultivating relationships across boundaries. Yet we cultivate those relationships not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of understanding the good news.

Understanding that good news is a process of mutual learning, not a monologue in which we seek to unload our information on others. You can’t have a true conversation if only one person is talking, or if one person is not listening when the other person talks. True conversation only happens when both sides talk and both sides listen.

Thinking of mission in this mutual way is a challenge for many Christians engaged in mission. Whether we think of mission as helping or mission as evangelism, there is a tendency for Western Christians to think of mission as a one-sided process. All too often, the attitude of Western Christians to their mission partners is “We have money, schools, medicine, etc., which we will give to you. We have the right understanding of God, which we will give to you. We do not need to receive anything from you.”

To see mission in this one-sided way is to misunderstand mission for a whole host of reasons. To be in mission, we must be willing to listen and receive, not merely talk and give. Listening and receiving recognizes the worth of others and the assets that others have. It affirms the genuineness of our relationship with them. It even helps us better understand the work God is doing and calls us to do in mission.

Listening to others recognizes the ability they have to discern the ways in which God is at work in their contexts (and perhaps ours, too!). Because mission begins with God, not with us Christians, God is already at work in all contexts before any missionaries show up. Missionaries never bring God to a context; they always go to join in what God is already doing.

Especially when our mission partners are Christians (which they often are, both domestically and abroad), we should expect them to have the same ability to perceive God’s action in the world as we do. Their level of material wealth, health, education, etc. in no way limits their ability to perceive God at work. The ability to perceive God is a spiritual ability, not an economic or social ability. Indeed, sometimes being more vulnerable or marginalized allows people to notice God in ways that those who are distracted with security or privilege overlook. One’s economic or social standing does not indicate one’s standing with God.

Regardless of assets, privilege, or religious affiliation and belief, we should expect everyone to have a unique view of God and God’s actions in the world that will be different than our own. This conclusion follows because everyone’s view of God is shaped by his or her unique life experiences and by his or her particular context.

While others may not be able to see God in some of the same ways we do, they will also be able to see God in ways that we cannot. Thus, there are things we will have missed about God and God’s action that they will have seen from where they are sitting. We can learn from those insights.

Thus far, I have talked about conversation as taking place between two sets of participants—us and our mission partners. This two-sided model needs expanding, though. for two reasons. Mission involves conversations between all mission partners, and between humans, the Bible, and human contexts. We should not presume that all those going out in mission nor all our mission partners have the same things to contribute to a conversation. Each person involved in mission has their own unique contribution to make to the conversation, whether missionary or mission partner.

Moreover, the conversation of mission does not just take place between people. The conversation of mission is also a conversation with God and with human contexts. God is an important part of the conversation because the conversation is about God’s good news. If we want to know more about God’s good news, then we should be willing to listen to God and share our understandings, hopes, fears, and confusions with God.

The conversation is also a conversation about the meaning of God’s good news in particular contexts. Thus, we need to pay attention to how our mission partners’ contexts and our own contexts shape the conversation in ways that go beyond the viewpoints of particular individuals. The previous post in this series discussed the significance of contexts.

Chapter 6 of Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God's Good News Through Mission is dedicated to helping congregations and individuals engage in such conversations about God’s good news with their mission partners. It includes practices to incorporate into good conversations, spiritual temptations to avoid in conversations, how actions can function as a form of conversation, and specific models of organizing mission-related conversations.

It is my prayer that the definition of mission laid out in this series of blog posts and the practical guidance in how to implement this definition that is given in Crossing Boundaries itself will help congregations and individuals engage in mission with renewed confidence and enthusiasm and to experience the rich spiritual blessings that come from doing so.

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