Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Robert Haynes: Toward a Wesleyan Biblical Theology for Short Term Mission

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Robert Ellis Haynes, Director of Education & Leadership at World Methodist Evangelism. It is adapted from excerpts from his book Consuming Mission: Towards a Theology of Short-Term Mission and Pilgrimage (Wipf and Stock, 2018). It is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

As I have pointed out previously, there is a lack of direct engagement with scriptural teaching on mission used by United Methodist STM teams. When this occurs, that vacuum is filled by cultural influences. In a cultural that highly prizes touristic experiences, we should not be surprised that STM has been shaped, then, to resemble the American tourist culture in which it was founded.

There has been, largely, a void of theological work in STM. Training in STM is largely absent in seminary and theological education. As a result, that void has been filled with many well-meaning, faithful Christians who have acted without proper theological direction from their leadership.

Rather than simply treat some of the symptoms of STM, it is necessary to treat the root cause of the problem. Theologies shape motivations, and motivations shape actions. If we want to change the actions on a STM, a sound Wesleyan theology of mission must be taught at every level. Only then can lasting change occur.

Such a work begins with a careful examination of the Scripture’s teaching on mission. It must move beyond a simple proof-texting of the “Great Commission” in Matthew (though the command to make disciples is important) as an excuse to leave the country. Rather, the whole narrative of Scripture, that points to Jesus’ example and command for self-abasing, cruciform love and service must be embodied.

Two accounts of Jesus’ teaching on mission, and the disciple’s role in mission, provide a starting place for this missional discussion. The first is in Luke 4:16-30. This passage is the central teaching on mission in Luke’s Gospel. This declaration of the centrality of Jesus' ministry to the poor, the setting aside of vengeance, and the mission to the Gentiles is primary.

In this announcement of Good News to the poor, he has in mind not just the financially disadvantaged, but also those deemed as pariahs by many in First-Century society, namely women, tax-collectors, and Samaritans. In a radical departure from the religious and societal barriers of the time, Jesus includes positive treatment for these otherwise shunned groups. Such is the declaration of Jesus' mission. For Luke, the category of "poor" is not limited to financial position, but it is a social category that can be used to describe the disadvantaged, spiritual blind, oppressed and captives as illustrated in the discourse in the synagogue in Nazareth.

A second passage helpful for our discussion is found in the fourth Gospel. John's Gospel illustrates not only what the disciples are to do when demonstrating Jesus' teaching, but also how to do so. John records Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to the disciples and his announcement to them about this new reality of life: "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.'" (John 20:21) To understand the church’s role in mission, it is important to realize the “as” of Jesus’ message as a command to emulate his example as the disciples are sent forth.

Missiologists often see three key points in this commissioning: 1) Jesus showed them the scars from his crucifixion wounds. As such, missioners, like all other Christian disciples, should not draw back from human suffering. Such suffering could not be as profound as the suffering Jesus endured.

2) It is significant that the disciples are sent "as" Jesus was sent by the Father. They are to go in the same way God sent Jesus. The disciples are now sent by Jesus. That means that his followers are to do the things he did, teach the way he taught, and to the people he sought.

3) Jesus breathed on the disciples as they received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who will empower them to teach, to suffer, and to serve as he has just commanded. From fulfilling the Old Testament admonishments in Micah to love mercy, do justly, and love God to the commission of Jesus to "go" and serve "as" the Father sent him, Christians must respond to the needs of others. This must be done not only in transnational contexts, but in local contexts as well.

Wesleyan theology embraces the all-encompassing focus of the Gospel of Matthew: that believers have a responsibility to share in the work of Christ in bringing a message of hope in this world, not just waiting for the next. The assertion that Luke's evangelism to the rich and poor alike should be a part of the missionary message is another area of intersection. John’s proclamation of the work of the kingdom and Paul’s notion of the urgency of the timeliness of mission are both important premises for a Wesleyan mission theology.  Such biblical motivations are foundational to Wesleyan mission. Leaders of STM should actively, consistently, and robustly engage a biblical theology of mission to shape all of their practices. Only then will the current practice of a personal and communal pilgrimage, framed as a STM trip, be replaced with a lifestyle of mission that reflects Scripture’s teaching.

I am not suggesting that people stop traveling, stop serving, or stop learning. Quite the opposite.  However, STM is failing to realize its potential due to a lack of robust theological reflection by its leaders and participants. When the practice moves away from pilgrimage towards a more biblical practice of mission, it can begin to embrace such possibilities. Mission, including STM, properly understood and practiced, takes place when every self-abasing desire of the individual Christian, every program of the church, and the orientation of her leaders is consumed by the Mission of God.

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