Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Mission and play

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

The world is beset by many problems, but for the first UM & Global post of 2022, I wanted to begin by looking at something a bit more lighthearted and delightful. I want to draw some parallels between the practice of Christian mission and the act of playing. Here are four such parallels:

1. They are both collaborative endeavors.

It is possible to play certain games by oneself, but most forms of play are social; that is, they involve multiple people. Social play is inherently collaborative. You cannot play for someone; you can only play with others. Play requires contributions by all participants for it to really work. If someone's contributions to the process of playing are not recognized or accepted, they will likely leave the game.

In the same way, one cannot do mission by oneself; it is an inherently social practice. Mission is therefore collaborative. And mission done rightly is done not for others but with others, in a way that recognizes and accepts the contributions of all involved.

2. They are both open-ended processes.

Play, whether in formal games or in improvised imaginative play, is open-ended. The outcome of play is not pre-determined, and especially in the case of imaginative play, there is no clear goal towards which play is going. Play is about the process rather than the output. It develops out of the contributions of all involved.

While one could easily make the case that mission does have a teleological goal in the kingdom of God, we as humans have limited knowledge of what that goal will actually look like and how or when it will be achieved. Thus, while mission may be teleological from a divine or theological standpoint, from the perspective of those participating in mission, it is open-ended and on-going. Individual projects may come to a close, but we can never say that we have reached the goal of mission and thus are done with it. Instead, it continues to unfold in a non-predetermined way based on the contributions of all involved.

3. Neither can be reduced to extrinsic economic or social value.

One of the defining features of play is its intrinsic value. We play not to produce economic or social value, but because we enjoy playing in its own right. Play may have economic or social benefits, but these are side benefits of play. They are not why we engage in play. We engage in play for its own sake.

Similarly, mission may produce economic or social benefits that can be quantified and justified in secular terms, but these worldly benefits are not the main point of mission. We engage in mission because of our relationship with God, not because of mission's utility in secular terms. Mission is not a means to some other end; it is an activity worthwhile in its own right.

4. They both contain a sense of joy.

Play is enjoyable, or should be, and that joy is a main motivator for engaging in play. Play is fun. It brings delight. It connects us to others and helps us to live in the goodness of the moment.

Mission, too, is, or at least should be, a joyful act. Whether or not it is "fun" in a conventional sense, participating in mission should bring delight, a delight grounded in the goodness of God. Mission should connect us to others and help us experience God's goodness present in the activities of life.

I am sure that 2022 will bring its share of troubles and worries. But my prayer for you, readers, at the beginning of this year, is that these troubles and worries will not prevent you from experiencing the joy and delight of mission and of play.

1 comment: