Engaging in mission

Engaging in mission
Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon

"We participate in God’s mission for the world, working with partners to heal the brokenness of creation, and to bring justice and peace to the whole human family."

It’s hard to think of a more ambiguous term in the history of the church than "mission." On the one hand, I hope we agree that the church has lost its way if its only concern is the care of its members. Christians are a people gathered by the love of God in Jesus Christ and sent into the world in order to manifest that love to others. If the church ceases to be outward directed, it hasn’t just failed in one of its tasks; it has ceased, in any meaningful sense, to be church.

On the other hand, the way Christians — at least, some Christians — have engaged in mission has been deeply troubling. A century ago, mission was still widely associated with the spread of Western culture, which meant that Christianity was sometimes a tool of colonial domination. Even today, some churches pursue mission with an attitude of superiority that pays little attention to the integrity of other cultures and faiths.

As a result, churches involved in ecumenical dialogue, including the Disciples, have been rethinking the nature and practice of mission for the past 50 years. The statement by the Disciples’ Vision Team reflects two crucial elements of this changing understanding.

The first point may sound obvious, but it represents a monumental shift of perspective: Mission starts with God, not the church. The purpose of mission is not just the spread of the church but participation in all that God is doing; and, if scripture is our guide, this includes working "to bring justice and peace to the whole human family." I want to be clear: Christians have a biblical mandate to proclaim the gospel. But the good news we bear is of the God who "executes justice for the oppressed" (Ps 146) and declares peacemakers blessed (Mt 5). Mission is not only evangelism; it is taking our part in God’s mission of healing a broken creation.

The second point is equally vital: Mission is a two-way street. We used to think of mission primarily as a matter of churches in rich countries sending missionaries and resources to other parts of the world. This created patterns of dependency that, thankfully, have given way for churches like ours to more reciprocal, "partner" relationships. We receive gifts from sisters and brothers in the Congo, India, and Uruguay, even as we share with them what we have received from God.

These insights are clearly reflected in the General Principles and Policies for Overseas Ministry adopted by the Disciples General Assembly in 1981: "The church … does not exist for itself alone but for the sake of the world. At its best, the church proclaims the good news … promotes social righteousness and justice, and exhibits the promise of the reign of God. … The time for western domination of the church’s life and witness around the world is past. Partnership and mutuality, servanthood and sharing are the words descriptive of world mission today."

The "principle of identity" we are examining this month is not the only one to deal directly with the topic of mission. The principle that speaks of congregational life also makes the claim that "God’s mission stretches from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth." This is a way of saying that mission is the responsibility of the entire church, not just specialized agencies like the Division of Overseas Ministries or Disciples Home Missions, which we support financially. Every congregation is a mission station and every baptized member is commissioned for service in God’s mission.

So how can we witness to our Lord without succumbing to an arrogance that undercuts the very gospel we proclaim? The answer involves focusing on God rather than ourselves, working in partnerships rather than unilaterally, emphasizing deeds as much as words, and recognizing that mission begins at home.

This is the seventh in a series of columns exploring a new Disciples identity statement developed by the 21st Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins. For the full statement, go to www.disciples.org.