Tuesday, July 19, 2011

what is mission?*

At the Mennonite Church USA convention last week, we led two seminar sessions for youth on the topic of mission. In each session, after gathering the group’s perceptions of mission, we shared four definitions of or quotes related to mission. They were:

1. “Mission is ministry in the dimension of difference.” This quote, from Titus Presler, an Episcopalian missionary and scholar, implies that mission is a subset of ministry—not that ministry is a subset of mission. In other words, mission is a distinctive form of ministry; though all mission is ministry, not all ministry is mission. And that which makes mission a distinct form of ministry is “the dimension of difference”, or when ministry takes place between people of various categories (ethnic, socio-economic, religious, etc.) of human difference.

(Presler, Titus. “Mission is Ministry in the Dimension of Difference: A Definition for the Twenty-first Century.” In International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 4 (2010): 195-204.)

2. Before our own presentation, we attended a seminar on ministry in the city led by Joe Manickam and Leonard Dow. Mission, in their definition, exhibits three essential components. 1) Mission involves a crossing of barriers; 2) mission involves a proclamation of the gospel; 3) that proclamation of the gospel is in word and deed.

3. “Only through mission can theology be liberated from its otherwise inevitable cultural bondage.” This quote, from Jonathan J. Bonk, describes the importance of mission in the history of the church. Because mission is ministry across boundaries, an engagement of difference, mission is the means by which the church discovers its unity with others. When people from different backgrounds, with different ways of living, encounter each other, one new way from the two must be established in order for the two to live in peace. Mission, thus, is the process by which each culture’s “absolutes” are relativized in light of the other in order that a law higher than that of either’s respective law may rule the day.

In the biblical story, the decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) exemplifies this process. The Gentiles, on the one side, did not have to undergo circumcision—the cultural “absolute” of the Jews, the other side—in order to belong to the community of Christ. In other words, the Jewish Christians discovered, through their encounter with the Gentiles, that circumcision did not define identity as the people of God. The Jews in Christ subjected a cherished way of life for the sake of a relationship with the Gentiles in Christ. Yet the Jews were not the only ones who gave up an important tradition for the sake of community; the Gentiles gave up “things polluted by idols”, or everything that was offered as an act of service and devotion to the gods of Greek culture (Acts 15:20). Gentiles forfeited certain cultural patterns in order to belong to the new community toward which they had been drawn by Christ’s love. This is not to say that all things are always equal, in this case, that circumcision as an act of devotion to the one true God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is on a par with acts of devotion to pagan gods. Indeed, Jewish Christians did not give up circumcision as an expression of their faith in the same way that Gentiles had to give up “the polluted things” in order to belong. Jewish Christians continued to circumcise as an expression of their faith. Therefore, what they did not give up was circumcision as an act of devotion to God; they gave up circumcision as a barrier to the true worship of God in community, or the requirement that the participation of Gentiles in the community of Christ was contingent upon their willingness to be circumcised. All this is to say that both Jews and Gentiles, because of Christ, gave up beloved cultural patterns unique to each in order to belong together. And that this process of giving up in order to belong is discovered, in the words of Bonk, “only through mission.”

(Bonk, Jonathan J. “Missions and the Liberation of Theology.” In International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 4 (2010): 193-194.)

4. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Mt 4:23). This summary of Jesus’ ministry, which also serves as an introduction to Jesus’ ministry and teachings in Matthew’s gospel, is a powerful illustration of mission. Within this narrative definition is visible the characteristics of mission discussed in the preceding points. Mission was “ministry in the dimension of difference” or a “crossing of barriers”: Jesus went throughout Galilee, choosing not to be located primarily in the center of his religious tradition (Jerusalem) but in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt 4:15). Even within Galilee, Jesus was not static: he went throughout. And though far from neglecting his own people, the Jews—“teaching in their synagogues”—even ministry to his own was far-reaching, a kind of crossing of boundaries between congregations; Jesus taught in synagogues (plural).

Proclamation, likewise, was essential to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus taught and “proclaimed the good news of the kingdom.” Moreover, that proclamation was in deed as well as word. People were healed “from every disease and sickness.” Jesus’ words confirmed his deeds, and his deeds confirmed his words.**

So here are four “definitions” of mission. What would you add?


* The title to this entry has been used before, namely by J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission?: Theological Explorations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

** I make this statement with the question in mind of whether “word and deed” is even an appropriate distinction. Was Jesus’ healing activity separate, or of a different order, from his teaching, or did not Jesus often heal precisely by his word? To put it differently, is not the word truly spoken itself the deed? Of course, the reverse is also true; inaudible deeds, done in love, also speak.

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