Over the last 35 years, I have been a missionary. During that time, I have learned not to lead from my missionary identity! “Missionary” has always seemed full of possibilities for being misunderstood.
This is why I like what we will be doing at the WEA Mission Commission (MC) Global Consultation in Swäbisch Gmünd, Germany, November 6-11. There, we will think about the missionary task while, at the same time, recognizing that missionaries ourselves might not fully understand God’s mission. The name of the consultation–God’s Disturbing Mission–imagines God himself surprising missionaries, as we go about our business, with the question “Am I disturbing you?” As God goes about His mission, it should be no surprise that he disrupts us and “our mission.”
This global consultation is a good place to recognize God behind the disruptions. In part, the nature of the Mission Commission (MC) itself makes this possible. It is a global network of networks that focuses on “mission from” perhaps more than “missions to”.
In the popular imagination, European and European-American missionaries have been the ones who go “overseas” to promote Christianity as a tool of the civilizational project. But the MC’s “mission from” perspective informs a different imagining. It is a perspective that cannot ignore the huge shift in the geography of Christian belief during the twentieth century. To Europeans, Christianity may seems like a religion of the past with prospects of further decline. But, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Christianity is a young and growing faith, made up primarily of Africans, Latin Americans and Asians who look forward to a vital future.
This simple fact means that Christianity is starting to spread from new sites, with different agendas. This is a huge disturbance to traditional missionary practice and thinking. Now missionaries come from multiple sites and show a remarkable diversity in their way of imagining what missionaries do. The shift is so radical that even the most creative new missionary initiatives, if they draw from the traditional sources of personnel and finances may prove to be of marginal importance. The same practices, if done with new technologies, better promotion and broader mobilization to more places are simply ploys to mask the bankruptcy of the where the practices come from.
The “missions to” perspective is the one I started out from 35 years ago. On the one hand we thought of missions as from just a few places, to many. The practices, programmes and ideas that we implemented were often produced around an image of a world that was guided from the “Global North.” That image placed people like me at the center of global power and influence, not just geopolitically, but in our missionary efforts as well. Missions was about where we could go, and changes we could produce. A kind of arrogance was hidden behind the thought that we already knew what other people needed and that all we needed was better methods to deliver it.
Since God wants to call attention to Jesus, rather than to us, it makes sense that he would to disturb what we thought we were doing. He would want us to “get over” the idea that we in the global north should shape how missions is done and decide what fruit it should produce.
Don’t get me wrong. We are not reaching the end of the missionary responsibility of Christians in the global north. It just means that those of us who are from the north can now learn to follow others just as we have attempted to lead them. As we discover, in practical ways, that it is God’s Mission we can also learn about following him from people and sites other than our own.
A consultation like this might help me get over the complications of my own missionary identity. I think it would be great if, at this consultation, some of us can adjust to the disturbance of being pushed aside. And if the consultation results in new definitions of “missionary” shaped in new alliances between leaders far from so-called center, I think it will open many new paths for service in which all of us can follow, for the good of the world. Then maybe all of us would misunderstand God–himself a missionary–a little less.
The MC Consultation is a time and space to think about how God is disturbing our traditional ways of doing mission so that His mission can be fulfilled.
Jeremiah 14:14 The prophets (missionaries) are prophesying lies (promoting failed mission programs) in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying (promoting) to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.