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Mission in the Age of Global Christianity

Dana Robert, author of the 2010 mission study, “Joy to the World!”, was the keynote speaker at Mission Forward, a seminar on the future of mission work preceding United Methodist Women’s Assembly 2010. Photo by Cassandra Zampini.

By Christie R. House

Christie House of New World Outlook interviewed Dana Robert, author of the 2010 mission study and keynote speaker at Mission Forward, a seminar on the future of mission work preceding United Methodist Women's Assembly 2010.

Christie R. House: I am here at the Women’s Assembly with Dr. Dana Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at Boston University School of Theology and director of the school’s Center for Global Christianity and Mission. She wrote this year’s mission study, Joy to the World: Mission in the Age of Global Christianity.

Dr. Robert, yesterday I attended the Higher Education Initiative gathering, a meeting of presidents and chancellors from colleges and universities that have historical relationships with the Women’s Division. They were talking about how to be more collaborative and lend their resources to one another. We see many of our global institutions coming out of isolation and opening up to new relationships. What are your thoughts about this transition and what does it mean for North American mission?

Dr. Dana Robert: For a long time we’ve talked about mission partnership. That was the post-colonial model of the 1960s and 70s. But today, I think we are seeing a 21st-century model of mission collaboration through networking. Our communication and transportation networks in this era of globalization are so much richer than they were even 20 years ago. This makes multiple points of collaboration possible.

The old partnership model was often bilateral, and at times, we tried to enforce an exclusive partnership model. That’s been blown to bits. Every sizable local church involved in mission today has multiple networks. These overseas mission institutions that you mentioned are now freed up by this new context to have multiple relationships with churches across the connection and with each other. They no longer see themselves as a junior partner to a Western funding source.

It is really exciting and has a lot of potential. It changes the role of traditional mission structures in the United Methodist Church.

The point at which the United Methodist mission agency [the General Board of Global Ministries] moved to this networking model was with the Russia Initiative. The first meeting of the Russia Initiative called together all kinds of different stakeholders. Global Ministries asked, “What’s happening and what do you need?” rather than “We’ll send all the missionaries and control the entire mission.”

CR: The Russia Initiative has engaged a good number of U.S. and European Volunteer-In-Mission teams to work in Russian churches. How should we resource volunteer teams?

DR: The huge outpouring of short-term mission energy in the church is not framed around a vision of mutuality. Individual churches are making their own arrangements. We need to take the next step, which is to educate people to see themselves as part of this global network. Most teams do not study the context in which they will serve. I think they focus more on their own spiritual formation.

Yet, the relationship building is still a positive aspect of short-term mission trips. I feel that seminaries need to be resourcing this movement better. The global program at Perkins [School of Theology] under Robert Hunt tries to resource mission volunteers in Texas. I’ve worked with a graduate student, Lisa Beth White, a United Methodist ordained elder from the North Texas Conference, who is doing her Ph.D. in practical theology in this very area.

We’ve got a whole generation of young people who themselves have been missionaries or led mission teams, as Lisa Beth has done, who see the need to deepen the theological and contextual education process around the short-term mission experience. Boston University Theological School has a required “Introduction to Mission Theology” course for ordination candidates. This year we included a seminar on how to run a short-term mission trip. Anyone going into youth ministries these days is likely to be leading a mission team.

CR: What do you hope people will receive from the Joy to the World study?

DR: I wanted to introduce people to the reality that we are in a global church, but mission is not finished just because there are Christians around the world. The mission remains, the context has changed.

I want to encourage people to connect the dots – to recognize that to be a follower of Jesus Christ means to be in mission. Ordinary people in our church working in mission need to be strengthened and encouraged in their work.

Another goal is to help people recognize that we need to have long-term mission support. We need this networking model for ourselves and our discipleship, and we must support long-term persons and projects in mission as well.

I hope to give people confidence to witness to what God has done for them through Jesus Christ.

And of course, I wanted to show how this tradition of women in mission is an irreplaceable part of mission. I think the historic groundbreaking work of lay people, particularly women, is greatly underappreciated in the life of the church.

The great thing about this Women’s Assembly is that it helps people recover some of that memory. It has been gratifying to see young women from other parts of the world standing up before these older North American ladies and saying, “Thank you,” using the same language of liberation and empowerment that their foremothers used. The traditional values and priorities of United Methodist Women still stand.

*Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.

Last Updated: 05/01/2010

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