Participating in God’s Mission: A Gift and a Responsibility
“I think it is important that we must begin a new model of mission: mission that comes not with imperial power, nor with economic power, but from a position of powerlessness.” -Melba Padilla Maggay, Filipina social anthropologist
“The church of God exists for a mission entrusted by Jesus Christ. The church has no mission. It is a mission. It is God’s mission revealed in Christ and continued through the church. The church is therefore a missionary reality.” -His Holiness, Aram 1, Armenian Orthodox Church, Lebanon
Rethinking mission and missions
Theologically speaking, mission (singular) refers to God’s mission (Missio Dei), and God’s love and involvement with the world and creation.
The English word mission is borrowed from the Latin word missio or sending. And when paired with Dei, God, reads God sending. Christian missions (plural) are specific, time-bound, organized forms of mission.
In past centuries, mission meant foreign missions, denominational missions, colonial missions, and soul-saving, church-planting oriented missions. In the 21st century, the missional emphases are in ecumenical mission, kingdom-of God oriented mission, as opposed to ecclesial-centered mission.
The goal of colonial missions was to convert, Westernize and Christianize. Now, the goal of mission is to proclaim, promote and witness to God, present and beyond, as incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 4:18-21).
What does it mean to do mission in an era of global recession, ecological destruction, increasing violence, wealth and poverty, obesity and malnutrition, racial and gender injustice, war-on-terror-driven militarization and a diminishing sense of security?
Reflect on these questions:
- What comes to your mind when you hear the words mission and evangelism?
- What does it mean to be in mission?
- What is the current state of mission and evangelism in our world today, in your community today?
The centenary celebration of the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, invites us, among many tasks, to “discern how mission is practiced in a world shaped by various forms of power: spiritual, political, military, financial, national and international.”
Consider this definition of mission from an Asian perspective: “Mission, God’s self-revelation as One who loves the world, is central to the nature and purpose of the Church. The Church is sent out in mission to the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed and witnessing to the reign of God” (from the Theological Roundtable Report, Hong Kong, SAR, P.R. of China, 1999, sponsored by the Christian Conference of Asia and the Council for World Mission).
Mission is God’s mission, and, by God’s grace, we become participants in God’s mission. For me, participation in God’s mission is both a gift from God and a compelling responsibility. It entails a sense of deep spirituality, humility, relevance and accountability.
Mission and evangelism
Though these two words are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different. The World Council of Churches’ paper, “Mission and Evangelism in Unity Today” (2000) differentiates the two:
“Mission carries a holistic understanding: the proclamation and sharing of the good news of the gospel by word (kerygma), deed (diakonia), prayer and worship (litur’gia) and the everyday witness of the Christian life (martyri’a); teaching as building up and strengthening people in their relationship with God and each other, and healing as wholeness and reconciliation into koinonia — communion with God, communion with people, and communion with creation as a whole.
“Evangelism, while not excluding the different dimensions of mission, focuses on explicit and intentional voicing of the gospel, including the invitation to personal transformation, to a new life in Christ, to discipleship.”
Visiting my homeland, the Philippines, in June 2009 with a group of Drew University seminary students, we met grassroots leaders, deaconesses, Catholic nuns, activists and church leaders who are involved in social justice and ecological issues. For them their social justice ministry is their way of preaching the Good News of liberation and salvation that comes from God who created all.
Christian mission is a vocation, in some way — great or small — and is a calling for every follower of Christ. John 20:21 says, “As God has sent me, so send I you.” The source and basis of this mission is God — not us, not the church. The church can be an instrument in God’s mission.
From missions to mission
Given the changing times, our concepts of mission have changed:
- From foreign missions to local mission. Mission happens on local as well as global levels. One does not have to go overseas to do mission. One can be in mission anywhere you find people and creation.
- From the rich countries to the poor, to the poor in rich countries. Older concepts of mission were centered around the rich, church or denomination (from Europe and North America) sending missions abroad, namely Catholic/Protestant foreign missions to Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific. It is no secret that Christian mission history is very much connected with the Western colonialist expansion history.
- Now that is changed. Mutual mission is more and more replacing one-way mission. Europe and North America are no longer the “sending mission” countries. Due to globalization and migration, immigrants and migrant workers from Asia, Latin America and Africa, have established new faith communities in the global North. For example, Filipino migrant workers are present in more than 100 countries. By their sheer numbers, work ethic and Christian devotion, they are the new missionaries, especially among the poor in rich countries.
- Mission is borderless and has no expiration date. The Orthodox Church regards mission as the “liturgy after the liturgy.” Father Ioan Bria in his book, The Liturgy After the Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective, writes:
- “There is a liturgy after the liturgy because Christians pursue their witness and vocation outside the temple, in the street, in social halls, in the wider society. Christians are sent out — ‘Go in peace in the name of the Lord’ — to witness in faithful discipleship in the common round of the daily life.”
- People of other faiths have their mission expressions as well. Christians do not have a monopoly on mission and service. Interreligious dialog can pave the way to interreligious missions.
What does the future hold for mission and evangelism? I simply do not know. Yet I believe that through the Holy Spirit, in prayer and in humility, we will be able to discern the missional will of the Spirit for peoples and creation.
I am convinced that in an era of globalization and all its ill effects we need a radical re-alignment of prophetic stance, a holistic mission, and spiritual reawakening at local, national and global levels.
From my perspective as a Filipina Christian clergy whose home is in diaspora, I perceive the following mission trends:
- With increasing religious and cultural diversity everywhere, the need for interreligious dialog and cross-cultural encounters will increase.
- Advocacy for social justice, racial-gender-economic-ecological justice must go hand-in-hand with prophetic critique of the global empire and evil spirits as well as practical ministry with the poor and marginalized.
- There must be a collective call for a moratorium on wars and ethnic violence.
- There will be a greater emphasis on ecumenical mission, rather than denominational mission.
- Climate change and Jubilee themes will become more pressing parts of mission involvement as our very human existence is at risk.
- As more people flock to cities, poverty, politics and diaspora in megacities will shape urban mission.
- Youth and children are God’s missioners, too. Youth will use Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for evangelism.
- Women’s involvement in God’s mission will intensify.
- Churches and other nongovernmental organizations provide wider support to the realization of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
Today, our participation in God’s mission should be:
- ecologically relevant;
- inclusive and holistic;
- dialogical in character;
- healing and reconciling;
- practical and transparent;
- incarnational and ecumenical in nature; and
- based on sound biblical interpretation and theologies;
To participate in God’s mission today means, as in the prayer of St. Francis, “being instruments of peace” in a violent and fragmented world. It means, in the prayer of John Wesley, resolving, “Lord, let me not live to be useless.” It involves, what my late mother, Lydia, used to tell her children: katatagan ng loob, pananampalataya at damayan (courage, faith and solidarity).
United Methodist Women’s upcoming Assembly theme, Faith • Hope • Love in Action, speaks to me of an embodied mission spirituality. Faith in action results in acts of mercy based on justice. Hope in action dispels apathy, anxiety and hopelessness. Love in action generates healing, reconciliation and celebration!
May the Compassionate Spirit, the Divine Wisdom, empower us to keep on translating faith, hope and love into just, committed and sustainable actions.
*The Rev. Elizabeth S. Tapia, Ph.D., is a Filipina theologian and teacher. She has taught at Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines, Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland, and is the current director of the Center for Christianities in Global Context at Drew University in Madison, N.J.