Mission in Our Day

Myanmar FaceEach year faculty and students from Central go to Myanmar (Burma) on a missional pilgrimage.  This wonderful opportunity to visit with Christian sisters and brothers in a historic and beleaguered land calls us to reflection on how to think about the practice of mission in our day.  The world has changed dramatically since Ann and Adoniram Judson, among the first Baptist missionaries, arrived in Burma in 1813, and we must consider new factors in our desire to live the Gospel mandate.

M. Thomas Thangaraj, who grew up in South India, offers insight on how a theology of Christian mission must adapt to new realities in his book The Common Task.  He sketches five developments in the hundred years since the World Missionary Conference that met in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, a dramatic overture in the Protestant missionary movement. The robust enthusiasm of this gathering about the promise of global evangelization is challenged by the following:

1) Loss of optimism about human progress and possibility of transformation resulted from World Wars I and II.  In his words, “confidence in the efforts of humans to evangelize the whole world was chastened by a realistic understanding of the human predicament.”

2) The dismantling of the colonial framework means that many pathways for traditional “expansion” forms of mission are closed.  For instance, our friends at Myanmar Institute of Theology are quick to say: “we are not a mission field; we are global mission partners.” Their statement reflects a new self-understanding as the military regime ceased allowing missionary presence in 1966.

3) The resurgence and renaissance of religions other than Christianity call into question any form of triumphalism about the “superiority” of Christian faith.  These religions are not flourishing only in the lands of their origin, however; the religious landscape is shifting in major US cities.  The Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths have vibrant communities here in Kansas City.

4) We live with a new consciousness of the reality of religious pluralism.  As the global marketplace draws all the world more closely together, we learn of the imbedded traditions of others. The Luce Foundation invites us to practice “respect for the lived religions of others,” which means that we not only acknowledge this pluralism, but find ways to live creatively together.

5) The last development is the rise of postmodern thought.  This perspective denies that there is one overarching narrative that interprets reality for the whole world.  Christian theology has traditionally interpreted the salvific hopes of the world through the biblical narrative.  Postmodern thinking challenges this position.

We simply cannot ignore this analysis when we consider how the song of mission can be transposed for our time.  Mission, however, remains at the heart of Christian identity.

The world, in recent years, has been closely attuned to the convulsions for freedom in the Middle East.  It is clear that despotic, autocratic rulers that squelch the legitimate longings for meaningful employment, unbridled communication, self-determining governance, and competitive education cannot hold sway over the masses in their countries interminably. God created human beings in freedom, for freedom.  And this freedom cannot be delayed forever, as Martin Luther King, Jr. advised.  As Christians we affirm, “for freedom Christ has set us free;” the question we must probe is how does this theological confession interface with the universal longing for freedom?  We are called to reflect on the democratization of mission.

When we consider how to do mission in our day, we must be acutely aware of the kind of world we engage.  Formerly, mission conjured the idea of Christians “sending” to those places where God was unknown, where “civilization” looked different from the mission society doing the sending.  In our day, the word mission conveys a much broader interpretation.  There are mission statements for schools, corporations, social services—in addition to faith communities. 

Christians do not own the word “mission,” so we must speak about the mission of humanity.  The missio humanitatis begins with how God has made us, and it seeks to gather up the universal yearning to “put the world to rights,” in the language of N.T. Wright.  One way to describe this mission is as a “common task” that draws all humanity into its pursuit.  M. Thomas Thangaraj summarizes this mission of humanity as responsibility, solidarity, and mutuality.  These words suggest a level of vulnerability for all who work together for liberative purposes; persons who collaborate are changed by finding common ground.  We grow together as we share our understandings of the human condition and the ways of grace we are learning.

Mission is the very core of God’s work in the world, and God chooses the incarnational principle as the most effective means.  As the Word became flesh in Jesus, so the word must continue to be embodied throughout the world as we participate in mission as joint action for justice, peace, education, healing, and hopeful presence.  Persons who participate in God’s redemptive mission always find themselves drawn into the larger story of the eager longing of all creation (Romans 8: 19).  Mission in our day will be more encompassing than how we have understood salvation in the past; it will have ecological dimensions, also.  Mission will be driven by a deep compassion for the most vulnerable, and it will seek to alleviate inexorable suffering as much as possible.  Humans have an obligation to one another and to the world, given by God, to share.  The story of Jesus will never be far from the lips of his missional people, but listening to the groaning of all creation (which includes humanity) in its cry for freedom is the first step.