I’m offering the following reflection to members of our congregational council prior to a conversation we hope to have around discerning a mission focus at Faith Lutheran. I invite your responses, too!
A missional theology for the 21st century
I emphasize the 21st century, because since the 15th century most mission work done by Christians was heavily influenced by what is called the “Doctrine of Discovery”. Please listen to/watch the audio/video at this link https://youtu.be/Ygk3X5Xjjh4 as background material to the question of mission in the 21st century. While Bishop MacDonald reflects its historical effect upon the Indigenous people of Canada, this paper will clarify underlying assumptions of a mission strategy that breaks with the “Doctrine of Discovery.”
Moreover, it is important for ELCIC Lutheran congregations to be aware that a few years ago in national convention, the church formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery” (Visit http://www.elcic.ca/Documents/documents/DoctrineofDiscoveryMotionFINAL.pdf).
I will presume that bearing witness to the Gospel of Christ does not mean we treat people as objects against whom we must compete for doctrinal supremacy. People are not objects with whom we must compete for the truth. Mission is not a game. Mission is not a war. People are not a means to an abstract end, pawns manipulated on the chessboard of religious winners and losers.
The “Doctrine of Discovery” assumed that what we had (the truth, the right way of thinking, the right doctrine of God, etc.) we had to communicate, usually violently, to the other who was infinitely inferior in their thinking and worldview. In other words, our mission practice was usually characterized as an imposition, a forced laying-on of what we believe upon the passive or resistant recipient. The harder we tried, the better. Success was measured by victory on the battlefield, literally and figuratively, and number of souls converted to Christ.
The “Doctrine of Discovery”, moreover, paid little attention to the truth that God has been revealed in all of creation – including those with whom we relate in any missional work (see “incarnational” below).
In the emerging understanding of mission today, the following characteristics stand in contrast to the assumptions of the “Doctrine of Discovery”. As such, the culture of doing mission is undergoing a radical transformation. The diversity and multi-cultural social environment in Canadian society, especially in large urban centres such as Ottawa, make our context particularly attractive to practise and exercise these principles of, and attitudes towards, mission:
When people who differ from each other in significant worldviews, a respectful encounter is characterized by the willingness to listen first. When all parties in the encounter demonstrate curiosity and a desire to seek deeper understanding from the other, the mission encounter can be deemed a respectful one. An initial question asked by the Christian seeker who is curious about the other, is: “What can you teach me?” / “What can I learn from this encounter?” As such, the Christian also shows genuine humility.
God is revealed in all of creation. God’s manifestation is revealed in different ways among different people. Such an outlook is more Hebrew than Platonic. Plato described aspects of reality as an imperfect, refracted reflection. In contrast, the Hebrew notion of physicality, and the Christian belief that the humanity was God’s very embodiment, suggests the revelation of God is encountered more ‘in the flesh’ rather than in abstract ideas. This incarnational mode of mission leads to at least two important implications:
First, mission is God’s work and activity before it is ours. In other words, God is already active ‘in the world’ before we decide to do anything about it. Discerning a mission focus is then about acknowledging an opportunity and then choosing to participate in what God is already doing. Second, mission work therefore addresses real life, practical needs of all creation (see ‘restorative’ below). If a missional initiative is more about spreading the right ideas about God than focused ‘on the ground’ and the particular needs of a particular people in a particular context, than that initiative lacks an incarnational understanding of God’s work.
Based on the Trinitarian appreciation of God (The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit – One God in Three Persons), any missional work in God’s name will be relational. In other words, mission is a communal, corporate act instead of an individual, solitary, autonomous effort in and by the church. As such, a missional approach will hold that when one member of a community suffers, then the whole community suffers (1 Corinthians 12:26. Though Paul refers here to the church and therefore this verse has important implications for the pastoral care of and among Christians themselves, we can also suggest that the general principle applies to broader circles of community, including in the public sphere). We are all interdependent beings, as much as we like to emphasize the rugged individualism and self-reliance in North American culture. Despite these strong notions that continue to influence us, we do need each other. More than one famous person has said that a society is judged by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable members (often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but was also allegedly expressed by American novelist Pearl Buck and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (1965-1969)).
Flowing from relational and respectful understandings of mission work, a healthy encounter is usually mutual. A basic definition of mutuality is: “What I want from you, I will first give to you.” If I want respect, I first need to give it. If I want your trust, I need to trust you. If I want you to listen to me, I first need to listen to you. Mutuality is thus a rendition of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in a mission encounter is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of mission work: Our (deeper) needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.
These are mission initiatives that reflect in their organization an effort and desire to be cooperative and collaborate with others. Such efforts presume not a competitive model in the marketplace of charities. Rather, these organizations envision working with different levels of government and the non-for-profit sector to achieve the highest quality of service and maximize resources for a common, shared goal.
To be ‘restorative’ in doing God’s mission, is to incorporate an incarnational theology with relational, respectful and mutual modes of mission. That is, we look to where God is, in the world around us, and go there. We observe and ascertain the physical needs of the most vulnerable in our society, and we seek to meet those needs – in order to make things right or at least better. This restorative approach also presumes we address some systemic injustices in our society. Mission is not merely ‘charity’ work (which tends to be individualistic and maintain unjust structures). Rather, we gain awareness of the reality facing the vulnerable, we engage in advocacy on their behalf, and/or we engage in action to help a group, directly.
A Christian mission theology for the 21st century is rooted in an identity that is clear and strong. In this emerging missional style, a confidence and joy in Christian identity is maintained and grows. We are not ‘blending’ nor ‘losing’ our faith in first listening to the other, seeking understanding of the other or loving the other first. In learning more about another’s faith, religion, or worldview, we do not lose what is most important to us. In truth, the opportunity is there to become stronger in our faith by learning more about someone who is different from us/me.
Maintaining faith-integrity is integral to this emerging missional culture. Being authentic and true to one’s belief, maintaining healthy boundaries of respect, and giving others freedom to choose – these all speak to an authenticity that is attractive in and of itself in a missional encounter. As the Twelve Step founder, Bill Wilson, laid out the policy of “attraction not promotion” (Cited in Susan Cheever, “AA and Anonymity – What Would Bill W. Do?” The Fix: Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up, 06/07/2011) , we do not force, we attract.
This might mean agreeing to disagree on some things while still respecting the other. Being authentic implies, also, that Christians in a diverse, multi-cultural world, must keep learning about their own faith, and acquire new skills in relating to each other and the world around us (e.g. active listening, assertiveness). We cannot assume anymore that everyone ‘out there’ knows what we mean when we present crosses, sing hymns, or use familiar (to us) words and symbols. We need to know what these mean to us before sharing our faith. We need to learn how to listen, and to ask for what we need and want from the other. Changed lives will attract others to inquire about the faith, not beating others over the head with a bible nor by the force of persuasion and argument.
Finally, the emerging theology of mission in the 21st century is increasingly local in scope. In 2014, Synod Conferences in our church were restructured into smaller units, or local Ministry Areas (e.g. the Ottawa/St Lawrence Conference evolved transitioned into four separate areas: Ottawa Ministry Area /Montreal Ministry Area /Seaway Ministry Area /Upper Ottawa Valley Ministry Area). As a result, the focus of congregational and regional activity bears more on the local geographical context of the church. That is, individual congregations are now encouraged to relate more within the immediate geographic surroundings in mission work with other local congregations, as opposed to the vast area represented by the predecessor Conference structure.
Not denying the good work of national and global missions, Lutherans in Canada are encouraged to focus on more local, immediate needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
An implication of a local emphasis in mission is, we are poised to engage people more, thus fulfilling the relational, respectful, mutual modes described above (rather than merely putting a cheque in the mail to some distant, detached-from-our-reality effort – as worthy and good as it may be). A local mission, then, becomes more present to us and our ordinary, daily lives.
A purposeful and authentic mission commitment will emerge from who we are as a congregation. I paraphrase Frederick Buechner’s words to say, we must go to where “our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need”. What will generate a collective commitment and enthusiasm for a project will depend on the degree to which the creative juices in our community flow in this discernment. We can think outside the box. We can risk failure. We can try again, and not give up. It’ll work when the imagination of the congregation is stirred and captivated. Is the initiative meaningful to a growing number of people associated with the church? Younger generations want to make a meaningful difference for the better, in the world, through their activity in the church.
In discerning a mission focus for our congregation, I would consider these principles as guideposts for the degree of our participation. For example, to what degree does such-and-such initiative reflect respectful, incarnational, relational, mutual, collaborative, restorative, authentic, local and compelling principles of engagement?
Respectfully offered, and for the purpose of ongoing discussion,
Pastor Martin Malina