Sunday, March 02, 2014

What is Mission?

Church Retreat/Member Baptism on Maskali Island, Djibouti: A Mission Trip?
The word  mission is used so frequently in the Church that it is easy to assume that we all know and agree on what it means. In truth, the answer(s) are complex and debated. Since I've recently been accepted in a doctorate in missiology (the systematic study of mission) program, you'd think I'd be able to offer a simple straightforward definition.  In truth, the more I read/reflect on the subject, the more possibilities I discover.  Below is an early beta version of my answers.  I fully expect to revise this post over the next several years.  Contributions welcome. 


1) Primary purpose/task
  •  The Mission of the Church (What God has called the Church to do, Its primary task)--This too is debated. In what ways are the Mission of the Church and the Mission of God the same? Does the act of becoming a Christian makes one's mission in life the same as the Church's? It is possible for denominations to have different principal purposes, or are we debating interpretations of the same call?  The United Methodist Church's current mission statement, for example, declares its Mission to be "Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." However, the beginning of the preamble of The UMC's constitution states "Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.
  • God/the universe's Mission for all people --   Love?  
2) A journey one is sent on to accomplish an important task (in the Christian context, God is the sender)

          examples: the mission of Starship Enterprise, soldiers and secret agents given/sent on missions, a mission from God to put the band back togetheretc

3) Important task that someone(s) is given to do (in the Christian context, the tasks are given to us but the mission belongs to God)

This is where the usage of the word mission starts to get muddled. Do we call every task we believe God has asked us to do our mission? Are call and mission synonyms? Prof Lovett Weems teaches that mission is “what God calls the church to do. It is the purpose of a church...Vision, on the other hand, while grounded in the mission, is that to which God is calling the congregation to do in the near future to advance the mission.” (page 92 of Take the Next Step) Weems argues that what is often labeled as our mission is actually our vision of how to respond to our Mission. The potential semantic implications of making such a distinction strain my brain. Would that mean that I'm a missiologist specializing in vissiology?  Until I've made my conclusions, I've decided to start typing (M)ission and (m)ission to distinguish between the big Mission and specific missions, but maybe, though, you'll spot me starting to type vision where one would expect to find mission.

4) A building/center whose primary purpose is to do the Mission of the Church.

The distinction between a church and mission is often determined by who pays the paychecks and utility bills. Another distinction seems to be whether organized worship or the alleviation of suffering is viewed as the primary function of the building.  I'd be interested in finding commentaries on when/why we call a mission a mission and not a church.

5) ?

The meaning of mission as an adjective is tricky. Examples include: mission trips, mission projects, mission committees, mission speakers, mission Sunday, mission giving, etc. In every example I've been able to think of, when mission is used as an adjective in American churches, it generally refers to activities of the congregation involving doing something for financially struggling people outside of the social circles of the congregation's membership. The most popular of these activities include (re)constructing buildings, providing food, digging wells, offering medical services, providing objects (books, clothes, shoes, bed nets, etc), providing entertainment to poor children, and teaching classes. More recently, micro-credit, marketing fair trade goods and offering matching grants have been gaining traction. A small but growing number of Christians are experimenting with other alternatives, some of which are featured in Robert Lupton's must-read Toxic Charity. In some churches, mission work also refers to efforts to convert individuals to Christianity; in others, this is put in a separate semantic category: evangelization. Another thing to note about mission when used as an adjective is that it often refers to activities not financed by one's tithes; a 'second mile' of giving is required to fund them. Except for a handful of people who are called to mission work, participation in such activities is presented as optional and/or bite-sizable (one week of volunteering per year or a few evenings per month).     .....................  I hope you see where I'm going with this, so I'll just lift up a couple more questions I'm pondering:  If Mission is the primary task God has given us in our life, why does mission as it is used as an adjective not carry the same weight? Or this one: if all the other things we do at church aren't mission work, then what are they and why are we doing them?  Let's discuss.

A few great comments about mission to chew on:

"Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God." --David J. Bosch
"It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church." --Jurgen Moltmann
"We understand mission as the "cutting edge" of a Christian community, that is, its attempts to change the world through projects of evangelism, healing, teaching, development or liberation." University of South Africa's Missiology Department

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