Understanding Our Perspective

A few days ago I went to a lecture by John Pavlovitz. He spoke passionately about the church’s need to embrace an expansive hope, to keep extending the table, because the table belongs to Christ, not to us. I think a lot about extending the table, in part because I drive past a restaurant renovation every day on my way to and from town. The restaurant will be called “Sawhorse” because the new owners grew up in a family that used sawhorses to expand the table, to welcome guests for any meal. It’s an approach to hospitality and abundance that is inspiring. After the recent General Conference vote to add more punitive measures to LGBTQ exclusion in the UMC and the mosque shootings in Christchurch, NZ, I needed to hear words of hope and inspiration to continue living into the way of Christ the peacemaker. I’m grateful for the work and ministry that John is doing.

One thing he said caught my mission-oriented ear however, and it is an all-too-common thing I hear from people who have been on mission trips. “They had nothing.”

Pavlovitz was describing the joy and warmth of the young people at a school in Kenya, where he and his wife were visiting. By the way he described it, the village must have been in a rural area and likely one struggling with poverty. It is shocking to US citizens who travel to discover the depths of poverty that affect the majority of the world’s citizens. It is shocking for US citizens to discover that poverty affects so many people right here in our own country. Sometimes it takes a short-term mission trip to push us beyond our familiar streets, neighborhoods and stores to see the reality of poverty and how it affects our neighbors. Yet, we can be restricted in how we view our neighbors because of our perspective.

Our perspective is the set of unconscious lenses we wear when we look at the world. Dr. Cate Denial is a historian who recently described an exercise she used to help her students understand the perspectives they bring to the study of history. She had students pair up, with one describing a set of objects to another whose back was turned away from the objects while they drew what was described to them. Student pairs were scattered around the room, with the objects on the desk at the front of the room. They shared their drawings and discussed the differences between them. Great questions were raised about primary sources (the persons who were describing the objects) and perspective. The students began to consider other lenses that affect our perspective - cultural background, education, ideology.

In short-term mission, our perspective is impacted by the unconscious lenses we wear. Our cultural background affects how we think about money. Our education colors how we think about other people and governmental systems. Our own political views are a lens. When we travel, we bring our perspectives with us, and these affect how we think about and talk about our neighbors in other places. The common phrase “they had so little” or “they had nothing” can be a perspective that comes from our affluence. We may not realize that we understand “what we have” in material terms, while the people who are welcoming us understand “what we have” in terms of hospitality.

When Pavlovitz visited Kenya, the young people who greeted him likely welcomed him with joyful songs and cheerful smiles. Their perspective was that they offered him their best hospitality, which is what they had in abundance. What if when we return home from mission trips we talked about our hosts in terms of what they had instead of what they lacked, which came from not unpacking our perspective? What if we took off our lens of materialism and consumerism to see that our humanity is what we share and judge people from a perspective of hospitable generosity? Then we can say “they gave us their very best”.

Unpacking our perspective and understanding the unconscious lenses that we wear on mission trips is important, because how we talk about our neighbors matters. How we talk with them matters. How we talk about them when we return home matters. The concept of Ubuntu means “I am because We are.” I am more fully human, more fully who God created me to be because we are in relationship. I am, because we are. How we talk about our neighbors matters, to us and to our shared humanity in Christ.

What is Mission?

Last month I attended the Wild Goose Festival and had the opportunity to hear a presentation by the hosts of the Failed Missionary podcast and the author of The Very Worst Missionary.  The conversation revealed a lot of pain and questions around the practice of mission, in particular, evangelical short-term mission and mission placements of a few years.  To be up front, my experience in short-term mission is in the United Methodist Church structures, not the evangelical church, and there are some differences.  However, I am familiar with a wide variety of texts on theology of mission, and the conversations I heard spurred me to look closely at the questions raised.

Questions From Experience

To begin, I started listening to the Failed Missionary podcast.  A number of things struck me, but one has echoed in my mind for days.  At the end of one episode, one of the guests asks “well, what is mission?” struggling to put a definition to their experience as a missionary.  The person being interviewed and the host had all spent a few years outside the U.S. in a missionary placement, yet they had never been given a solid theology of mission that provided a framework for their ministry.  This led to frustration and disillusionment, and ultimately, theological dissonance and abandoning of their work in missions.   

Because each of the people being interviewed acknowledged that their initial foray into mission work began with an experience in short-term mission, I felt that this blog would be a good place to explore the question “what is mission?”  What is this thing we call mission?  What are we doing when we enter into the practice of Christian mission, whether that is a two week trip outside the U.S., a one week trip to help with disaster recovery, or a Saturday helping at the local food bank community garden?  What is mission?

The question of what is mission is one that deserves to be wrestled with by people as they seek to faithfully live out their discipleship.  In United Methodism, the question of what is mission might be answered differently depending on who was asked the question.  For example, long term missionaries will take into consideration their context and the struggles of the church where they work, those trained to work as part of Early Response Teams might answer keeping in mind the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, and short-term mission teams may answer in the context of the places and people they have served, whether far from home or just across town.

 

Wait, What’s a Missiologist?

Two missiologists I have found to be helpful in beginning to answer the question “what is mission?” are Rev. Dr. J. Andrew Kirk and Prof. M. Thomas Thangaraj.  First, a missiologist is someone whose work is the disciplined study of mission and theological reflection on the practice of mission by the church.  

Second, the definitions presented by these missiologists are presented as provisional, and part of a larger academic conversation on theology of mission.  They do not present their arguments as settled, but as furthering the discussion of the church’s practice of mission.  I am always interested to hear what people who are engaged in short-term mission think when they hear these definitions, and learn together how these might inform their understanding of mission going forward.  So now, the tentative definitions.

 

Definition of Mission

Kirk asserts that “mission is, quite simply, though profoundly, what the Christian community is sent to do, beginning right where it is located.”  This grounds mission in the words of Christ at the ascension to the disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).  Mission, in this definition, is not just something that Christians do in other places, but is something they do right in their own communities.  Kirk also states that while mission is “fulfilled in different ways according to particular local circumstances, the obligations of mission are the same wherever the community is established.”  The obligations of mission are to bear witness to the “meaning and relevance of the kingdom”, which means that the church is to show in its life, worship and work the call of God to do justice, love kindness and live in humility. 

Thangaraj helpfully defines mission as something that is more than an activity of the church.  He states that while mission does mean being sent, “this ‘sent-ness’ is not… spatial. It is rather a quality of being”.  That we are sent to be the church in mission does not mean that we must travel, but our being sent as the church in mission defines how we are to live, beginning right where we are located.  Thangaraj and Kirk are clear that mission does not require travel, but a new understanding of the church community.  What we must understand about ourselves as church, then, is that “mission happens in a network of relations.”  Thangaraj describes mission as happening in the context of relationships between people.  Mission, therefore, requires that we are to consider deeply how to act in mission with responsibility, solidarity, and mutuality.  Responsibility means we listen deeply to others and acknowledge our responsibility to care for them as beloved children of God; solidarity means that as we listen deeply to the other we are mindful of how we are interconnected; mutuality means a recognition that mission is something we share with fellow Christians, both giving and receiving, not something that we do FOR others.

 

What Do You Say?

These tentative definitions of mission are quite dense, and may be explored more deeply in future posts.  But for now they are a good start as we consider the question of “what is mission?”  Whether a person has just signed up for a short-term mission trip and is wondering what they’ve gotten into, or if a person has just come back from their annual summer mission trip and want to reflect again on their experience, the question of “what is mission?” is a good place to start the conversation.  How do you answer the question “what is mission?”  Join in the conversation!

 

 

Quotes from:

Kirk, J. Andrew. What is Mission? Theological Explorations.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2000), 24, 36

Thangaraj, M. Thomas. The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission. (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1999.), 48