March 18, 2009

“Mission Partners,” redux

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post expressing my objection to a proposed General Convention resolution that would change all canonical references in the Episcopal Church from “missionary” to “mission partner.” That post has since sparked a lively and occasionally contentious conversation in my e-mail inbox, in my mail, and over the phone. I want to add to that previous post to update those of you who haven’t been involved but are still interested in the topic.

I have had trouble pinning down the particular reasons this proposal was made in the first place and the resolution approved. My impression is that the reasons given to missionaries by the Church Center have continually changed, confusing me. I haven’t been able to find a copy of the resolution or an account of the Standing Commission on World Mission meeting that approved the resolution. (If anyone can help me out with that, I’d appreciate it.)

Whatever the reasons, one that has been mentioned frequently is the history of the mission. I agree that missionaries have a very mixed history but I also think that the picture is more complex than the dominant “Poisonwood Bible” and Spanish conquistador stereotype allows us to acknowledge. In re-reading Titus Presler’s “Horizons of Mission” recently, I am struck by how many examples of humble, servant missionaries he can find across time.

Regardless of how many examples of grace we can find among missionaries in the past, it is certainly true the church and its members have sinned in the past and those sins need to be repented of. But it is equally true that the church and its members are sinning in the present. I wonder sometimes if our focus on the past obscures our focus on not only the present but the future.

By the way, I have a whole wealth of experience as a sinful, fallen missionary. Every time I read about what missionaries have done in the past, I can’t help but think about all the sinful things I’ve done in my own time as a missionary and wonder just how different we really are these days. Some things change over time; the nature of humanity is not one of them. Will changing how we describe ourselves change who we are? I think not.

One theme that emerged in the ongoing conversation is that it made more sense to invest our energy in our mission being and doing than debating language. I want to agree but for the fact that language for me has always been a first-order commitment of fundamental importance. None of us is the God of Creation who simply speaks to create but I strongly believe the words we use shape the reality we inhabit. Any discussion about language is a discussion about reality. Many people acknowledged this in e-mails, listing other contested words (like evangelism, proselytize, born again, saved, and even church). Each of them deserves a conversation at least as long as this one.

I have also been thinking about the ways this impacts our search for the unity Christ prayed for among his followers (John 17:20-24). I interpret this prayer, in part, as a call to learn more from our brothers and sisters in Christ across the spectrum of views that
characterize Christianity. I think part of this search for unity begins in grappling with the language we hold in common, such as “missionary.” I read a book recently about the search for unity between the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion and was struck by how much the conversation in that forum has been about words - what do we mean when we talk about the eucharist or forgiveness or any number of other issues?

In particular, I think about more conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Christians who have a particular interpretation of “missionary” that is often rooted - almost solely - in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). The Biblical roots of my conception of “missionary” are broader than that and I think that if we run away from “missionary,” we cede the word to an interpretation I disagree with and we end this particular and important conversation with our fellow Christians. By keeping the word, we prevent it from being reduced to this interpretation and we keep the search for unity moving forward.

I wrote this in the last post but it is worth emphasizing that whatever the merits of “missionary,” “mission partner” does not do justice to the full range of mission being and doing and is unnecessarily constraining. I think of “business partners” or “dance partners” when I think about partnership. To me, it is an anodyne, dry, and legalistic word that is difficult for me to associate with an expansive and engaging word like mission. My missiology encompasses much more than partnership; the virtue of “missionary” is it can include it all.

I should note I have heard from some missionaries who welcome the change to “mission partner.” I’ve heard from missionaries who work in non-Christian-majority countries about the potential dangers and struggles they face as a result of the label. “Missionary” is perceived differently in different parts of the world and I really appreciated those perspectives.

What’s more, I’ve learned that other churches in the Anglican Communion, including, I believe, the Church of England and the Church of Australia, use “mission partner” so it’s not like the Episcopal Church would be going out on a limb with this decision and blazing a new path.

So my particular view is not held by everyone. But there are a substantial number (a majority?) of missionaries who do strongly believe that “missionary” is an accurate and true word that deserves to be retained. These people came from a wide variety of backgrounds and were engaged in a wide variety of ministries.

I’m working my way through David Bosch’s “Transforming Mission,” a simply superb book. He writes about the need for “bold humility.” Yes, I think retaining the word “missionary” is a bit bold in this day and age. Maybe we’re just not comfortable being that bold anymore and the retreat to “mission partners” would make us all a lot more comfortable. But it is possible to be bold humbly and I think that is what missionaries are called to do.

Whatever your thoughts about this question, what I have most appreciated is the conversation itself. Conversations like these have an essential importance in the current existence of the church. That the conversation takes place and how it takes place are as important as the eventual decision. I certainly didn’t anticipate sparking anything like this with that first post but am glad of the result and hope it continues.

3 comments:

Nina said...

"In particular, I think about more conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Christians who have a particular interpretation of “missionary” that is often rooted - almost solely - in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). The Biblical roots of my conception of “missionary” are broader than that and I think that if we run away from “missionary,” we cede the word to an interpretation I disagree with and we end this particular and important conversation with our fellow Christians. By keeping the word, we prevent it from being reduced to this interpretation and we keep the search for unity moving forward."

That is a very, very strong argument for retaining use of the word missionary. By ceding the use of words like "saved" and "personal relationship," we have contributed to a growing chasm between Episcopalians and more evangelical Christians. The very use -- or refusal to use -- certain words contributes to that rift. In college, we even talked a lot about how Episcopalians sometimes/often shy away from the word "Jesus," because the word evoked too many political/social assumptions than Episcopalians don't agree with. By ceding such words, we move toward shying away from certain concepts/theologies/beliefs that are part of a more balanced Christian faith.

All this to say, your argument that using "mission partner" effectively turns over "missionary" to a more mono-faceted definition is very real.

Of course, one could argue that the word "missionary" has already been limited to such an interpretation in popular culture, and Episcopalians would be better off using a word that better describes the reality that our definition differs from the popular one.

Sigh.

Jody said...

Shouldn't it be "sins that need to be repented FOR"? Not "repented of"?

christiandifferent said...

Hey Jesse, Mike Angell here. It's been a long time. I was just watching video of you playing guitar and dancing with the kids in Mthatha. Anyway, I thought I'd weigh in late on this whole debate. I've heard quite a bit about it from folks at 815 and in the "missionary community."



Here's what I like about the term "mission partner:" agency. Mission partner helps us to realize that mission does not belong to us. We aren't the actor in mission, we are only the partner. Mission belongs to God. Missionary, while useful for history sake, identifies the person very strongly with the mission. Partner makes us broaden. God doesn't act in a community because we arrive. God is already there when we get there, and will continue on after we leave. Maybe a broader term would be "mission conspirator." We conspire with God and our fellow pilgrims in attempts to glimpse the counter-cultural reign of God.

Lyra Harris wrote something really poetic in one of her emails from YASC in Honduras. She said, "“As much as I am tempted to narrate the experiences I know I will fall short. It is impossible to describe the amount of beauty and sorrow, the feelings of being alive in the world, letting the world touch you and mold you. Being open to it all. So, I will continue to write hopefully interesting letters, but you too can do this! Just stand in the rain in the middle of a thunderstorm, or learn another language, or watch a sunset from the top of a mountain, or read psalm 16, or talk to someone you normally wouldn’t, or swim in the ocean, or get swept up by a crowd and dance in the street.”

I love this because it speaks of the dimension of surrender necessary to mission. Letting go of my own needs, my own agency, my own plans, my own sense that I was in charge was central to my experience.

I don't agree that "mission partner" is as limited as you seem to say. In fact I think it beautifully embraces the roles of learning/teaching/pilgrimage etc. I very much agree with a lot of what you are saying about the need to keep mission work alive in the minds and hearts of the Church, the need to transform conceptions about what it means to work in God's mission. I think we can use missionary colloquially, but point to the model of "mission partner" to note that mission doesn't belong to us. Mission is God's.


Just food for thought. Know that you are continually in my thoughts and prayers in Mthatha. Are you coming to Convention? If so, and you could use a side trip to San Diego let me know!