Rethinking mission for the twenty-first century
We share an inter-connected world. Everything we do in our local community potentially affects the whole world, and everything that happens far away can have an impact on our neighbourhood. The commonly expressed truths that we love on 'a rapidly shrinking planet' and in 'a global village' make ideas like 'local mission versus global mission' irrelevant: the local is the global and vice versa. The Revd Dr Evie Vernon, Theological Adviser to the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) asks where this leaves us.
First of all, we need to understand that while the call to be a missionary might be a very simple one, it is also very challenging. It would be so much easier if we could believe that mission is something that happens away from our homes, perhaps among the poor, whoever they might be, or overseas somewhere, and that mission is something done by someone else, maybe a local vicar or a dedicated missionary who ventures overseas. In this scenario, our Christian duty could be fulfilled whenever we prayed or
gave generous donations, leaving us to do very little in practical terms.
However, Jesus didn’t call his followers to be comfortable. He called us to take up our cross, that is to walk as someone condemned to death, and follow him. (Mt 16:24). Matthew’s Gospel recalls Jesus urging his servants to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit prisoners.
This is potentially difficult stuff. Then, as now, feeding the hungry or visiting prisoners could be seen by the authorities as either relatively harmless acts of charity, which could defuse tensions, or as dangerous political actions that highlight injustice and incite discontent.
Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil, is reputed to have said:
“If I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint, if I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.”
Providing bread for the hungry can, in some situations, get you arrested. Dom Hélder – unlike Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, Archbishop Luwum of Uganda and Archbishop Alberto Ramento of the Philippines – did not get murdered by the state for working with the poor, but he was certainly not beloved by the authorities.
My second point is that God’s mission is not solely for the specialists, clergy and dedicated missionaries; it is for every Christian.
In the first century, Jesus’ call to a new way of life was spread by ordinary people from every walk of life: fisherfolk, tax collectors, travelling salespeople, tentmakers, lepers and widows. Nothing has changed. Mission is still everybody’s duty.
Thirdly, there is a sense in which mission is carried out by refugees and for refugees. Mission is not for those who feel content or ‘at home’ in either their earthly body or their earthly situation. Jesus’ followers were mostly refugees fleeing religious or political persecution. And, even today, we are mindful that much of mission involves engaging with people who are outsiders, perhaps because they have been ignored or persecuted or otherwise neglected.
Again, it is important to recognise that we are all inter-connected – decisions taken in Whitehall, Washington and North Korea can have global repercussions. And yet those who suffer the repercussions the most are those who are on the margins, those who lie outside the mainstream. It must therefore be the mission of every Christian to extend hospitality to the outsider and to educate themselves about how we might seek to influence political policy to help the outsider. If we don’t do it, who will?
Again, none of this is new. Jesus himself was born in Bethlehem because an emperor, far away in Rome, sent an order for people to travel to their ancestral villages to be taxed
(Luke 2:1). The first ‘overseas missionary’ happened to be an Ethiopian official visiting Jerusalem (Acts 8).
In March this year, USPG held its first Rethinking Mission Conference at Southwark Cathedral. Participants were invited to discuss mission from new perspectives, with guest speakers from across the world: the Revd Evelyn Bhajan from the Church of Pakistan; the Very Revd John Rogers from the Church in Barbados; the Revd Dr Canon Vincentia Kgabe from the Church in South Africa; and the Ven Archdeacon Dr John Perumbalath, Archdeacon of Barking.
In the presentation given by these speakers – three of which can be found on www.uspg.org.uk/news/rethinking3417 – we were invited to think about how women express their mission in Pakistan, about the challenges facing the church in post-Apartheid South Africa, about the way forward for the Church in the West Indies, and about how the church is called to deal with loneliness and isolation on council estates in the UK.
USPG also relaunched its online journal – also called Rethinking Mission www.rethinkingmission.org. The articles found here, like the talks at the conference, serve to challenge all Christians that we are all called to the one mission, God’s mission, to redeem the one world in which we all live. The recurrent message is that there is no local or global mission or, rather, all mission is global and all mission is local.
The 17th century cleric John Donne, put it this way:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
(MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)
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From China to Cawston – lessons in Mandarin
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How big is your world?
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Being Christ to others
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