Every two years, longer-term missionaries of the ELCA engage in “home assignment,” which includes two months of visits alongside congregations, universities and a variety of other organizations throughout the United States.
Among other things, home assignment is meant to produce a dynamic dialogue surrounding what God appears to be doing around the world, and as a result, animate a heightened awareness that mission takes place everywhere and involves everyone.
After two months of driving, flying, speaking, listening, backpack living, hospitality receiving and Lutheran pot-luck consuming, the following are some lessons learned:
Many see an ELCA missionary specifically as one whose prime function is to use a variety of tactics to “convert” a person from one system of religious belief to another, with the assumption that the missionary possesses “the truth” and those whom she or he confronts are in deep need of correction.
While one cannot argue that these forms of missionary activity do indeed exist, it is important to note that such examples are only a few of the wide variety of mission methods. A missionary is, by definition, one who engages in a particular mission. With this in mind, we recognize that a “mission” is, in other words, an intentional purpose and a higher objective.
In order to discover who ELCA missionaries are, it is important to reflect upon what God’s mission is about, and how Christian missionaries are stewards within this larger purpose.
What is God’s mission?
An ELCA missionary is one who considers the point, purpose and intentions of a gracious God through the lens of Christian faith and as a result tries to participate within this activity through faithful and fruitful words and deeds.
It is impossible to fully understand the “will of God,” and even if we could, it would be impossible to fully follow it. Nevertheless, as a result of ongoing spiritual experiences and open-minded conversation, we should not hesitate to consider what God is “up to” in our 21st century environment of globalization, ecology, economics, politics, science and religion.
God’s mission is reconciliation
The 21st century is the most connected era of human history in regards to technology, media, economics and ecology. However, it is also perhaps the most divided period our planet has ever witnessed. In the midst of divisions, God is on a mission.
While brokenness and separation threaten to tear-apart local communities, churches and international companionships, God’s mission is reconciliation, to the point that our common identity as children of God takes precedence over the color of our skin or passport, size of our bank account, gender of our life-partner and affirmation of religious belief.
God’s mission is transformation
There are about 1 billion people in our world living in relative prosperity, yet there are many other billions who scrape through life in spirit-destroying poverty.
When people are reconciled with God and respond through reconciliation with one another, the result is individual and communal transformation on a local and global scale.
In other words, when people receive open acceptance and radical hospitality, they learn to look outward and strive for relief, development and advocacy. The result is an interconnected world that intimately transforms for the better and embodies the life-giving love of God found in Jesus. When lives are changed, so are communities, nations and the global village.
God’s mission is empowerment
One of the common metaphors of social transformation is “give someone fish and they eat for a day, but teach someone to fish and they eat for a lifetime.” In the 21st century this statement is not fully accurate, for in our interconnected multinational context of economics and ecology, one has to ask who has access “to the pond.”
Our world is filled with aid organizations out to change the world. While many provide wonderful services and help save lives, poverty and injustice too often remain. Access to the pond remains restricted and the structures that keep some wealthy and others impoverished remain. In the midst of this inequality, God is on a mission.
As reconciliation and transformation occur, authority and access is given to those who are too often marginalized and silenced. People recognize that full independence is a myth, and interdependence is not only a factual local and global reality, but it is a Christian faith essential and a core component to God’s mission.
What is an ELCA missionary?
Because God’s mission through Jesus is reconciliation, transformation and empowerment, Christian missionaries are those who reconcile, transform and empower, by the grace of God and in the name of Jesus.
This, perhaps more than anything else, is what I learned by visiting with numerous ELCA congregations in North America over the past months and through being accompanied over recent years by companions in South Africa, Guyana and beyond.
A “typical” ELCA missionary does not exist, for we are not just North American pastors who travel the world, but also South American teachers and mechanics; European seniors and recent college graduates; African farmers and physicians; Middle Eastern activists and chemists; North American English teachers and engineers; and numerous other women and men who seek a restoration of local and global community through spirit-led radical hospitality.
We also recognize that missionary service takes place everywhere and not only many miles away with people who look, speak and act differently.
As God so dearly loves the world, and because the mess is not acceptable, the mission of God through Jesus crosses boundaries, promotes awesome hospitality and grace, expresses radical relevance, recognizes the need for humility and boldness and has no ultimate outcome except that which brings life in its fullness for all people in all places.
We are invited into this mission, today and always, by the grace of God, and for the sake of the world. We are missionaries, and mission is all around us, so may we recognize this invitation, accept it, embrace it and most of all, participate within it.