Who are Missionaries? What is Mission? Why should we Care?

Every two years, longer-term Global Mission personnel of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (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 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:

What is a missionary?

When I ask people to visualize a “typical” missionary, the usual response includes that of a clean-cut young man with black pants and a white collared shift (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, a preacher who stands on street corners shouting words of judgment, or one who travels the far ends of the earth to confront false beliefs and plant new Christian churches. In other words, many see a 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/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 small few of the overall wide variety of mission methods. The reality is that, just because particular styles of missionaries appear to be most vocal, visible and yes - volatile, they should not be acknowledged as all there is.

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/or higher objective. As a result, one who serves to promote a certain purpose can – by definition – be considered a “missionary”. For example, those who promote the consumption of Coca-Cola around the world are not merely “workers” and/or “employees”, but they are “missionaries” of the Coca-Cola brand and its objectives and/or “mission statement”. In addition, those who advertise for Nike, Apple, Toyota, Microsoft, etc., are all serving a specific purpose of spreading a particular message, and as a result possess a systemic (and oftentimes financial) motivation to change attitudes and alter behaviors.

In addition to corporations, there are countless “partisan missionaries” in all corners of the globe who engage in attempts to spread a defined political agenda. As election cycles draw close, these political missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme. When one receives a phone call from the public action committee representative of a political candidate, it is a missionary on the other line. When someone places a poster on their wall or sign in the yard, they distinguish themselves as a missionary serving to exemplify “the mission” of a particular candidate. When the “mission” of a campaign is to elect a particular person and pursue a certain partisan agenda, those who contribute to such a mission are, by definition, missionaries.

With the above in mind, while many associate the word “missionary” exclusively with religious conversion and international travel in the developing world, a closer look recognizes that our 21st century global context includes missionaries who promote a variety of ideals in diverse ways within numerous locations. And so, we should hesitate to assume we know what a “missionary” is, for a Christian missionary is far different from a missionary of Pepsi, Adidas, Nokia, Exxon, and the Republican Party. In order to discover who Christian missionaries are, it is important to reflect upon what God’s mission is about, and how Christian missionaries serve within this larger purpose.

What is God’s Mission?

What distinguishes Christian missionaries from those of corporations and politics is an attempt to participate within God’s mission found through the Good News of Jesus. In other words, a Christian 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. Naturally, 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, religion, etc.

God’s Mission is Reconciliation

The 21st century is the most connected era of human history in regards to technology, media, economics, ecology, etc. However, it is also perhaps the most divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we observe increases surrounding income disparity, unequal access to health care and suitable education, as well as dangerous levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, political polarization, xenophobia, and discrimination based upon sexual orientation. In the midst of these divisions, God is on a mission. While brokenness and separation threatens 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.

As humankind is reconciled to God through the life-giving and inclusive love of Jesus, we are called to be reconciled to one another, as is written in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation”. As the Lutheran tradition proclaims, we are not loved by God because of anything we do, because all fall short of flawlessness, but we are acceptable to God by “grace through faith” regardless of the various classifications that the world so often places upon humankind. In other words, as all people have received God’s love as a gift regardless of daily faults and countless imperfections, our response to such amazing grace is to be reconciled with others, regardless of whether or not they (or we) deserve it. These “horizontal” and “vertical” acts of reconciliation are central to God’s mission, and as a result, key components to the daily being and doing of Christian missionaries.

God’s Mission is Transformation

There are about one billion people in our world who live in relative prosperity, yet there are many other billions who scrape through life in spirit-destroying poverty. While some in our world strive for a larger flat-screen television with hundreds of channels, DVD screens in a gas-guzzling SUV, and the perfect massive diamond for a marriage proposal, there are others who would die for a clean cup of water or a simple bowl of rice. The world is messed up. However, in the midst of this mess, God is on a mission. 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.

The Bible is filled with awesome accounts of transformation, and while much attention is often given to individuals who “changed their ways”, what is equally important are the various illustrations of structural and/or societal conversion. While Jesus was committed to a faith that was spiritual and personal, he warned of the temptation to keep such affirmations private, and as a result, he stirred-up groundbreaking and earth-changing large-scale and long-term public transformation. In a world that desperately needs personal and public renovation, such news of a Son of God who cares about life after death and life after birth is Good News, especially for those whose lives include daily struggle for survival. As a result, those engaged as Christian missionaries seek transformation, both individually and collectively, for it is central to God’s mission in and through our world.

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 multi-national context of economics and ecology, one has to ask who has access “to the pond”. Our world is filled with aid organizations that proclaim a purpose to change the world, and while many provide wonderful services and help to save lives, the long-term structures of poverty and injustice too often remain, to the point that “access to the pond” remains restricted and the cycles and structures that keep some wealthy and others impoverished remain. In the midst of this inequality, however, God is on a mission. As reconciliation and transformation occur, authority and access is given to those who are too often marginalized and silenced, for 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.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus is recorded as stating: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses… to the end of the earth”. In such words we recognize that God shared authentic power with humankind through the Holy Spirit, and as a result we are called to share genuine authority with one another in ways that sustain long-term fullness of life. In contrast to the criticism that Christian mission is an “opiate for the people” that dulls the pains of life while waiting and hoping for the life to come, the mission of God calls for people to walk directly into the hardships and struggles of our world, move spirituality from anesthetic to advocacy, and empower others to use their gifts for the glory of God and the welfare of all people. As the African concept of “ubuntu” reminds us, “I am because we are”, and if any in our world live in pain, then all feel that sting, and as a result must strive to empower others just as the Holy Spirit continues to empower us.

What is a Christian missionary?

If God’s mission through Jesus is reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment, then 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 countless Lutheran congregations in North America over the past months and through being accompanied over recent years by companions in South Africa, Guyana, and beyond. Among other things, what this recognition means is that a “typical” Christian missionary does not exist, for we are not just North American pastors who travel the world, but also South American teachers, mechanics, and politicians; European nursing home residents, tattoo artists, recent college graduates, prisoners, and custodians; African farmers, construction workers, lawyers, and physicians; Middle-Eastern activists, taxi drivers, and chemists; North American unemployed and underemployed, engineers, children, and retirees, and countless other women and men who seek a restoration of local and global community through spirit-led radical hospitality. A Christian missionary may come in many different shapes and sizes, and a result, God is able to work through them in countless and exciting ways.

In addition to everyone God calls to be missionaries, we also recognize that missionary service takes place everywhere, and not only many miles away with people who look, speak, and act differently. There are occasions when missionary engagement leads one to travel large distances on unfamiliar ground, yet other times when it is needed to empower a family member under the same roof, transform tensions with a neighbor down the same street, or even reconcile with other church members who worship in the same building. In other words, every moment of every day is an opportunity to reconcile, transform, and empower, thus we are on a continuous “mission trip” and continuously seek ways to utilize our countless God-given gifts to accompany others in solidarity that practices mutuality. In an awesome proclamation of affirmation, in God’s eyes all are worthy to participate in this mission, and all are incredibly valuable and useful within it.

As stated at the onset, I believe our world is filled with a variety of “missionaries” and countless “missions”, some that are constructive and worthwhile, but far too many that are conflicting, competing, and counter-productive. And of course, one cannot hide the reality that some who claim to be Christian missionaries radiate arrogance and irresponsibility that hardly resemble anything Jesus would promote (…and in all humility, I am sure there are many days that my own words and deeds would make Jesus cringe). In the midst of it all, I believe we should resist the temptation of indifference and isolation, but instead learn to care about these local and global missionary realities, for God’s strength is greater than our weakness, Christian missionaries are not what they are too often assumed to be, we all have an important role within God’s mission, and because of the division, inequality, and massive mess in our world, the embodiment of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment is needed now perhaps more than ever. 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.

(Brian E. Konkol is an Ordained Minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and a Country Coordinator for its South Africa-based Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program, which serves in companionship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). For additional information on concepts of God’s Mission, see the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Department for Mission and Development (DMD) text: “Mission in Context: Transformation, Reconciliation, and Empowerment”, which was used as a resource in the drafting of this paper.)

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