He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” —Mark 16:15
I am calling for a moratorium on missions. That’s simply a fancy way of saying, stop. It’s time to lay to rest our mission strategies and ideas. Stop traveling the world in the name of Jesus. Stop planting churches in foreign mission fields. Stop sending our children on short-term missions trips. Stop fixing houses. Stop. I realize this is a strange call for a professor of missions to make. But I’ve never shied away from being strange. After all, the Bible calls Christians a “peculiar people.”
To be clear, this call has little to do with being strange and everything to do with the good news, or the gospel. For too long, Christian missions in North America and coming from North America have either indirectly ushered violence into societies or have been a direct cause of it. Take Christopher Columbus for example: the Italian explorer for the King and Queen of Spain was sent as a Christian missionary to find a new path for trade in commerce. Here's a passage from his journal:
"Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians,
and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and
are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and
heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the
above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes,
people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the
proper method of converting them to our holy faith."
I'll save my comments about his Islamophobic speech for another post. Instead of reaching India, Columbus found a people of whom he reported, "would be good
servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become
Christians, as they appear to have no religion." In 500 years time, Christian missionaries have moved far from physically enslaving the objects of their missionary zeal. Coming from a capitalist culture, US American missionaries too often define a successful missionary trip as one that makes better capitalists of the people they seek to convert. In other words, our Christian missionaries try to make people in distant lands slaves to the global economy just as we overly indebted US Americans are.
Cultural violence and economic enslavement sound nothing like good news to me. So until Christian mission activities can really declare that we have good news to share, then we need to stop.
I’m not the first and will not be the last to make this call. Howard Thurman, the twentieth century African American Christian Mystic, said that Christian missions is “the very heartbeat of the Christian religion.” And so it is understandable when he complains that the missionary impulse is “an instrument of self-righteousness on the one hand and racial superiority on the other.”
Similarly to Thurman, it’s not the concept of missions that I object to. Rather, it’s that missions have become vessels of self-righteousness, racial superiority, Western expansion, environmental terror, and global capitalism. Mission means to be sent and Christians follow a God who is a sending God which means that God’s people must be a missionary people. So the question is, "How then shall we live?" I propose that we live by the following values for our Christian practice:
1. God is already at work. God sent Jesus and left the Holy Spirit which is ultimately why we aresent as well. God sent first and the Holy Spirit is moving throughout the world making a church as Spirit moves. We are those who partner with the Spirit in declaring the Good News that God is making peace, justice, righteousness, and joy a possibility right here, right now!
2. Local mission is the only mission. You are in a missionary space in the place you stand. By valuing foreign mission over local mission, Christians have devalued local regions, place, space, and land. It’s no coincidence that Christians have trouble valuing the land when Christian missionaries participated in removing the very first nations peoples who believed that the land was sacred. But if we are to be faithful in missionary practice then we must begin to see that every Christian is sent from God’s commonwealth, not the United States of America, which makes the very local space in which we find ourselves a missionary space.
3. Every moment is a missionary moment. Likewise, we do not wait to go on a mission. If we are truly citizens of God’s reality, then while we live between now and the last days every moment is a missionary moment.
4. Good news should really sound like good news. If the people who hear your good news don’t believe it is good news, then perhaps it is not. If the people you encounter cannot declare that the news you bring is good, then don’t declare that it is.
5. Not all poverty is degrading. We have a tendency to define poverty and wealth by capitalist standards that value material wealth over relational wealth. In other words, we US American Christians imply with our values that we are sent from the United States, rather than the commonwealth of God
6. Promote partnerships not programs. Paternalism, or the belief that we know better than the people we are in ministry to (and we usually think of ministry to people rather than with them), will rarely if ever meet the mark of loving our neighbor, because love implies a reciprocity in which the object of our affection has the opportunity to declare his or her needs and desires. Programs are constructed for, rather than with people.
I’m sure we could add more, but we need to start somewhere and these six values are a good place from which to start. It's time to lay the old values to rest and begin again.