Journeying into God’s Mission
You volunteer to help a new neighbor on a project at home—fixing the house, aiding with kids, repairing a machine. In the process you spend time together. You talk, you come to know the other person, even the family. You share a meal.
Certain basic manners govern your visit: You’re there to help, not oversee (unless asked). You aim to help achieve your host’s goals. Without presuming to take over, you share your expertise, offering your talents and abilities. You accord with the manners and standards of your hosts and apologize (maybe laughingly) for the unintentional gaffe.
At the end of the project, ideally, a genuine friendship is born. You go home gratified that you could truly help another, and you leave behind some token of accomplishment. Even more, you have experienced another household, another way of doing things, even another way of seeing the world; and your insight widens into how others live. Maybe you’ve picked up ideas you can use. Most deeply, you have entered another person’s life, and your new friend has entered yours. You return home a changed person—and you might even thank God for it.
In recent decades, short-term mission trips have become a prominent form of Christian outreach for Episcopal congregations, schools, dioceses and other institutions. They embody the same principles as a visit to help your neighbor, with one major addition. While helping your neighbor may implicitly arise from your Christian commitment to serve Jesus Christ, the mission trip is explicitly so: You are on a mission for God. It infuses the experience with even greater meaning and potential for understanding our God, ourselves, our communities, and our world.
Indeed, these trips reflect deeply held convictions about the nature of God, God’s Church, and God’s work in the world—and our Christian relationships with each. Arising from the Bible, these convictions have found various expressions over the past fifty years as Episcopalians (and our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion) have contemplated the church’s mission. Two images have especially guided our thinking.
One is that of the “Body of Christ.” Rooted in the letters of Paul (especially I Corinthians 12), this image gained prominence in the Pan-Anglican Congress in Toronto, Canada in August, 1963. In front of a worldwide gathering of bishops, priests and laity, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, joined by other leaders, introduced the idea of “Mutual Interdependence and Responsibility in the Body of Christ” (MRI). Spawned in discussions among missionaries from around the Communion, MRI responded to a world moving beyond colonialism. It recognized the diversity while affirming the unity of Christ’s church everywhere. It reminded that Christ bestows gifts on all—transcending divisions of rich and poor, of giver and receiver, by revealing that, thanks to the Spirit, each has something to offer and each has something to receive. It evoked the truly worldwide nature of the Communion—that one’s neighbors are not only next door but also on the other side of the globe, and, in relationship with these neighbors, all may grow in Christ. It also conveyed the vast concerns of fast-growing churches especially in the developing world—that our neighbors far away have huge needs as they pursue their very effective evangelical work. While the specific efforts that arose in the name of MRI
lasted but for awhile, they bred a sense of the international relationships we have in Christ.i
The second is that of the Trinity. As one of the most central doctrines of Christians, this image was applied anew in the “Virginia Report” which an international commission of theologians prepared for the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops. Like MRI, the Virginia Report responded to specific issues in how Anglicans relate to each other, but also quickly became a way of articulating (among other things) our concept of mission. It employs the mystery of the very relationship within the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as most commonly expressed—to understand the purpose, mission, and relationships of God’s people. Like the image of Christ’s body, it emphasizes both diversity—creator, redeemer, sanctifier is but one way of expressing it—and the unity that characterizes the Divine.ii
Both of these images reflect basic themes that should guide short-term missions—or, really, any relationship in Christ. First, it’s all about relationship: our relationship with God, especially in Christ; our relationship with each other, whether that “other” be a fellow mission-tripper or the ones whom the trip visits.
A second clear theme is that of diversity within unity: As God is different, so are we. As Christ’s body is diverse, so are we. Yet Christ makes us one: one with God, one with each other. An ancient hymn often sung at Eucharist declares,
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one, So from all lands thy Church be gathered into thy Kingdom by thy son. (Hymn 302/303)
It’s a vision that applies to us no matter where Christians may live. To venture on a mission is, so often, to discover the differences of other cultures and also the strong bonds of Christian faith.
A third is that of mutual love and, thus, of mutual respect, even of mutual reliance. The God who creates also redeems and sanctifies: “As the Father has loved me,” Jesus says, “so I have loved you” (John 15:9). In order to walk, the body depends not only on legs and feet to move it but also on eyes to see where it should go:
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love (Eph. 4:15-16).
A fourth may not be quite so obvious, but has vitally important implications for mission. God is already there! We often sing, “Jesus is Lord of all the earth” (Hymnal #178). That’s our theology. It’s also a pragmatic reality: Most likely, wherever we go especially on mission trips, the Church is already there. The Episcopal Church can be found not only in the United States but also in 16 others. The Anglican Communion covers most of the globe. Mission-trips, then, rarely go to places where the Gospel is unknown, but rather to where we can support our brothers and sisters in Christ who are pursuing the mission of God in their home places.
Yet this truth opens to another mystery. Jesus is quoted, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). St. Francis of Assisi supposedly observed, “It is in giving that we receive” (BCP p. 833). When you help your neighbor, you gain too.
Short-term missions can have that benefit. Ideally, the ones who are visited gain, but those who visit may gain in their own ways as much or even more. So can their home churches, and communities. This truth arises from another mystery which we also find in the Bible. Paul instructed his congregations to set funds aside to support the “saints” who were in need in far-off Jerusalem. He asked this not just for those in Jerusalem, but also for the sake of those in Corinth and Ephesus. Not only is it good to realize that the Christian is part of a body far larger than one’s local community, that realization and, better, the experience of how others pursue their mission can give new vision, and even tips, on what one does at home.
I came as priest to a parish that after years of turmoil had its eyes turned inward. A friend of mine, then a missionary in Africa, came to speak. She described the amazing work in that far-off land, and challenged the congregation to support it, proposing what she thought was a high amount. The congregation doubled that amount. Then the gift inspired more giving: Some months later, a senior member observed that, while we should be supporting our neighbors abroad, what of those in our county? She identified some needs, and the congregation began addressing those as well. Helping those far off inspired help for those nearby.
It’s often said that travel is always a broadening experience. So is pursuing God’s mission. It reveals what our Lord might have us to do and, by the power of the Spirit, makes it possible for us to do it. As a beloved prayer asks, “Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness” (BCP p. 814).
At heart, the mission trip is a spiritual exercise, a time when a person, a team, and a congregation can grow in the knowledge and love of our Lord. As a way of fulfilling the baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” (BCP p. 305), they—you—may discover Jesus in new ways that can never be predicted. But of course: ours is a God of constant surprises. A mission for God, then, becomes a spiritual journey of knowing God ever more deeply, and learning more fully how to follow and serve our Lord.
The Rev. R. David Cox is a priest of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia who has served congregations in Virginia and Connecticut. Currently adjunct professor of history at Southern Virginia University, he represents the President of the House of Deputies on the Standing Commission on World Mission (2012-15).
i For the text of “MRI,” see: http://anglicanhistory.org/canada/toronto_mutual1963.html.
ii For the Virginia Report, see: http://www.lambethconference.org/1998/documents/report-1.pdf.