Category Archives: Various

Mission from the Margins – by David Simmons

This last month, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) heard the first reading of a new document, “Together towards life: mission and evangelism in changing landscapes,” which will be presented to next year’s WCC General Assembly. One of the most interesting parts of this document is its discussion of what they call “Mission from the Margins.” Here’s paragraph 38:

Mission from the margins seeks to counteract injustices in life, church, and mission. It seeks to be an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalized. Such approaches can contribute to oppression and marginalization. Mission from the margins recognizes that being in the centre means having access to systems that lead to one’s rights, freedom and individuality being affirmed and respected; living in the margins means exclusion from justice and dignity. Living on the margins, however, can provide its own lessons. People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the centre, is out of view. People on the margins, living in vulnerable positions, often know what exclusionary forces are threatening their survival and can best discern the urgency of their struggles; people in positions of privilege have much to learn from the daily struggles of people living in marginal conditions.

and paragraph 41:

The dominant expressions of mission, in the past and today, have often been directed at people on the margins of societies. These have generally viewed those on the margins as recipients and not active agents of missionary activity. Mission expressed in this way has too often been complicit with oppressive and life-denying systems. It has generally aligned with the privileges of the centre and largely failed to challenge economic, social, cultural and political systems which have marginalized some peoples. Mission from the centre is motivated by an attitude of paternalism and a superiority complex. Historically, this has equated Christianity with Western culture and resulted in adverse consequences, including the denial of the full personhood of the victims of such marginalization.

Looking at the history of mission, it’s easy to see this at work. Mission was and is often conducted out of a kind of Noblesse Oblige, assuming that those to whom the mission is being sent are receiving gifts that we already possess. This is harmful to both the persons and cultures being “missionized” and those conducting the mission, because it sets up the kind of distinctions the Epistle of James has been railing against for the last couple of weeks in the lectionary. It results in pride and hypocrisy, even if done with the best of intentions.

Those missions that have borne the most fruit of the Spirit in the past few decades have been those that recognize that in correctly-ordered work, both the missionary and the missionized are equal in receipt of a new grace. When mission is at its best, it’s not a transferal of knowledge, or a gift from the “haves” to the “have-nots”, but a new outpouring of the Spirit on all involved. In examples ranging from Latin-American base communities to Emergent churches in North America, mission really happens when it is indigenous and adapted to the local context.

As we consider ways to renew and transform our church, our first step has to be to recognize that we have been complicit in the “mission from the centre” that the document critiques. The Episcopal Church has only recently emerged from being considered exclusively the church of the powerful. We love missionary bishops, and organizations, and societies. We tend to hyper-organize ourselves before stepping out into mission. This could be considered prudence, but also could be considered a lack of trust in the Spirit. The “Nimbleness” that some have advocated as part of reform will not come easy to us, as we tend to be ponderous and make decisions from the top-down.

In paragraph 38 of the WCC document, it is noted that “People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the centre, is out of view.” How do we insure that we include the voices from the margins in order to make them part of the mission, rather than just those whom mission is imposed on?

Can You Hear Me Now? by Susan Snook

“Can you hear me now?” was the theme of an advertising campaign a few years ago.  If I recall correctly, it was a campaign for a cell phone company, showing people standing on their heads, leaning out of windows, hopping on one foot, etc., trying to get better cell phone reception.

Cell phone service is a bit better these days, but I think we are hearing each other less and less.  The image of an aging movie star talking to an empty chair at a political convention is perhaps emblematic of the age we live in, no matter which political party you sympathize with.  You can talk all you want to an empty chair, but you never have to listen to anything it says in return.  In fact, if you want to, you can put your own words in its, umm, mouth, and have a conversation with yourself.  God forbid you should have a conversation with someone you disagree with.

The gospel lesson we had on Sunday, Sept. 9 (Mark 7:24-37) surely has to be on every preacher’s list of her/his least favorite gospels to preach on.  Yet surely, if we open our ears the way Jesus opened the ears of the deaf man, surely this gospel has something very important to say to our age of closed ears and closed hearts.

I’ve read various excuses for the way Jesus behaves in this passage – calling a poor, desperate woman seeking healing for her beloved daughter a “dog.”  And I’m not satisfied with any of them.  I don’t think he was justified in testing her – I don’t find that any more attractive than calling her names.  I don’t think he was conspiring with her, winking at her as he called her a dog, while he tested the disciples to see what they would do.  I don’t think he was calling her a cute little fluffy puppy.  I don’t think he was telling her just to wait a little while and her turn would come.

I think he meant what he said – he believed that his mission was only to the Jews.

But then she spoke, and he listened.  Jesus changed his mind.

And yes, lots of us have trouble with the idea that Jesus might have changed his mind.  We want him to be all-perfect and all-knowing, from the very beginning.  We want him to have sprung full-grown from the womb of his blessed mother, reciting the complete works of Shakespeare (which hadn’t been written yet, but that wouldn’t matter to the Son of God).

But Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, so what if he needed to go through life learning and discerning his mission, just like we do?  What if he relied on the same cues we rely on to learn what God is calling us to do?  What if he had to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time talking with the people of God, and work to listen to the surprising insights brought by other people, in order to understand his mission, bit by bit?

He would be like us.  Because that’s what we have to do.  We have to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time in Christian community, and work to listen to the surprising insights of the people around us, in order to understand the mission of our church.

Why are we restructuring the church?  Why are our attendance and finances in decline?  Why is everything around us changing, and why are we failing to change alongside it all?  Why are we in an Acts 8 Moment?

Maybe we haven’t been listening to the people around us.  Maybe we’ve been answering questions they haven’t been asking.  Maybe we’ve been fighting battles they’ve already settled.  Maybe they have been listening to the sheer deafening volume of noise coming from the church, and they have just gotten tired of our shouting.

So what if we tried listening for a change?  What if we went to our neighborhoods and the people we serve and asked them what problems and issues are on their hearts and minds?  What if we sat down with community leaders and asked them what are the biggest problems in our cities, and what could we do to serve the people in them?  What if we asked our non-Christian neighbor where she finds God, or spirituality, or ultimate meaning, and truly listened to what she had to say?  I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, but evangelism begins by meeting people where they are.   What if we tried to listen and then discern what kind of emptiness God is calling the church to fill?

If Jesus listened to someone and changed the way he understood his mission, so can we.  Can we hear them now?