Friday, October 17, 2014

Reflecting on Mission

Last Sunday was Mission Festival at a local church. I went to hear what the speaker- a dynamic young man with the Board of World Mission had to say and to worship in support of the ideal of missions. Mission Festivals have been a significant part of the life of the Moravian Church (and others) for a long time. The Moravians were the first Protestant missionaries, sending the first workers to the West Indies in the early 1730s. They went to share the Gospel with the slaves, not a particularly popular thing among the slave owners. The first missionary even went so far as to proclaim that he would become a slave if he had to in order to share the Gospel with them.

When I became a Christian at age 15 it was through a mission-oriented Baptist congregation. There was a mission training facility a few miles up the road and one of the sons of the congregation was a mission worker through them. Every year or so he would come home on furlough and share his work with the congregation which was giving him financial support. In addition we would regularly get letters from him outlining what he was doing. This was out version of the Mission Festival and always was moving and exciting to me.

So it should come as little surprise to anyone (but me, of course) that when I found a denomination that I felt called to be part of and to be ordained in, the Moravian Church, mission pioneers, was where I settled. I have been part of the church now for over 43 years, forty of those as an ordained pastor. Mission work has, of course, changed and, in reality, expanded to something I find even more exciting than I did back in my high school years. Mission has become far more than the sharing of the words and promise of the Gospel. It is now sharing the heart, life, healing, and soul of the Gospel where it needs to be shared.

This, too, was part of the early Moravian mission work and there are many stories about care and concern beyond simply converting the unbelievers. But it has been the changes in world cultures, technology and the self-understanding of the church that has made the biggest impact, taking the basic understanding of mission into more than it ever was.

One of the ways I understood this was to begin with the people at home and introduce them to mission as something THEY do, something they are engaged in. It becomes, at that point, a combined educational and missional experience. I first learned this through a Lutheran Church in Greenwich Village when I was doing an internship in Bethlehem, PA. The church in New York would bring youth from outside the city into the Village for a weekend of what the city was about. They had a mission to runaways and, in those days of the early 70s that was significant. It was quite an experience. When I moved to my first Moravian congregation, I signed up to take a group. Later we went to another Moravian Church on Staten Island to experience the city and its potential for mission.

You see what I learned at Operation Eyeopener was that when you enter New York City you are simply placing a big magnifying glass over the problems and needs. The same problems and needs are to be found in your local community. Once you can begin to see them, you can begin to minister to them. To me that was an essential and basic understanding of what the Christian Church is to be. Without that, we are nothing but a country club. (I do have a way of exaggerating for emphasis.) A few years later I moved to Wisconsin where a “mission trip” movement was beginning at the church I was called to serve. The day I was installed as pastor, one of the members was in Alaska on a mission trip. The point was not lost.

Three years later I arranged a trip of about 15 youth and adults to travel east from Wisconsin to New York City where the denomination had a food program for the homeless and were about to open housing for older people who had been homeless. We raised the money and traveled by train in what may have been one of the first such mission trips from the Western District. Others began to organize trips for adults to Central America and the West Indies. It took off- and hasn’t stopped.

There was some initial push-back from others, though not usually from the congregation itself. Other pastors would periodically say that we shouldn’t be spending the money that way or that it wasn’t really mission. We were simply doing tourism. While there is some truth in that, it is as much educational as it is mission so that when we got home we were more mission-aware. Adults or youth would invariably comment that they were touched, moved, changed by the experiences. Interestingly some of those clergy who raised concerns would later go on their own mission trips and become convinced of the importance and power of the experience.

As a result of some major work in the Southern Province along with a number of lay people from the Western District the whole mission trip experience expanded in the 90s and 2000s to include a number of different opportunities. Some of us even began to also take youth to places like the West Indies, Jamaica, or Native American reservations. Friendships were made, rebuilding work was done, mission was expanded.

I thought of all those things last Sunday listening to the next generation of mission leadership challenging us to keep our vision. The work of the church – what we call “mission”- is alive and well. It is just as essential as it ever has been. No, it is not always bringing people to Jesus. It is often more like taking Jesus to them.

I am excited for the future of the mission of the church. The “church” is at a time of change and uncertainty. Politics and fundamentalism have combined forces in our world to distort the message of Jesus into something I don’t believe Jesus would recognize. It is not a triumphalist attitude that mission work promotes. It is just the opposite. It is like the first Moravian missionary, willing to become a slave in order to share the Gospel.

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