Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You’re off “helping the poor” somewhere—soup kitchen, homeless shelter, outdoor church ministry, wherever. This is great. You’re participating in “mission,” which has become the buzziest buzzword in the church in recent years.
But the focus has become the actual task at hand: making the sandwiches to feed the people at the outdoor church, cutting the carrots to make the soup. Somehow, the focus on the people you were supposed to be working with has been lost, subsumed beneath the never-ending mountain of need you’re encountering.
I know this feeling well—extremely well, as a matter of fact. When I was a missionary in South Africa, it was easy to let the tasks at hand overwhelm the reality that what mattered was building relationships with the people in the community where I worked. Since I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve seen these same dynamics at play, like the time I helped a group make sandwiches for an outdoor church and then, when we arrived, watched as our group, myself included, handed out the sandwiches with utmost efficiency—and nary a word spoken to any of the people attending the church. Watching the situation I thought to myself, “Hmmm… something’s missing here.”
Mission is not a cost-free enterprise. It’s not something that we can fit into a little box—Sunday afternoon, 2 to 4, mission—and then go on with the rest of our life. It’s about an approach to life, one that demands that we engage with those who are different than us, whether they are just down the street or halfway across the world. It’s what Jesus did when he chatted with the woman at the well. It is, ultimately, what God in Christ did in the moment of the Incarnation, coming to we who were “far off” and engaging with us. Difference exists in this world (and we are ever more aware of it as our world is drawn closer and closer together). Mission is what happens when we encounter it in a Christ-like way.
And it’s all kind of scary and unsettling. It’s much nicer to have all the answers—to know exactly how many sandwiches we need or how many gallons of soup—than to have none but strike up a conversation and see where it leads. But if we want the Gospel to unsettle the world, it must first unsettle us.
One thing that is missing, then, from the church’s conversation about mission is what might be called a “spirituality of mission.” I owe this phrase to the work of Gustavo Gutierrez, who has written of the need for a “spirituality of liberation” to go along with his theology of liberation. His question is how to get people who are poor and oppressed to see that liberation can begin with them, in spite of the years of oppression.
How do we become the people who can overcome our fear and reach out to those who are different than us? We do that by cultivating our relationship with God in Christ, the one whose most frequent teaching was “fear not,” and who modeled exactly what the fearlessness looks like and exactly where it can lead.
What gives you the spiritual resources to continue to engage in God’s mission in the world?