Monday, June 23, 2008

General Assembly reflections part 4

The 218th General Assembly (2008) reflections part 4

Reflections on our World Mission

One of the highlights for me of this week’s General Assembly meeting thus far was the World Mission luncheon on Sunday. (NOTE: We have scheduled the director of World Mission, Hunter Farrell, to be with us in our Presbytery for our April Presbytery meeting.) There is completely new national staff in place in our World Mission office, and I am very supportive of our effort in the church to grow our international mission work. It was very meaningful and moving to sit together at the World Mission luncheon with Christian brothers and sisters from our partner churches all over the world, all of whom express deep gratitude for the mission and ministry of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There are stories upon stories from all around the world of churches that were initially planted, and conversions to Christ that were originally sparked, sometimes several generations ago, by the work of Presbyterian missionaries from the United States.

Hunter Farrell, in a very compelling address, spoke in broad terms of the history of Presbyterian world mission work and offered his vision of this new era. The Presbyterian Church made a massive commitment to world mission more than 150 years. This began the great era of mission work during which we sent our missionaries around the world. Many of our international partners today are churches that were planted and formed in that great era of world mission emphasis. Presbyterian Churches in Korea, Kenya, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and many others were planted by American Presbyterians. Because that era was also a time of limited communication and difficult international travel, our mission strategy was necessarily a “dependent” strategy. That is to say our congregations depended on our General Assembly to do this mission work. The congregations provided the funding, massive amounts of funding, and the General Assembly functioned as a mission sending agency. This was a profoundly successful strategy for doing world mission work.

Everything shifted and changed in our culture through the 1960s. Thus from the 1970s through the 1990s our world mission work shifted to an “independent” strategy. For many reasons, including the breakdown of trust in the church and the flattening of the world with our now easy communication and travel, individual congregations started doing world mission with a local and personal involvement. This is the era when the concept of mission trips started and has become an established part of our mission work. In this era the world mission work of the General Assembly floundered and downsized because congregations were no longer dependent on the General Assembly to engage in world mission. We are now learning the downside of this completely independent strategy for world mission work. I have seen this in the Presbytery of Honduras which simply does not have the resources or leadership to constantly host the vast numbers of American mission trips that are arriving. I have heard, for example, of one Presbyterian mission hospital in Kenya that was completely overwhelmed by the requests of three different American Presbyterian congregations that wanted to bring medical mission teams, each of more than 20 people, in the same month this summer. I have heard the terrible story of a small Presbyterian church in Mexico who organized the painting of the same wall in their town’s park six weeks in row by six different American mission teams because they do not have the resources or leadership to host this annual onslaught of American teams. The real tragedy of this independent, congregational based world mission work is that we have had to cut back on our financial commitment to full-time, fluent in the local language, professional mission workers because our money has shifted to short-term, usually week-long, mission trips.
Are we poised for a new era of world mission commitment? A new era which, obviously, will never return to a strategy in which our congregations are fully dependent on the General Assembly to do mission. A new era which, I hope, with a higher level of trust. A new era which may move us beyond the excesses of a completely independent strategy of world mission in which each congregation does their own thing with little coordination with others who may be working in the same nation. Are we ready to move into a collaborative era of world mission in which congregations, presbyteries and the General Assembly work together with our international church partners. This is clearly the direction in which Hunter Farrell would like to lead our world mission efforts. This is clearly the direction that is being proposed in the concept of mission networks. (I am very involved in the Honduras mission network). There are now 35 mission networks in our church.

Each congregation needs to be directly and personally connected with world mission. Each congregation needs to do mission trips, including international trips. But we also need communication and collaboration with our international church partners so we do not overwhelm them with our arrogant American audacity. We also need to make a serious commitment to the calling and equipping of full-time, professional mission workers serving with long term commitment all around the world. We also need the General Assembly, through the concept of mission networks and the regional liaisons staff people, to help congregations and presbyteries coordinate our world mission efforts so we are not paying thousands of dollars to travel to a foreign nation to paint the same wall six weeks in a row.

It is new day for the church. In the name of Jesus Christ let us make a commitment to world mission.