Why Should We Care about Global Mission?
by Christa L. von Zychlin (September / October 1998 — Volume 14, Number 5)
Three reasons to keep global missions on the frontburner of the life of Christ's church for the sake of the world.
I just came back from a high school play featuring an archaic looking priest trying to convert purple clad aliens to Christianity. Predictably, the aliens were shown to have been better off before Christianity, which actually corrupted them from their "native innocent" status.
So now, having opened this can of worms, I am facing next week's topic at Youth Night: Why in the world should we "do missions" in this day and age, when it becomes quite clear that Christianity does not solve the world's problems? What about inclusivity, tolerance, and relativism?
And frankly, don't we have more than enough to do with "mission" right here at home? Why should we care about global mission?
I can think of three reasons.
1. It's in the Bible:
Part of the problem seems to be our current use of the term "mission." We church leaders have fallen into the trap of overusing this very specific word in the Christian context to cover everything from feeding the hungry (a necessary and very worthwhile enterprise) to building new church buildings for ourselves in the suburbs (worthwhile perhaps, but at least questionable under the definition of "mission" in the biblical sense.)
Our basic understanding of and motivation for mission comes, of course, from Matthew 28:18-20, a passage which I think should be learned by heart by every one of our Lutheran confirmands, and which certainly could stand as the Lord's own "mission statement" for our churches.
Here, in the same breath with which Jesus commands us to baptize and to teach obedience to God's Word, our risen Lord also tells us that the context for all of this is "all nations."
In the Greek, the words for all nations (panta ta ethne) actually translate more accurately as "all cultural groups." In the accounts of the first missions of the church in Acts and the epistles, it is clear that the church was urged by the Spirit to continually cross its own Judaic and Greek cultural boundaries in order to speak the gospel in all places and to all peoples.
Actually, it is only when we cross cultural boundaries, even "at home," that we are fulfilling God's mission. Chances are that the folks using the food pantry and those living in the upscale development both belong to cultural groups different from those most of us middle class clergy and rostered lay ministers are part of.
And those teenagers applying makeup in the women's room, these too, taken seriously, are panta ta ethne — all cultures — and biblically speaking, a part of global mission.
Why should we care about global mission? Because God and God's Word both do.
2. We experience Christ's church more fully through global mission.
Here are three ways in which my family and I have experienced the community of faith more fully through global mission:
(a) Every year my husband, Wayne Nieminen, and I go to Global Mission Events. And every year, we come back with the feeling that God has opened a window for us and allowed us a glimpse of what God the Holy Spirit is doing around the world beyond our small rooms and borders.
For example, in 1988 we heard about the radical freedom in Christ which permitted South African Christians to fight against apartheid. Many years we have experienced the extravagant joy of Latin American percussion music at worship. Two years ago we heard about Bethlehem Christians in Palestine as they struggle to remain obedient to Christ's teachings amidst poverty and racism. Another year we attended a workshop telling about the powerful explosion of lay-led Christianity in China.
All of these experiences give us a hint of God's possibilities, even right here today, in Ames, Iowa!
(b) Because we are committed to mutual global mission among cultures, Wayne and I once had the privilege of hosting an Ethiopian pastor, Iteffa Gobema, at our home. One memorable evening Pastor Gobema described to us the torture he had endured as a church leader during the communist government prosecution, and how his church had come daily to the jail cell with food and letters of encouragement.
Another evening he asked us how old the leadership of our church was, and then proceeded to tell us how the leadership of the Ethiopian church comes mostly from the young people, especially teenagers.
"Perhaps," he suggested gently, "your American church would do well to look to the young people, too, because that is where God has granted a vision, and a passion for his Word." This totally changed the way that I look at teenagers, and gets me excited about possibilities for renewal in the Lutheran church in the United States.
(c) About twice a year, Bethesda (the parish where I work) holds a global missions worship emphasis. Recently we were able to host Bishop Msangi of our companion synod in Tanzania. Our church choir polished up some of the more exotic hymns from the With One Voice songbook and parishoners hosting Bishop Msangi in their homes scrambled to find something good to cook. Children in Sunday School looked at maps to find out exactly where our "companion synod" brothers and sisters in Christ might live.
It's fun to see the horizons of our parish broadened by these experiences. The world really is larger than our shopping malls, schools, and jobs! We found ourselves experiencing a kinship with a group of people we had never met but with whom we are intimately related through the invisible blood ties of faith in Christ.
"Good" Good News
3. Why Care? Because the Good News is too good not to share.
One of the best answers to the question of why we should do global mission comes from a 40-year veteran on the mission fields of Cameroon and of the United States.
With lined face and blue eyes, and Norwegian features with God's humor on his brow, Ron Nelson smiles when someone in our congregation somewhat testily asks him if he goes over "there" because he thinks Christians are better than others.
In traditional African (and biblical!) fashion, Pastor Nelson answers with a story:
One day in our home in Africa, we asked Bangoowo, a Fulani Muslim to fell a tree for us. The tree fell in the fork of another tree so that he had to go up and chop it out. Another young man, Umaru, came along just then wanting to work, and I told him to go up and help Bangoowo chop the tree out of the other one.
As they worked, Bangoowo noticed where Umaru was standing and said in alarm,
"You'd better move! When the tree goes, you will go with it!"
No sooner had he said it than the tree fell, and Umaru went with it. He got a concussion, and we took him to the hospital. He got all set up in a room with the medical people doing what they could for him.
We missionaries were all turning to leave when Bangoowo said, "We can't leave Umaru here all alone!" So he went and got a grass mat, thinner than cardboard and spent that night and then three more with Umaru whom he had never met until that day.
Ron smiles and adds, "I would never have that kind of love and compassion. So, no. I don't go as a missionary because I think Christians are better people than others."
Our parishioner pursues the conversation. "Well, do you go because you feel that we Americans have a better way of life?"
Ron smiles again as he describes for us the hundreds of times he and his wife, Ruth, had visited the nomadic Fulani Muslims at their homes, in the bush.
"Nowhere, no not even here in Iowa, could you find warmer, more gracious, more thoughtful hospitality. Their way of life may be rugged and simple, but it is graced with unsurpassed hospitality. No, we don't go as missionaries because we have a better life than they."
The parishioner tries yet again. "Is it because you are more religious than they?" Here Ron actually bursts out laughing. "If you have ever lived close to devout Muslims, you know we are not more religious than they," and he told this story:
For two months we lived in a village just across the road from the mosque. So at 4:30 each morning, Ruth and I were awakened to the tune of: Allahu Akbar — -. We would groan and roll over and wonder when the muezzin would finish.
But then he would come to the part: Assalaatu khayru minin nawm — prayer is better than sleep! So much as to say "Get up you lazy Lutherans!"
Then I recall how I think I'm doing well to squeeze in a few minutes each day for prayer and meditation. Muslims do it five times a day! No we don't evangelize because we are more religious than they.
We do it simply because every woman, man, and child in this world has a right to know how much God has loved them and loves them in Jesus. They have a right to get to know the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and to have a chance to respond to the love God is so eager to shower upon them.
They have a right to get to know the Jesus who, because he gave himself unto death, has now been given the name at which every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth shall bend. They have a right to come to the point where they too can boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God.
Why We Care
So here's my plan for the youth group next Wednesday night. We will talk about the high school play. We will open up our Bibles. We will share stories from missionaries and Christians of various cultures. I will put in a plug for the upcoming Global Missions Event.
And we will remember and rehearse why the person of Jesus Christ is of infinite importance for every woman, man, and child in every culture and ethnic group of the world. He is risen from the dead and he is Lord!
And that's why we should care about global missions.
Christa L. von Zychlin is a pastor at Bethesda Lutheran Church, Ames, Iowa. She and her husband, Wayne Nieminen, worked in Central African Republic as ELCA missionaries from 1990-1995.