I was excited and hopeful about what God wanted to say to the 240 Mennonite Brethren leaders from 36 countries who attended the March 2017 ICOMB consultation on mission and prayer. But I carried a burden about a few things related to our understanding of the church’s mission. I was also eager to call us to experience together the vital connection between mission and prayer.
Do we understand who God is?
Our missionary identity is primarily found in the triune God (Eph. 1:11-14, 17). God in three persons exists in eternal communion. Our missionary task is grounded in the Father who sent Jesus to Earth and the Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus—and ultimately the church. Trinitarian theology points to the radical communal nature of God that overflows into the foundations of mission.
But God is not easily known and understood. The Trinity as a doctrine has been misunderstood and even denigrated in the past. Someone has said it’s impossible to know God. But you have to know him in order to know that! God is not just a “greater god.” He is “another other” kind of divine being (Isa. 46:9). This is critical to get right—and most Christians don’t.
Let us be a little humble. We cannot assume that God is especially affirming of our cultural ways, our preferred idea of the gospel. Given a chance, indigenous people cultivate better ideas for contextualizing the gospel; it’s been going on for two millennia.
Do we understand the church’s mission?
The church is the divine community—the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22–23). The church is what salvation looks like. Salvation is not really an individual proposition. Our individualistic culture and doctrine of “personal salvation” undermines this truth. It took me years of meditating on these verses in Ephesians to begin to grasp the stunning place of the church. The church—and the Mennonite Brethren church as part of it—is, like God, “another other” kind of thing.
Mission is the function of the church, not a mission agency. We need the specialization of mission agencies, but we must not lose track of the church’s centrality to mission. God is accomplishing his mission through the church, meaning mission work doesn’t just “save (individual) souls” but plants local churches and establishes new church associations. I realize mission stories focus on individuals for a reason but it undermines the thought that mission work isn’t done until a new MB association is started and reaching people in its context.
We have a confessional identity. It provides guiding principles for life and mission. We have hidden our identity recently. Sometimes we promote other statements of faith. Can we be proud of our Mennonite Brethren identity?
Let’s take seriously that we are a 150-year-old church called “Mennonite Brethren.” The U.S. Conference is the oldest, dating back to the 1870s. But Canadian and India Conferences date back to 1888 and 1889 respectively. Meanwhile, though MB Mission is the “mother” agency, MB mission agencies are developing in India, Brazil, Colombia, Europe and DR Congo.
Today, we envision mission “from everywhere to everywhere” within our own MB family. We obviously partner with other agencies and denominations, but we do need to (re)capture our vision as a specific church family on mission. And we need to support that with prioritized prayer and giving.
Onesphor, a leader in Burundi, has started a series of churches that want to be Mennonite Brethren. He loves our Confession of Faith. Will we support him? Or might we starve one of our orphan babies through “identity neglect”? This is the real-time challenge of a denominational family.
Do we see mission as communal?
The communal character of God and the church tell us that mission is communal. Mission, like God and the church, is something of “another order” too.
A globally shaped gospel must be characterized in weakness (Phil. 2:5-11) to counter the previous centuries where the gospel spread on colonialist power. The Anabaptists began on the margins. Can we reorient to that as a global family of faith? Our heritage is a gift. But missionaries from a culture of wealth and power are too often blind to the ways their culture affects their worldview, their gospel—in fact, everything. In his book poignantly titled Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboy, Richard Twiss, North American Indigenous theologian, tells powerful stories illustrating such “self-myopia” coming from a position of power.
Further, receiving cultures have the capacity to theologize and work in mission as “church.” We need an everywhere-to-everywhere gospel. We, Mennonite Brethren in more than 36 nations, have potential to reach many parts of the world. And we are.
But there’s an elephant in the room: white power. Originally white race-based theology started with the assumption that indigenous people were children or worse. South African scholar Rothney Tsaka says African (Black) Theology began as a project to show whites that Africans were actually human. The issue of African Theology and white response wasn’t on the table for a long time, until African voices finally were heard. The white response was, “Don’t assert yourself; know your place.” When these “new” voices insisted, white patterns were to withdraw: “Keep the peace; this confrontation is unseemly.”
Our “daughter” conferences, often in colonized or marginalized cultures, are developing their voice. Global mission means we listen to them and learn together on a host of important theological and churchly issues!
Prayer and mission
I used to think, “I need to improve my prayer life.” Then a Christian leader said, “Your life is your prayer.” Similarly, mission is the prayer of the church.
The way we do mission reflects the indwelling Way, the Truth and the Life.
The Way showed us how the life of prayer prepares us for life, ministry and danger. The Way stood with perfect calm before Pilate, before Herod and before the Sanhedrin. The Way showed us how to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit to stay calm, grounded and well-resourced as a person. A spiritual warrior is tenderhearted and brave, self-aware and attuned to others.
Paul wrote repeatedly about Christ in us. “Christ in us” teaches that it takes time in prayer, fasting and waiting on God to develop our missional heart, a heart sensitive to the receiving culture. Christ in us longs to pray. Christ in us longs to fast. Christ in us longs to pursue the lost with the gospel. Christ in us seeks the lost from a position of vulnerability. This is how prayer and mission of another order come together.
Who in your sphere of life does “Christ in you” love? What does “Christ in you” want to do about that? This is the church on mission through prayer, through each one of us!