The question of how American Presbyterians do mission work in an era of globalization — and what those in declining mainline denominations in the U.S. can learn from the faithful in the rest of the world — is very much on the minds of some in the church these days.
Among the questions being asked:
What changes should American churches be making in the way they approach international mission?
What lessons can be learned from the tremendous growth of the Christian church in parts of the southern hemisphere, and from the mission efforts initiated by churches from other countries?
What are the implications of the trend for congregations and individual Presbyterians to be involved directly in mission work?
What do young adults bring to the mix — what excites them and what aren’t they willing to tolerate?
Presbyterians are likely to be deep in conversation about this throughout the fall, in part through two upcoming conferences focused on global mission challenges.
From Oct. 20-22, The Outreach Foundation and Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, along with the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), will hold a conference called “From Everywhere to Everyone: The New Global Mission” at Peachtree church in Atlanta. Plenary speakers will include Christian leaders from Egypt, Ghana, Peru and Scotland, and workshops will include discussions of what’s happening on the ground everywhere from Brazil to Turkey to Kenya to China.
The idea is to “bring Presbyterians together and listen to leaders from around the world who are going to come and share with us about what God is doing in the places where they are working,” said Rob Weingartner, executive director of The Outreach Foundation, which works to build relationships with churches around the world. “We think that’s going to be a tremendous encouragement and a tremendous invitation to Presbyterians here in the United States, both to think about our continuing role in the proclamation of the gospel but also to think about the gifts that we have to receive from the global church.”
And from Sept. 9-11, the Witherspoon Society will convene a gathering at Stony Point Conference Center outside of New York City, in cooperation with the Worldwide Ministries Division and Stony Point. This event, called “Dancing with God: Global Mission on the Edge,” is designed in part to give young adult volunteers and others interested in hands-on mission work a chance to brainstorm about how the church can work internationally for peace and justice.
There are lots of ideas being discussed.
But one point of agreement seems to be this: things aren’t as they used to be, and mainline churches in the U.S. can learn a lot from Christians elsewhere, if they’re willing to listen.
“Mission no longer is from the West to the rest,” Weingartner said.
Most of the growth of Christianity is now outside the United States and Europe, and Weingartner said he thinks Presbyterians from the U.S. can learn important things by understanding more about “the amazing things that are taking place” around the globe.
Churches in some countries are growing at stunning rates — “the church in China is probably growing faster than the church has grown at any time in any place,” Weingartner said. Churches in places such as South Korea, India and Brazil are sending out their own missionaries, spreading the gospel around the world.
As American Presbyterians think about mission, “part of it I think is just getting into people’s thinking the fact that we are not the only people out there doing this,” said Bill Young, executive director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. “We’ve got I think a lot of congregations that assume if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. They don’t realize how much things have changed in the world.”
But “the church in Korea, the church in Brazil, the church in India, they’re all sending out missionaries all over the place,” Young said. And many of their own countries are ethnically and religiously diverse — so their congregations often have more experience with multicultural worship and ministry than do Presbyterian churches in the U.S.
In Ethiopia, for example, the church reaches out in ministry in holistic ways — putting schools in communities, running hospitals, providing needed services. “They’re sharing the faith and seeing their church grow,” Young said. “It’s five million people now” — double the membership of the PC(USA) — “and growing still like crazy. And hard to keep up with — they keep spreading from one ethnic group to another. It’s just part of life for them,” to be constantly changing and reaching out.
Another piece of the picture is changing multicultural reality for Presbyterian congregations in the U.S. — a sense that immigration and demographic shifts are changing many American communities and that Presbyterians need to respond. The Outreach Foundation, for example, has hired a staff member to work with Portuguese-speaking immigrants and is bringing on another to work with Arabic-speaking people.
“The world is coming to the United States,” Weingartner said. “Often the people who speak a different language and live with different cultural norms are down the street or across the street, not on the other side of the ocean.”
Weingartner contends that U.S. churches need to reconsider some basic understandings of mission work.
At the October conference, “part of what we’re going to hear about is the dynamic growth and an understanding of mission that conceives of mission not as something the church does, a program of the church, but really as the purpose of the church,” he said.
In the West, the church often feels marginalized, and some people struggle with what they perceive as the decline of Christendom, Weingartner said. Mainline denominations such as the PC(USA) are torn by political infighting over issues such as whether to ordain gays and lesbians, over theological understandings, and by what some perceive as a struggle between justice and evangelism.
But things often look different in places such as Africa or South America, where there’s often an intense sense of how God’s presence is integrated into all things, Weingartner said. “Most Christians in the majority world, what some call the two-thirds world, have more sense of the sovereignty of God than we do as Western people, an understanding that all of life has to do with God and God has to do with all of life.”
There also will be conversation about what role the denominational structure plays in directing Presbyterian mission work — how that used to be, and how it’s changing. Many congregations and individual Presbyterians have become involved, getting on planes, pursuing a passion, linking up with schools and hospitals and orphanages and Bible translators and evangelists working all over the world. Some work through para-church groups, some through mission networks, some through the PC(USA).
At the recent New Wineskins meeting, for example — a gathering of Presbyterians exploring alternate structures and directions for the church — people were seeking connections with others who share a common vision for mission, said Elaine Vaden, executive director of the Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies in Pasadena. The point of linkage is “vision and life and community,” she said, “as opposed to structure.”
The PC(USA) needs to listen to today’s young adults, many of whom are well-traveled, open to multi-cultural learning, and more attuned to relationship and a sense of authenticity in ministry than they are loyal to any particular program or institution, said Vaden, who will lead a workshop at the October gathering on engaging post-modern generations in ministry.
“First of all, I think the church has to realize that doing things the way we’ve always done it is not going to reach post-moderns,” those born roughly from 1970 on, Vaden said. “We have to become learners of this new culture.”
For one thing, “travel is much more part of the normal reality of this generation,” she said. “Whereas my generation would say, ‘I’ll travel when I retire,’ this generation makes travel a part of their priorities.”
In her previous job, working with young adults at Glendale Church in southern California, “month-long trips to China and going to build houses in Botswana — that was just a normal part of life” for many in their 20s and 30s, Vaden said. “They might postpone buying a house or something else because they want to experience the world.”
She also sees today’s young adults being attuned to cross-cultural understanding. “I think it comes in a sense from globalization,” Vaden said. “All of their media is international. They respect and admire the music of other cultures . . . Film is international.”
And the PC(USA) can learn, Vaden, said, by listening to these young adults, encouraging them to take leadership, following their direction — as well as being open to the views of Presbyterians who are involved in mission work outside the structures of the PC(USA).
“I do think we have a great challenge to be as creative as we can be,” she said. “We can’t say, ‘We’ve been doing mission in Sudan for 50, 60 years, why don’t you give your funds to us?’ What we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Are we as creative as the para-church groups?’ “ If a congregation is supporting mission work with groups outside the PC(USA), “why do they resonate with that group as opposed to what we’re offering through the church?”
Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly, has written several times in his online blog http://www.what-i-see.blogspot.com about what he’s learning about mission. (click here for more on Rick’s trip to Africa)
Among his conclusions: The PC(USA) needs more longterm missionaries, not fewer.
“Our national staff plays a pivotal role in the formation of mission networks in countries where we have partners” — more than two dozen have been established so far, linking congregations, presbyteries and synods with a zeal for work in a particular part of the world.
He has asked this question: “What if Presbyterians were known, once again, as a people who are going to the margins in the farthest corners of the world where God’s good news and the witness of Jesus Christ is most needed? What if we acted as if being Christian, and maybe even being Presbyterian, was the most important thing in our lives? What if we created an ethic where it is normal and even expected for Presbyterians to give significant time to going out into the world in mission?”
And, during his trip to Africa in May, Ufford-Chase wrote about what he had seen and learned in worship in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“There here is much to be learned from these congregations. The hallmark of worship here is that it involves the mind, soul and body. People are up and dancing and singing for much of the time. Children are included — one of the choirs was the best children’s choir I’ve ever heard. People are clearly there because this kind of worship lifts them up and carries them through a very difficult week. One person told me that he believes people come here to worship because God helps them to forget how difficult their lives are. The women’s choir had written a song this week that had the refrain, ‘If Jesus chooses you, don’t be afraid. He is right behind you.’
“This is worship that knows that we depend on God. There is no illusion among the Congolese people whom I’ve met, ninety-eight percent of whom are poor enough to live hand-to-mouth each day, that they can make it on their own. These are folks who turn to God because God is joy in the midst of suffering.
“I find myself wondering more and more what it would take to reclaim that kind of experience of God in our church.”