The coals symbolize the heart of the home: the warmth, the food, and the good cheer. The Christian life is also illustrated by this custom. From generation to generation and place to place, Christians give away the fire of their lives.
With this said, how then are missions a part of spiritual formation? “Obviously,” one might reply, “they are a part because spiritual formation goes on continuously, one just has to breathe and the Spirit in an infinite number of ways is molding us.” But this is unconscious spiritual formation, what we want to know is the role of missions and spiritual formation. To put the question in another way: God has called his covenant children to the Church and the Church is the carrier of the love of God to the world, how does our participation this mission contribute our spiritual formation?
To answer let us remind ourselves that by our baptism our aloneness has been washed away so we can enjoy our interdependence with one another and the Lord. Missions participate in our spiritual formation by making this interdependence very, very visible. A sick person drinks if you give them water, if not, they suffer or die.
The humanist picture of maturity as being self-sufficiency is not taught in the Scriptures but it has very much infiltrated the Church. Take the thoughtless acceptance of the adage, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” What is wrong with that one might ask? It leaves no room for becoming a brother or a sister of the man for a lifetime. Listen now to a paraphrase and see if you don’t notice a difference. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you can fish together for a lifetime.”
Another example of humanistic self-sufficiency sneaking into the Church is heard in the words “We want to be of help but we don’t want to create a dependency.” These noble-sounding words are the death of spiritual formation because they negate the essence of community, the total reliance upon one another. The proper response to such a platitude is “You don’t have to worry about creating a dependency because God has already done that for you. It is His plan for his children of the world to be dependent upon one another.” If we deny the reality of dependency, missions efforts cease to be spiritual formation and become basically an exercise in the redistribution of excess wealth.
Finally the humanist ideal of independence as the highest good has taught us all to pay for it. Since we do not want to be plumbers, we hire a plumber and when we don’t want to do mission work we make a generous offering to a person or agency to take of it for us. This removes Church members from the primary context in which spiritual formation occurs — the context of intimate, mutual dependency.
The problem of mission by agency is that it allows people to believe they are doing the right thing while they miss out on being remade in the image of Christ. It is like they are buying good food but only eating the sweets they like. That sounds harsh and certainly a chorus will sing out their rebuttal, “Of course we give to missionaries and mission agencies and there is no reason to apologize! The Apostle Paul was a mission agent of the church in Antioch. Not everyone is called to Timbuktu!” Yes this is true, but it misses the point of spiritual formation. The church in Antioch did both — it sent Paul and did missions at home. Few Presbyterian churches have a majority of their members participating directly in missions. Rather most are two steps removed. They give to the church and then the church gives to a mission endeavor. In this way church members serve God and remain independent at the same time!
Spiritual formation is a process and believers will always have varying degrees of commitment. My intention is not to criticize but to re-call us to a basic principle: there is no Christian spiritual formation outside of life together. Mission as spiritual formation begins and ends with our being a part of one another. With missions by agency, the giving of oneself to the Church to be an instrument of sharing the love of the Lord is forfeit.
In spiritual formation there is simply no possible role for an agent. Think of it this way. Our physical bodies need exercise. We cannot hire an agent to exercise on our behalf and still expect to have a good healthy body! Why then do we imagine our churches can be healthy when they hire others to do mission work for them? For an even more powerful image think of our Lord; he did not send an agent to the cross! Every Christian is by definition a missionary of the Church and to imagine that our offerings exempt us from service makes about as much sense as thinking we can pay someone to say our prayers for us. We give ourselves to God or we hold back like the rich young man who had too much to give away so he left Jesus.
To return to our opening metaphor:
· No one can give away the fire of your life for you.
· And there is no spiritual formation without giving away the fire that God gave you.
This is the relationship of missions and spiritual formation.
DON WEHMEYER is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker in Mérida, Mexico. He directs the School of Continuing Education at San Pablo Theological Seminary in Mexico.