Getting results, finishing assignments, accomplishing something tangible — we live in a task-oriented culture that has deeply shaped our understanding of ourselves and our way of relating to each other. This cultural mantra has woven its way into our churches and our ministries as well, particularly in the ways that we frame and participate in mission.
For years now, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been committed to doing mission through the discipline of partnership. Partnerships are relational; they take time, commitment and mutual understanding. They open our hearts and our congregations up to transformation, which will change our way of living and being in the world. However, for many congregations, mission still means fixing a problem, building a house or serving a meal for those who need our help. It means accomplishing something. When we talk about mission, both locally and globally, one of the first questions remains the same: “ … but what are we going to do?”
As a young adult, my introduction to the discipline of partnership came through the YAV program. Before we each left for our YAV sites, we talked at length about “being instead of doing,” mutual interdependence and opening our hearts to what God was teaching us through the folks we walked alongside. Living each day with men and women from the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, it became clear immediately how much I needed my hosts. I needed them for basic necessities like learning how to take a matatu (a minibus) or where to buy a loaf of bread, but on a deeper level, I needed to hear their joyful proclamation that God was indeed at work through Christ making all things new. My heart was broken by the injustice I witnessed around me, and I needed to be filled with hope and faithfulness that was not my own.
Reshaping our mission practices takes time and lots of conversation, but congregations who have begun the journey will tell you how transformational it can be. Over time, mission partnerships can shape the life of the whole church. They keep people of all ages connected to and mindful of our brothers and sisters around the world. They provide opportunities for prayer and fellowship. They open our eyes to things we cannot see on our own: our privilege, our gifts, even our weaknesses. Mission partnerships can inspire hard conversations about how our way of life affects others and they give us a glimpse into the life-giving and life-changing power of the Holy Spirit who is at work in every nation and culture.
Base local mission practices on relationships. Even though it can be a difficult journey, there are a number of places to start. Talk about serving dinner at a soup kitchen or collecting clothing donations as opportunities to encounter Christ in the humanity of another person. Invite a mission coworker to spend the weekend with your congregation. Encourage young adults you know to pray about joining the YAV program. Make your next mission experience about spending time with people, not completing a project. When our mission practices focused on mutual transformation instead of efficiency, we can slow down enough to recognize God’s Spirit breaking down the walls that we have built and expanding our sense of community.
There are many great books on the discipline of mission in partnership. I think one of the best is “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service” by Sherron George. There is also Ellie Roscher’s “How Coffee Saved My Life,” which offers a personal account of the beauty and brokenness she experienced as a young adult in mission service.
LAUREN WHEELER SCHARSTEIN is the associate pastor for youth and families at The Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair (N.J.). A Columbia Seminary grad, she previously taught in Kenya with the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program.