I believe the word “mission” has outlived its usefulness. You see variations of the word all over Christendom – missional, missions, missio Dei, missionary, missiology. It’s used mainly to describe the work of bringing news about Jesus and the kingdom of God to others. But the word grew out of the exploitative quest to acquire land, labor and raw materials in a European bid for global hegemony in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries.[i] Catholic missions of that era tended to hop in bed with political rulers while, two centuries later, Protestant missions did the same thing with trading companies. In both cases the word “mission” and the practice of mission got tangled up in political, military and economic subjugation.
Those who follow Jesus are to live as a renewed creation. Their invitation, with their words as with their lives, is to become citizens of a new country; one where sinners receive forgiveness, the blind receive sight, the oppressed receive freedom, and the poor have news about a better life brought to them. This version of mission is incompatible with the corporate-capitalist mission for economic gain or the State mission for political hegemony. The mission of God bears little resemblance to the mission of human empires.
For many centuries the growth of the Church happened without the support of kings or the formation of business-shaped missionary enterprises. Missiologist Timothy Tennent says of one of the early Protestant missionaries, William Carey, “as a Protestant, rejecting the Catholic, monastic forms of mission, [Carey] had no ecclesiastical structures to look to for guidance. So, he proposed a mission society based largely upon the model of secular trading societies, which were being organized for commercial purposes.”[ii]
British and Dutch Protestants each developed their own East India Companies as investment opportunities; vehicles for the rich to advantage themselves of the winds of trade that commercial shipping had afforded. Christian mission hopped aboard with the help of these profit-oriented enterprises. The Dutch East India Company was explicitly engaged in Christian mission, founding its own missionary training school and contracting missionaries to join their commercial ventures by compensating them for each baptism they performed.[iii]
Oddly enough, while Christian mission in those centuries was thoroughly “of this world,” it was never really “in this world,” or at least not the world into which it was trying to graft itself.
The process of colonization worked best if the Europeans running it could operate overseas within a European culture housed inside European systems and structures. This required a conviction that European culture was superior to anything offered by the “natives” among whom they had come to do business. To colonize meant necessarily having to reproduce versions of Europe inside the borders of Africa, Asia and the Americas. When missionaries translated this paradigm into their efforts for expanding God’s kingdom, it took the shape of a missionary corporation, shaped like the political or commercial organizations which sponsored them. These organizations were run by boards of wealthy philanthropists, businessmen and politicians who sent western clergy and missionaries to live within western compounds preaching a gospel shaped by western thought.
While both Catholic and Protestant mission have come a long way, I still find many Christian efforts tinged with the supremacy, conquest and triumphalism that infected her vision of mission during the age of colonization. Too many church and mission communities today live within physical and cultural compounds preaching a colonizing version of the gospel.
The kingdom of God does not grow by colonization.
What’s missing in many of our efforts to bring good news to others is a generous listening to those among whom we serve, a callous disregard of the wisdom of community elders who don’t yet profess Christ, a gospel encrusted with our own culture, and a posture which communicates, “I know what you need better than you do.”
I’m in favor of adopting different nomenclature than the colonially-tainted word “mission.” How about using a variation of the Greek words for disciple or apostle, or why not try on words that communicate the idea of renewal and new birth? Michael Frost and Christina Rice suggest the language of midwifery in their soon-to-be-released book To Alter the World. But more than changing our nomenclature, let us at least break free of the notion of fashioning others in our image and building God’s kingdom like we build human empires. Let’s scrutinize the overly individualistic, highly privatized, excessively commercialized, European version of the gospel exported through capitalist-shaped entities. And let us listen well to our neighbors, honor the wisdom of tribal elders, and live out the reality of a new creation in this world without succumbing to the imperialistic, Empire-building ways of this world.
[i] See David Bosch (1991), Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books p. 227-8
[ii]Timothy Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 261.
[iii] Orlando E. Costas (1982), Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, p.60