Mission, Evangelism, Bearing Witness, and Dialogue: some theological reflections

What are we doing when we engage in ”mission planning”? What do we mean when we talk about “mission”?

The Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church is exploring such questions this year. Our previous Strategic Plan, with its Five Key Pillars, came to a conclusion last year. This year, in conjunction with the Mission Enablement Team from Synod, the Presbytery is developing a new mission plan, to serve as the guiding document for the Presbytery for the next few years. We are taking time in each meeting of Presbytery to focus on this process, drawing on wisdom from right across the Presbytery (country, coast, and capital).

This is my contribution to the initial conversation that is taking place.

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In approaching these questions, it may be helpful to explore a series of related ideas, and distinguish them from one another. Often, when people refer to mission, they mean one of these related ideas : evangelism, testifying (or bearing witness), converting (or proselytising), or perhaps engaging in dialogue. Mission is related to each of these words, but mission is not simply one or more of these words alone.

Mission is what God is doing in the world. It began long ago with the people of Israel, when God sent (missionised) messengers, prophets to speak guidance to the people. In Christian understanding, this mission came to a head when God sent (missionised) Jesus into the world. (The word mission comes from the Latin word missio, which simply means “to send”). We are called to join with this missional initiative, to find where God is already at work in the world.

Evangelism is work that is related to the good news (the evangel, originally a Greek word) … work that is carried out through words, through actions, through being a presence. We are called to undertake this work in the ways that are most appropriate and most fruitful in each particular circumstance. The aim is to make that good news known as a reality for other people. That can be by words, by actions, in personal relationships, in working groups, in communal undertakings.

Testifying or Bearing Witness is offering our words to explain how we have experienced God, how we have been swept up in the mission that God is undertaking in the world, how we have experienced the good news (evangel) in our lives. We are called to communicate our personal experience of this good news carefully, in contextually relevant ways, and in respectful relationship with others. The story is ours to tell!

Conversion is an effort made to change someone’s mind, to turn someone FROM something and TOWARDS something else, to turn them so that they join WITH you in your understanding of things. It necessarily involves persuasion, a focus on convincing, an intention to arrive at a clearly-defined goal. It can all-too-easily teeter over the edge of respectful relationships into unhealthy pressurising behaviour. It needs to be undertaken (if it is seen as important) in a very careful, measured way.

Proselytism is a term that has gained a hard edge over time. It appears in scripture, when new converts to the Jesus movement are called proselytes in Acts. It literally means “coming towards”. But in modern usage it has a harsh edge, often indicating the following of a prescribed formula, involving the use of pressure tactics, sometimes with verbal force that goes beyond mere conversation. It’s not something that I personally see as important—or even valid—in undertaking mission.

Dialogue is another word that needs to be considered when we think about mission. Dialogue means to “speak across”; to speak another person and appreciate them in their own right, valuing who they are and what they have to offer, engaging them in conversation that seeks mutual growth and deepened understanding of each other. Inevitably, in my experience, such conversations, when they facilitate genuine mutual encounters, can lead to new understandings, renewed commitments, and revitalised faith. And that is at the heart of mission!

So there is a cluster of activities that need to be considered when considering mission:

evangelism and witnessing to your faith (telling and showing the good news from your personal perspective)

developing respectful relationships with other people (building respectful relationships that enable deep sharing)

community engagement with local groups (working in practical ways on a common cause, and in so doing, deepening relationships)

the ministry of presence in the community (simply “being there”, indicating that you are open to engagement and conversation with others)

developing faithful disciples (working intentionally to deepen understanding, enliven passion, broaden commitment, strengthen capacity)

growing your church (working with others to develop the worship, witness, service, and fellowship of the local community of faith)

advocating for the least (taking a stand on issues of justice, seeking the common good for all)

Each of these aspects has a place when we think about “doing mission”. For when we focus on mission, we start with a very simple premise: God is present and active in the world. From that premise, we can begin to see that people around us are engaged in activities that God has inspired. There are stories from people all around us, about how God is at work—in our congregations, in our families, in our communities, in any part of the world.

We join in the mission that God is already carrying out when the spirit leads us to find these people and join with them in partnership. The gospel then becomes declaring what God is already doing in our midst, in our time; interpreting the actions that we undertake together as expressions of God’s loving care for the world.

In the midst of all of this, we will know that the church is formed in its fullness through this process of partnering with others. The community is the place where being disciples and being church is lived out. The mission that God is already undertaking in the world through these assorted people is the enterprise in which we participate, enthusiastically, hopefully, energetically.