GMC College Class

Servants of God’s Mission In Latin America: Questions for Millennials

This is a recap (and expansion) of my class for the college track, which was supposed to “connect with young people and inspire them and to help them see that they too, could be a part of engaging in the mission of God.” I was supposed to be the representative for South America. The track ended up being labeled “In Peru,” but I stuck with the broader approach.

The Prezi

Which needs interpretation. See below.

The Big Ideas

1. The mission is God’s.

I was really excited that the conference was themed “The Mission of God.” There is a lot packed into that phrase in Christian theology, a phrase often written in Latin (missio Dei); there is a lot in the theology of God’s mission that remains to be unpacked in Churches of Christ missions. So when our only denomination-wide missions conference, which happens only triennially, is focused on the idea of God’s mission, I become hopeful.

I didn’t attend all the keynotes, and obviously there were many simultaneous discussions occurring throughout the conference. Yet, what I did overhear was disappointingly unrelated to the conference theme. I’m not surprised that we are still focused on the church’s missions rather of God’s mission, but it was a missed opportunity. In the end, I don’t think many people walked away aware of, much less convinced about, the critical difference between our missions and God’s mission.

Anyway, I prepared my little contribution to the conference to begin with this assumption: the next generation of missionaries (the Millennials to whom I would hypothetically speak) desperately needs to approach missions in Latin America by asking some critical questions, the first of which is, What is God doing in twenty-first century Latin America? Our approach to mission has largely been designed with other questions in mind: Where are the “unreached”? Where haven’t “we” done mission work? Where are there not yet churches? And it has largely been designed without asking, What? The what was already known: preach the gospel, plant churches, repeat at quickly as possible.

I want to assert unequivocally that the mission is God’s, and we have to begin reimagining missions in Latin America by asking what God is already doing, before and beyond us, and then listening. Listening first! Only then are we properly sent to participate.

There is no doubt about our agency in God’s mission, more on which below. At this point, my primary way of discussing this agency is design, for we are supposed to ask questions and make designs. Yes, we have designs on Latin America. If that sounds ominous, it is because we have so often played into a human-centered, church-centered modus operandi that is typical of humankind. When humans start to have designs without reference to God’s purposes, the result is the tower of Babel—an oppressive, imperialistic agenda. Babelesque missions is arrogant, self-serving, and doomed to be exploded by the will of God. One of the marks of the Babel story, though, is the lack of a participant in God’s mission. Unlike the Noah story before it, the Babel story contains no dissenting voice of faithfulness. The difference-makers, those who become participants, are absent. What Babel needed was a redesign. Build, just not that structure. Build the arc, not the stairway.

My point is that we must redesign the church’s missions in Latin America according to God’s mission. For easier reading, here is the same text found in the prezi:

A while back, following a keynote speech and during Q& A, someone in the audience asked a heartfelt, yet somewhat rhetorical question.
“So, how do I communicate to people that our approach, our culture, needs to change?”
My immediate impulse was to hit her with a stick.
Like Zen masters reportedly would do to knock someone out of her attachment to conventional reasoning.
But I was on a stage and far from her.
And anyway, I didn’t have a stick.
So, I gave her a koan-like question to ask “those people.”
A seemingly self-evident one designed to snap them out of it, to open their minds. 
“Ask them if your organization, your culture, is producing the results it is designed to produce?”
As I glanced around the auditorium for a reaction, all I could sense was collective confusion.
And their visceral desire to shout out the, apparently, obvious response.
“Of course it’s not, idiot. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have asked you that question.”
But no one dared blurt that out.
Instead, they just sat there, perplexed.
Why? Because they were deluded.
They believed that their organization was NOT producing the results it was designed to produce.
And they assumed that the reason had something to do with their people, with them.
In fact, their organization is producing precisely the results it is designed to produce.
So is yours.
So is your community, your family, your government, your country.
So is your life.
Because . . . the design determines the results.
So snap out of it!
Stop fighting the existing reality.
Stop trying to change the people.
Stop trying to change your mind.
If you don’t like the results, change the design.
The great systems theorist and designer Buckminster Fuller put it this way.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
To change your beliefs, change your behavior.

(Tom Asacker, The Business of Belief, 113–15)

I would add, our missions is producing precisely the results it is designed to produce. I suppose this is a more interesting way of saying, once again, if we keep doing what we’ve done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve got. But I should parse the story a bit. The surface problem, the one the audience member identified, is that her organization needs to “change.” There is a results problem, and she is looking for a way to convince the existing organization to make adjustments so that it produces the results it is “supposed” to produce. The deeper problem, which Asacker’s question intends to identify, is that the organization is producing the results it is supposed to produce. In other words, the organization needs second order change, while the audience member was asking how to effect first-order change. If you want different results, stop acting like you’re not getting exactly the ones your organization is designed to produce.

Of course, Asacker’s response assumes that everyone in the organization is in agreement about what the results should be. Considering the church’s missions, I think I’m in the audience member’s position but asking both how to convince the church that the results should be different and how to convince the church that we need to change accordingly. So I hear Asacker’s response a little differently, but it’s essentially still the smack I think we Millennials need. Hence, starting with God’s mission serves to reject other construals of our intended results preemptively. Then comes the smack. We must stop acting like we can keep the same design with first-level changes. If the design of Churches of Christ missions has served the church’s ends instead of God’s, we have to start over with God’s mission and design something new. I’m not much concerned whether this sounds presumptuous. If I’m going to say something to the next generation of Latin American missionaries, it is this:

The mission is God’s. Innovate accordingly.

2. The biblical narrative is our guide for discerning what God is doing in Latin America.

The call to asking and listening does not, of course, offer much in the way of concrete answers to the question. Who is to say what God is doing in Latin America or, even more specifically, in a particular place like my home, Arequipa, Peru? Apart from the problem of getting specific, though, we also have to overcome the reflexive return to the pat answers of the old design. So while I want to avoid merely jumping from one set of generalizations to another, the next step for me is to break those deeply ingrained theological habits by returning to the biblical narrative. If Millennials are going to think new thoughts, they need to begin from a narrative biblical starting place. Yes, that statement is meant to be tensive. Innovation is not about being adrift. It is about being faithful to the God who does new things.

In other words, in order to be attuned to the new things God is doing in a particular place—in order to discern—we need to be immersed in the story of what God has always been doing. I am convinced that the story of God’s mission in Scripture offers the most powerful critique of the story we’ve been telling ourselves about the church’s missions; and it offers the most compelling vision for a generation of young Christians who badly need a reason to care in the face of the institutional church’s monotonous, out-of-touch call to missions.

So the class included a quick and dirty rehearsal of the story. I won’t write it out in this post (a version will undoubtedly appear on Scripture & Mission soon). But the gist of my presentation in this context is that the redemption God is working is about much more than giving people the right information so they can eventually “go to heaven.” That may seem like an ungenerous caricature of Churches of Christ evangelism, but I have grown up with it. I have heard it over and over, seen it in practice, and encountered its results in Latin America. I listened to it preached in so many words at this very conference. To be generous at this point in our tradition’s history does nothing more than gloss over how profound a misunderstanding of God’s purposes this is. Participation is not about giving people answers or escaping a doomed creation. These ideas are contrary to the good news about the kingdom of God revealed in the Gospels. “The kingdom of God” in fact becomes shorthand for the end toward which God’s mission is moving.

The kingdom is that purpose in which the church participates through its missions. It is the good news that the Creator is restoring all things through Jesus by the power of the Spirit. As image-bearers being restored to the godliness of the Creator according to God’s redemptive action, we are called once more to collaboration in the mission that is God’s from start to finish. The kingdom is what attunes us to God’s work in Latin America.

3. The frontiers of mission in Latin America are the places where God’s mission is unfolding.

When it comes to inspiring Millennials to become participants in God’s mission in a particular place in Latin America, God’s mysterious call is well beyond the purview of any motivational speaker. But any of us may be instruments in this regard as well, as various people were in my journey to Arequipa. I am personally disinterested in making a special plea for Latin America, because I would gladly see God call the church to mission in every place that he wills. But I can speak from Latin America about discerning the mission of God, and so I approach the subject of the frontiers of mission in Latin America in order to bear witness to what God is doing there.

My experiences and theology lead to the conclusion that we need to talk about mission frontiers in a fundamentally different way in the next generation. Until now, our jargon has employed the idea of frontiers to denote the places beyond the missions of the church. We have advocated missions to unreached people groups and places beyond the borders of Christendom. There have always been difficult questions regarding the criteria at work in this definition. Who decides what populations are sufficiently reached? Often, in keeping with the old design, the bottom line criterion is access to salvific information. When does nominalism justify further missionary effort? Long before the evangelical call to prioritize unreached people groups, the landmark 1910 Edinburgh missions conference did not even consider missions to Latin America, which was deemed thoroughly Catholic.

As a Protestant missionary in Latin America, I feel the need to state clearly that I do not view the conversion of Catholics to Protestantism as legitimate mission. I recognize as brothers and sisters all those in the Roman Catholic church who are disciples of Jesus. My theological disputes with the Catholic church are no sharper than those with my own church tradition. We are all wrong about enough to be completely dependent on the grace of God. The reality I experience in Peru, however, is that most who consider themselves Catholic are not followers of Jesus, know nothing of his kingdom, and live lives unmarked by its inbreaking. I need make no judgements about their “salvation” to assert adamantly that here the gospel of the kingdom must yet be proclaimed.

So I find a more helpful way of conceiving frontiers in Latin American missions is as the places where God’s mission is unfolding; or the places where the kingdom is breaking in. Place is not the only analogy for discerning God’s kingdom work, though. We often think of calling in terms of a place, a people, and a purpose. All of these may help us discover new frontiers in twenty-first century Latin America.

Place: frontiers are the borderlands of overlapping places—the margins. In particular I note the overlap of the “already” and the “not yet” in biblical kingdom theology. These are the exciting, desperate, hopeful places of suffering service the church is called to inhabit! This is the area in which the church’s contextualized witness lives in relationship with the world that God so loved.

People: frontiers are the borderlands of overlapping cultures. In Latin America, one of the greatest tasks before us is to contextualize the gospel for the evolving reality of mestizaje. Especially in the urban sprawl of Latin American megacities, the indigenous and mestizo, the rural and urban, and the local and global converge in a cultural encounter that presents new challenges and new opportunities.

Purpose: frontiers are where participation in God’s work happens. Precisely where we live in the tension between faithfulness and innovation for a new era, and where we hold together word and deed in the proclamation of the kingdom, we find the unexplored frontiers of missions in Latin America. The cutting edge of world missions may be a ministry among a supposedly evangelized population that needs a fresh rendering of the message. The essential question is, what is God doing in this place? It is foolishness not to see the answer—whatever it may be—as the frontier to which we are sent.

Perhaps through the kaleidoscopic overlap of place, people, and purpose we can see the unique work of God in a particular context. Each turn of the kaleidoscope may represent a different city, region, or country where the manifold grace of God is refracted in unforeseen ways. It is by discovering the patterns and colors of God’s kingdom mission in a particular context and collaborating as servants there that we find ourselves on the frontiers of Latin American missions.

4. The focus of missions in Latin America should be kingdom sowing.

In light of the first three ideas, my final question for Millennials is: Will missions in Latin America continue to be focused narrowly on church planting, or will it broaden to the bigger idea of sowing the kingdom? Briefly, the five points I use to describe the need for kingdom sowing in Latin America are:

Discipleship: making disciples of Jesus instead of converts. Evangelism needs to take a radical turn toward the invitation to follow the king into the kingdom.

Kingdom mission: participation in the whole work of God. The witness of the church needs to make a radical turn toward holistic proclamation of God’s reign.

Equipping: congregational formation for mission. Our talk about the priesthood of all believers needs to become an actual approach to the equipping the whole church.

Partnership: a reordering of relationships according to Jesus’s kingdom teachings. Foreign missionaries need to make a radical commitment to cooperating cross-culturally in humility, vulnerability, and mutuality rather than coming in as problem-solvers and resource-distributors.

Contextualization: the freedom of the Latin American church to be more  Latin American. Foreign missionaries need to explore far more culturally indigenous expressions of the kingdom and equip new Christians to partner in the process of critiquing foreign assumptions.

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