by William Sachs

Doug is proud that First Church where he worships has an extensive mission commitment. In the downtown area where it is located, First Church operates programs that feed dozens of hungry people and house almost as many who are homeless. First Church sent work groups to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and now sends teams to assist churches in a struggling Latin American country. Doug has been active in all of these efforts. But travel to Latin America proved to be a watershed.

“The third time I went,” Doug reflected, “I realized something was missing. We worked hard and built good programs. We helped a lot of people. But I had not really met any local people, and sometimes we barely saw any. We did a lot of good things, but we did not really know them.” The feeling of “us and them” made Doug uncomfortable. “We would go for a week, stay in a nice hotel, and eat good meals. Sure we got good hospitality. But when we weren’t working we socialized mostly with ourselves. We did good things for the people, but notwith them.”

Doug’s words are troubling. Given how much First Church does, how could they not have encountered local people at a substantive level? The question is a key one because First Church is a good example of a significant trend in congregational mission. Perhaps more than ever, congregations are involved in elaborate forms of mission. The extent of services offered and the geographic scale of initiatives are striking. Small wonder that “faith-based” programs have been cited as having major impact.

Doug’s experience reflects the emphasis of congregational mission today. Many congregations are active in feeding and housing, in staffing clinics and tutoring programs, in building both facilities and initiatives. More than giving money is involved: the emphasis is on personal involvement, on going and doing. The services offered can focus on nearby need, on parts of the country hit by natural disaster, or on impoverished parts of the world. Often contact is made through church structures and leaders. In each case the needs seem clear and dedicated volunteers are eager to respond. How could personal contact and cross-cultural understanding be lacking as Doug fears?

Asked to consider what their service has meant, mission volunteers speak readily and warmly. They detail the quantity of what they have done: people fed, illness treated, buildings built, classes taught, materials delivered. Their work is significant, even life-giving. Mission volunteers also speak of thequality of fellowship they have discovered. There are warm memories of local leaders and contact persons. But more glowing terms are often reserved for the bonds built among their own teams. The experience of travel and work together has enhanced their faith and their ties to each other. Likely the congregation back home celebrates such reports. The mission group has experienced energy and unity that may infuse the entire congregation. By providing services to needy people outside the congregation, fresh energy and focus may come home.

My intention is not to diminish the importance of mission and its results. Agreeing with Doug, my point is that something significant is missing. Mission risks becoming a self-serving initiative, responding as much to internal, congregational energies and needs as to the realities of others. Worse, the ends and means of mission may be confused in the rush to serve and to grow through service. A commitment to encountering the realities and perceptions of people who are different, and being transformed by cooperation with them, may be lacking. For all its good, mission can arise out of unchecked assumptions, unclear intentions, and internal preoccupations. In the rush to do things for people, there may be little understanding of doing things withpeople who are different.

Despite fresh emphasis on mission, congregations can be awkward at engaging people of other cultures and faiths as equals. Comfortable with doing things for “the other,” there may be inadequate sensitivity to learning rather than doing, to listening rather than speaking, to building understanding as well as offering services. A glance at how Christians approach Muslims confirms this suspicion. A Gallup study of attitudes toward major religions reveals that 43% of all Americans admit to holding prejudice against Muslims. Similarly 53% of all Americans admit to negative feelings about Islam. In other words over half of Americans are wary of Muslims and their religion. Surely some percentage of those holding negative views are active in Christian congregations.

Many Christians travel to the Holy Land and some visit the West Bank. There is notable support for the Palestinian cause among American churches. But visits to the Muslim world by American Christians appear slight apart from tourism and there are few contacts with Muslim leaders or people. Of course there are Evangelicals who seek to convert Muslims, some by overt church planting, others by covert efforts to distribute Bibles and to baptize. There are hopeful signs of interfaith dialogue involving academic and church leaders. But the numbers involved are small and there seems to be no impact on most congregations. Many American Christians either do not know Muslims or, worse, fear them.

Meanwhile Islam is more visible in the United States and not simply in media reports of war and terrorism. Although the numbers of Muslims in the United States is uncertain—estimates range from two to nine million—there is both growth and dispersal. Islam is present in more American communities than ever. Fueled by immigration, Islam’s growth epitomizes the extent of religious pluralism. It also embodies the challenge of mission facing American congregations. As ready as congregations are to do things for others, many are not prepared to do things with others. Although Islam represents one-quarter of the human race, modest numbers of American congregations take initiative with Muslims and prejudice is widespread.

This reality flies in the face of historic emphasis on “inclusion” and “justice” by many American Christians. For generations large segments of church life have mobilized to address social ills and to aid people who suffer because of them. Since the Civil Rights movement this commitment has featured an activist edge. Often the source of debate over the direction of church life, “inclusion” and “justice” remain common reference points for church leaders. The intention is that congregations commit to being open to all people and to standing with groups who are mistreated and misunderstood. The churches have found broad theological consensus to support this intention in an emphasis on the Kingdom of God. Leaders commonly cite images of God’s Kingdom to ground their intentions. This ideal has been enhanced by spiritual energies that emphasize mission as part of a search for personal and shared authenticity. Authenticity requires building God’s Kingdom in one’s context and beyond.

But this intention has not adequately mobilized opposition to prejudice against Muslims nor broad enough efforts to build common ground with them. Instead churches are like the majority of people discovered by ABC News in a bakery in Texas. As part of its “What Would You Do?” series, ABC sent a young woman wearing a headscarf into a bakery as if she were a customer. Behind the counter an employee began insulting her as a Muslim, invoking crude imagery and prejudicial references. Soon it became clear that the young woman and the bakery employee were actors. The point of the exercise was to gauge the response of customers as a young Muslim woman was insulted and denied service. Disturbingly a few people joined the insults. Refreshingly a few more became advocates for the young woman and even for Muslims as a whole. But the majority of other customers did nothing, opting to leave in silence.

No religious census was taken of these customers, not of their theological outlooks or church activity. Other than Muslims, no religious group was cited. But of the nearly two dozen who failed to respond, one would assume some are active in nearby congregations. If so, the implications for seeking “inclusion” and “justice” are disturbing, and the current focus on mission becomes problematic. Mission entails encountering people who are different and seeking cooperation with them. Muslims represent the world’s second largest religion, are predominant in key parts of the world, and now are growing steadily as American religious life diversifies. Yet too many congregations do little to combat prejudice and may even be complicit in fostering it. Mission, as an encounter with “the other,” is incomplete.

Why has this happened? The motivation of most congregations for launching mission projects helps to explain this failing. As effective as congregations can be in addressing human need, they tend to see mission as a solution and as anexpression. That is, mission is often grasped as the path to church unity in the face of conflict. It is also posed as the strategy for joining together a diverse people who may share the same pews. Ideally, different generations, genders, family circumstances, and sexual orientations can join in response to human need. While admirable, this approach to mission is too narrow. Despite addressing diversity, it limits the opportunity to engage “the other” outside the congregation.

Because it bears the imprint of spiritual currents, mission efforts express shifting patterns of congregational life. For example, ideals of the “emergent church” may be influential in shaping congregational mission. Thus persons drawn to mission initiatives may view them as expressions of a vital, authentic faith. Service to people in need reflects not institutional religion but faith community, not dogma and authority but the sort of spirit that animated Jesus and his first disciples. In that sense mission has deep, substantive roots. But it may bear the imprint of perceptions and priorities shaped by individual and congregational searches for clarity more than by encounters with “the other,” especially when fear of “the other,” such as Muslims, is apparent.

The origin of fear of Muslims seems obvious: Islam is linked to extremism in popular perception. The attacks of 9/11, periodic arrests of domestic terror suspects seemingly linked to Islam and daily reports of global conflict in which Islam seems immersed, all fuel public concern. Prominent symbols of Islam—such as the minaret and the headscarf on women—enhance the perception that Islam is inherently extreme, aggressive and expansive. These images are firm in the minds of many, fueling suspicion and prejudice.

Regardless of the accuracy of public perceptions, and the reality is complex, it is clear that Islam, like Christianity, is a missionary religion. Incorporating positive references to Jesus and Christians, as well as Jews, in its sacred text, Islam poses a theological, as well as cultural, challenge to Christians that most do not appreciate: the presence of Muslims compels Christians to be clear about the ends and means of mission. Amid unavoidable religious difference, Christians are compelled to articulate and to live for a clearer approach to mission than most intend. Driven by intramural congregational, and to some extent denominational dynamics, few congregations consider that a substantial view of mission must envision engaging people who are different in appreciative ways. Islam embodies the challenges and possibilities of congregational mission today.

How might a revised view of congregational mission look? What would its ends and means be? How would it build upon the spiritual energies of the congregation while engaging “the other?” The encounter of energies within the congregation with realities outside it is the most critical issue of mission today. Too many times, congregations do not deal satisfactorily with religious difference as Muslims illustrate. Instead two shortcuts to mission are prevalent. The first is denial and avoidance. That is, mission teams are prone to gloss over differences with the people they intend to serve. Rarely do mission teams ignore outright the place and people they serve. More often a preoccupation with completing a short-term project leaves little time or energy to understand the people, the site, or even their own ends and means.

To the extent there is encounter with local people, the emphasis can so center on finding similarity that appreciation of difference does not emerge. Differences can be glossed over or seen as products of the problems mission teams are there to address, such as poverty, housing, and hunger. The urge to improve lives and to identify with people who suffer can tempt mission teams to brush aside ways they differ from people they serve. Yet differences inevitably surface and can foster fear and criticism among the mission team. Encounter with “the other” can be a jarring arrival. It entails confrontations not only with social problems but with alternative cultures, different social norms, and ways of making and acting on decisions. Sheer unfamiliarity, first noticed in unfamiliar languages and references, drives home the reality of difference. This reality can appear so formidable that the mission team may seek quick pathways around it. It is tempting to try to diminish difference, to seek some basic human qualities that transcend language, culture, context, and even religion. But the reality of difference resurfaces and must be addressed.

When differences become unavoidable the temptation is to seek conversion. Of course for some mission teams evangelism is the foremost goal. The salvation of souls, directly by personal witness or indirectly by service, is the highest Christian intention for many. To offer any other intention is troubling to some, especially Evangelicals. Similarly, the mission goal for many congregations is the building up of the church in terms of physical structures, programs, and people. Many mission teams intend to bring new people to the church and to make new Christians of them.

The issue of conversion is the most complex one surrounding mission today. It entails more than the salvation of souls and making new church members. Conversion includes the intention of overcoming cultural differences by changing them to suit the attitudes of the mission team and its American values. Of course in some sense changing peoples’ lives can be justified in terms of health, education, and hunger. But without clear focus, mission can shift from service and the possibility of intercultural cooperation toward pressure for cultural and religious change. Mission teams can tie service to expectations for changes that will suit their predispositions. Pressure to convert can take many forms.

More often than not such pressure is inadvertent, but no less felt, and no less evidence of unclear intentions. It displays insensitivity to the impact of one’s presence and one’s initiative, however heartfelt. The obsession with doing good according to norms that do not reflect the mission context can obscure the clarity and cross-cultural awareness that are needed. While the experience of the congregation and its mission teams must inform what is done and how, they must not predetermine it. Instead mission must begin in a search for understanding. Even when needs such as hunger and housing are apparent, there must be emphasis on interaction with the people who are the recipients of services. Interaction must focus on building understanding—on simply seeing without judging who people are and how they live. What are their values? How do things get done in their communities? Who are the leaders and wisdom figures? Where are the sensitivities and where are doors that could open for building trust?

With Muslims in particular, and in other circumstances defined by another faith, the question of need may not be so simple. In the United States and in notable parts of the world, Muslims do not generally need social services. Rather, with Muslims, there is a significant opportunity to work together for the common good in a locality. Not only is Islam a missionary religion, like Christianity it is a religion that emphasizes aid to needy persons as a pillar of its faith. To deal with Muslims, Christians must seek to work together as peers whose intent is to witness to their faith while addressing the needs of their shared circumstances. Mission becomes a meeting ground where reconciliation and service can emerge.

Understood in fresh terms, mission must entail a collaborative process that reduces the distance between its organizers and its recipients. Mission requires a shared sense of challenge and a collaborative approach to it. Collaboration is the key category. Arising from the congregation’s spiritual energies, mission must focus on building patterns of collaboration between partners who are different but who identify ways to work together on issues of importance to both. This process enhances all spiritually and witnesses to the power of God to reconcile and to unite.

Theologian Paul Knitter urges that Christians need people of other faiths and not simply as items on mission agendas. The encounter with “the other” becomes life giving for all. Differences are not eliminated, but bridges across them can be built. By acknowledging difference yet identifying similarity, unity emerges. Mission can become a movement of the congregation outward toward understanding and cooperation. This movement does not entail watering down one’s faith for an artificial agreement that ignores difference. Rather, while seeking commonalities, people of different faiths learn to respect one another and to address human needs together. These steps toward one another fulfill the faith of both.

For Christians there is no higher calling than to witness to their faith. Proclamation of Christ’s love for all in word and deed is the essence of the Christian life. When such witness is tied to firm expectations of how others will respond, or entails service without mutual appreciation, it is incomplete. But when Christians seek to encounter people of different faiths and cultures in open-ended discovery of shared possibility, the intention of mission is met. A truly vital, emergent faith is visibly expressed in doing with others, not forthem.

Congregations, 2010-10-01
Fall 2010, Number 4