For a long time I would cringe at the sound of the word “mission.” To me it represented the worst of the Christian tradition. I associated it with conquistadors and pushy missionaries, trying to “save” the heathens in the jungle, or islands, or wherever the godless masses resided.
I had experiences with some evangelical and fundamentalist groups that would go to Florida for spring break and just start talking to people about Jesus and the Bible. I even was solicited by a man whose car trunk was full of Bibles. We ended up getting in an argument about the Christian concept of justification. This kind of experience is even more real for people of other religions and is a large part of the burden of history that accompanies interfaith dialogue. As a Roman Catholic, my tradition has a spotty history when it comes to mission and I have worked hard to avoid using that language, but I think it is time we reclaim this word.
As an undergraduate, I participated in what we called “service immersion trips.” These were exactly what they sounded like, a group of students traveling to an impoverished community in order to serve and immerse ourselves in the struggles of the marginalized. I know that many universities have their own versions of this; sometimes they are called “alternative spring breaks” or something akin to that. I used to think it was so cool that they used this kind of progressive language instead of “mission trip.” I still think these titles have power but I believe it is time for Christian institutions and organizations to reclaim the language of mission in order to draw it out of its current associations.
The Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity from the Second Vatican Council states that “the Church on earth is by its very nature missionary.” This is a powerful statement because it describes mission as something that supersedes any religious tradition or structure. God's mission is not bound within the confined of the Church, the Church is instead in service of the mission. To me this means that we cannot continue to talk around mission as if it is implied. It's important to recognize that mission in a post-Vatican II world is not anything like the idea of mission that exists in the popular imagination of Christians and non-Christians alike. Mission today is becoming increasingly built on a model of Dialogue.
The theology of mission and the theology of dialogue are becoming one and this is why, as interfaith leaders, we need to re-claim mission. By building these two up together they can fortify each other. Mission that is based on dialogue is respectful, honest, and reflective. It does not use coercion, violence, or threats in order to accomplish some goal of conversion. Instead, the goal is simply to engage the other in honest and meaningful dialogue. The outcome might be conversion but that shouldn't matter to the modern Christian; as long as they have represented Christianity with faith and compassion, they have succeeded in the mission. Dialogue benefits from its association with mission just as much. A dialogue that is missiological is brought into the very core of what it means to be human. This gives dialogue the kind of significance that those of us who are engaged in interfaith dialogue know it deserves.
This word seems to be taboo among progressive Christians and I know that using it in an interfaith setting could spark some heated discussions, but those conversations need to happen and Christians need to be willing to take up mission with all of the problems it involves. If we are able to do this, we will be able to to transform mission into something that is faithful to the vision of God we claim to worship. I also think that this transformed sense of mission will be something we might be able to share, at least partially, with members of other traditions and faith communities. I hope that if we reclaim mission, we will be able to transform it from a barrier to dialogue to one of its strongest catalysts.