I saw a photo the other day. It was a nice photo of several ELCIC Bishops and Executives in a foreign land touring a facility supported in part by Lutherans here in Canada. There was a quote from the National Bishop who listed off all the activities being engaged, “Irrigation projects, food security, emergency response, refugee camps, community development, rural schools, health care, empowerment for women – the list is amazing.”
The picture was a snapshot of missions in the ELCIC, and I felt that something was missing. Over Easter, I continued to ponder the picture and the quote from the Bishop. What is missing? What could the Gospel of Jesus and the hope of Easter have to say to the challenge of Missions for the ELCIC? I believe there are two challenges to our present model of cross-cultural missions engagement.
First: The photo is of church leaders alone engaging cross-culturally. Bishops and Executives travel abroad, but it cannot be their project alone. It is not sustainable to leave missions work in the hands of Bishops, it must be the work of the people. I know that our churches support overseas work financially, but ordinary people must be empowered to carry on the work with their own hands. This was Paul’s model. In Acts 18, Paul traveled with Silas and Timothy, he then met Aquila and Priscilla who traveled on with him before baptizing Titius Justus’ family. It was then Aquila and Priscilla who shared the Gospel with Apollos who in turn went to Achaia and “was a great help to those who by grace had believed.” Acts 18 starts with Paul but ends several steps away with an empowered and growing group of missionaries who are eager to testify to the work of God in their lives. We need to do more to empower people to engage in cross-cultural missions. Last year, my wife (a nurse and experienced missionary) and I did an experiment. We wanted to see how easy it was for us to get involved with missions in the ELCIC. We followed links with CLWR, emailed and called the Executive Director and the National Bishop in an effort to engage cross-culturally through our denomination. After a year, we have learned of no opportunities for us to serve as volunteers. If a nurse and church worker cannot get involved in cross-cultural missions through our present system, the challenge must be so much greater for others. In fact, according to the 2009-2010 CLWR annual report, only “two [volunteer] placements were facilitated” by our primary missions/aid organization (CLWR Annual Report page 12). Perhaps that is why, today, we have fewer missionaries than virtually any other evangelical denomination in Canada on a per-baptized member basis. The Christian and Missionary Alliance (by way of example), has about one supported missionary for every 226 baptized members. The ELCIC has about one supported missionary for every 50 thousand baptized members. And those missionaries we do support are now managed by offices in the United States. Critics may say, “look, we don’t send many missionaries because we’re all missionaries!” But that was not Paul’s perspective, he did empower and send people out, and so should we. We need to empower ordinary Lutheran Christians to get their feet on the ground and try out cross cultural missions for themselves. In 2008 I took eight people to the Xingu River in Brazil. For a week we delivered water filters, supported local churches, shared the message of Jesus and delivered medical aid with a doctor and two nurses deep in the Amazon jungle. It was a team of ordinary people from our church using their gifts to share the hope of Jesus.
Second: The list of activities we’re engaging in is good, “Irrigation projects, food security, emergency response, refugee camps, community development, rural schools, health care, empowerment for women – the list is amazing.” But in this list, I wonder if we also ought to make disciples, train pastors, and support local churches. This is a big part of what it means to be In Mission for Others. Bruxy Cavey said that, “Social activism is an expression of the Kingdom of God, but don’t mistake it for the full Gospel. There can be no kingdom without a King.” Cross cultural missions without mention of building up believers, making disciples, or helping people follow Christ is not sustainable nor biblical. Paul went into cities and towns on his missionary journeys and told people about Jesus. People live when they hear about Jesus, that’s why Jesus is the Chief Cornerstone of our church, our Hope and Saviour. Let’s do good overseas, but doing good starts with a robust view of Jesus and His saving grace. Jesus is not an imposition that must be hidden or couched in social initiatives, the Gospel transcends cultural barriers because Jesus is immanent and accessible to every culture – it’s for that very reason that we can share Jesus without fear.
A new vision of missions in the ELCIC would do two things. First, it would empower ordinary people to get out there, to travel overseas and follow Jesus wherever he may lead. This new vision would say that missionaries do not have to be experts or clergy, just people with a passion to testify to the love of Jesus in word and deed in a setting different than their own. Our present system would shift towards empowering others to go overseas in an accessible and tangible way. Secondly, this new vision would make sharing the Gospel of Jesus a central part of the work we do when thinking about missions. It would recognize that we cannot fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 without making disciples of all nations.