Monday, 2 March 2015

YOLO, Selfies and Mission

Buzzwords are part of our everyday vocabulary--like 'YOLO' and 'selfie'. OK maybe we aren't all using them. I try not to say selfie. Still buzzwords can be helpful. They are linguistic phenomena that help us to understand and easily communicate a culturally understood idea. Put another way, buzzwords help us use less words (i.e. selfie vs. taking-a-picture-of-yourself).

And every sector has its buzzwords and buzz phrases: science, business, marketing, youth subcultures and, of course, the church. As I said, they're not bad (unless you are anything like Dietrich Bonhoeffer's family who disliked intensely the use of lazy speech and well-worn clich├ęs). They can be helpful for day-to-day communication.

But if the idea of a buzzword is to help explain a culturally relevant idea then I wonder whether some buzzwords are more helpful than others. Are there times we use a word or phrase where the other person understands something differently?

One buzzword I've been reflecting on recently is 'mission'. 'Mission' is usually used in Christian circles to talk about God's work of redeeming and saving the world. That's the missio Dei. It's become trendy, though, to speak of a church doing mission. This usually has something to do with the church, or some people within the church, connecting with people who aren't Christians in the hope that they may come to know Jesus.

So the question at hand: Is the word 'mission' a helpful buzzword in Christian ministry?

Why is it helpful?

'Mission' communicates the idea that we are seeking to join with God in his work of saving the world. It reminds us that Christianity is not just about us seeking spiritual nourishment, but also about us going out into all the world sharing the wonderful news of Jesus Christ. It's also something that is interested in the physical, the spiritual, the psychological and the emotional dimensions. It has humans, animals and the whole cosmos in its sights. It's an expansive vision of God's salvific and redemptive work. So the theological context communicates that 'mission' has something to do with God being at work in all aspects of life and how he draw us into participation with him in it.

Why is it unhelpful?

Before 'mission' became popular Christians often spoke about 'evangelism'. Evangelism has to do with 'saving souls'. While saving souls (if you want to put it that way) is a great thing, it can often narrow our thinking down to 1) a particular thing that needs saving (i.e. the spiritual part without worrying about physical needs) and 2) a particular action we do (going out with tracts, etc.) rather than having a lifestyle and living a life that communicates God's interest in saving the whole world. Because of their close literary and historical connections, I think the word 'mission' is often used as a hip and cool synonym for 'evangelism' rather than God being at work in all-of-life and our participation with him in it.

What's the verdict? Helpful or unhelpful?

A buzzword is a word or phrase that helps us understand and easily communicate a culturally understood idea. Because we have to know the context behind this word, perhaps 'mission' is not so helpful. Of course it's a good word, and we should continue to use it, but I'm not convinced that we all mean the same thing. I often interpret other people's use of 'mission' as 'evangelism' because I think that's actually what they mean. So perhaps in our conversations it might be worth unpacking what we mean when we use the word 'mission' rather than thinking we are all saying the same thing.

I wonder if others have thoughts on this?

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