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Unpacking “Missions”

July 19, 2023

Unpacking the word “missions”

“Missions” is a big word, one that carries a wide variety of subtle nuances, sentiments, and assumptions. For some, it’s a word that has lots all meaning due to the diversity of the ways it’s used in church spaces.

But what are “missions?” What do Presbyterians believe about missions?

First, let’s talk theology:

The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) includes creeds, catechisms, and confessions about who we are, who God has called us to be, and the very foundations of our faith. These documents are historic and contemporary, and when examined alongside their historical particularities, point us to the truth of the Gospel and the movement of God throughout time and space.

In one confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, its authors write that all of us are granted the privilege and joy “to contribute by their prayers, gifts, and personal efforts to the extension of the Kingdom of Christ.” (6.190) The joy of missions isn’t for someone across the ocean or someone who’s been preparing their whole life to serve. It’s for each of us, no matter who we are or where we live.

Another confession, the Confession of 1967, says that the church is called to the “mission of reconciliation” and “commissioned to serve as his reconciling community” (9.06, 9.10). In other words, the Confession of 1967 might consider “missions” to be the work of peace, human flourishing, and communion with each other and God. Later, it says this mission extends to “politics, culture, and economics,” and that it is lived out through “work or play, in private or in the life of society.” (9.37)

As Presbyterians, “missions” doesn’t have a single definition or easy explanation. Rather, it’s an evolving call to work for human flourishing throughout the world; to amplify God’s love, justice, peace, grace, and Good News throughout every corner of creation.

Panorama of 1967 General Assembly
179th General Assembly, Portland, Oregon, May 1967.

Now, a little history:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessors have reformed throughout the past two centuries, and it is not difficult to find examples of our failures in living out the Gospel. As Kenneth Kovacs pointed out in a recent sermon, “Early missionaries, for example, viewed themselves as teachers, refusing to learn anything about God, the world, or themselves from indigenous people—with as we all know catastrophic results.” Influential Presbyterians were also involved in the “Colonization movement” that sought to forcibly emigrate emancipated slaves to Liberia.

But what are Church Missions Today?

Today, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partners in missions through the Presbyterian Mission Agency, a national agency with four primary ministry areas:

  • Compassion, Peace, & Justice,
  • Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministry
  • Theology, Formation, and Evangelism
  • World Mission

As our denomination has reformed throughout time, so has our understanding of institutional mission work. We no longer have “missionaries,” people tasked with fixing, enlightening, or indoctrinating others as colonizers, but “mission co-workers,” those who are tasked as partners and co-laborers to support communities.

Protest sign stating "Climate Justice Now"
Global climate change strike (Markus Spiske via Unsplash)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) sends mission co-workers at the invitation of organizations who seek additional support from the church. The title of “mission co-worker” is embedded with a theological conviction of the Presbyterian Church (USA): true mission partnership is about building relationships, learning from one another and walking together in faith and friendship. Around the world, teachers, church planters, doctors, public health specialists, chaplains and human rights advocates serve alongside Christians in fifty countries. From teaching theology to preaching, mission co-workers accompany, listen, work in partnership the global church.

How can you participate in missions work?

There’s no single “right” way to do missions – it’s a vocation we all carry as ministers. Even still, it can be a daunting task trying to figure out where to begin. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Over the next few weeks, the Mission Committee is hosting a fundraiser for Church World Service (CWS) and their hygiene kit project. After worship, spend time at the Missions Committee table in the France Room – there will be people happy to answer questions and tell you about our partnership with CWS.

Talk to a Deacon about the ongoing Friday food collections. There’s always a Deacon of the Day at worship, and they can share all about the initiative. You can help facilitate a food collection or get involved with our community partners like Catonsville Emergency Assistance and Grace A.M.E.

Consider getting involved with a committee, like the Dismantling Racism Committee, Outreach Committee, or the Creation Care team. These committees enthusiastically engage missions alongside the Missions Committee to facilitate education, service, and collaboration in our life together

Meet with Ken or Dorothy to discern how you might engage missions in your own life. Everyone’s gifts, skills, passions, and abilities influence how they serve and participate in missions.

A final reminder

As much as missions shapes the world around us, it also shapes our inner lives. You don’t have to be perfect or try to measure your impact. We’re only co-laborers and co-workers with God, who has already been stirring justice and peace in this world. You’re never alone in this work, so rest easy knowing that it is the Spirit who empowers us, God who has called us, and Christ whose grace covers us, no matter where the mission of God leads us.