The year 2012 marks the 175th anniversary of international mission by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Over the years, Presbyterian missionaries have planted churches, built hospitals, and started schools on every continent. The seeds sown by those missionaries have, in many places, developed into self-sustaining churches and institutions now led by local Christians. In fact, more than 94 million Christians around the world now belong to churches that were founded or co-founded by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) mission workers. Today, nearly 200 mission co-workers in 50 countries are engaged in equally vital ministries of sharing faith and working against poverty and violence.
In recent decades, a seismic shift in the understanding and practice of mission has opened the door to direct involvement of U.S. Presbyterians at unprecedented levels. As globalization has increased international communication, travel, and awareness, U.S. Presbyterians haven’t waited on the denominational offices to engage in mission—they’ve gone themselves! Researchers estimate that 2.2 million Americans traveled on international short-term mission trips in 2008. There are signs that the Holy Spirit is calling the church to a broader understanding of partnership at the dawn of a new chapter of mission history.
World mission: a story in three chapters
The story of Presbyterians’ involvement in God’s mission to the world is a long and beautiful one that can be understood in three chapters.
Chapter 1: Beginning in 1837, the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Mission sent missionaries into the world to preach, teach, and heal. In Brazil, Congo, Egypt, China, and other countries, mission workers planted churches and helped them grow into witnessing, serving communities. Thousands of women and men came to faith in Jesus Christ as U.S. Presbyterians, sent by our denominational mission board, took the gospel around the world. This first chapter of Presbyterian mission history was a good and faithful response to God’s call to our church at that time.
Chapter 2: In the 1950s and ’60s, Presbyterian communities in other nations multiplied and matured. The developing world’s clamor for self-determination in the waning years of the colonial era grew. U.S. Presbyterians discerned a movement of the Spirit and reformed the church’s mission policy to respect the role of national Christian communities and their leaders in what was previously considered “the mission field.”
General Assembly offices began working with churches around the world in the spirit of partnership, turning over the reins of leadership to them and empowering the national churches to serve their communities through ministries of evangelism, health, justice, education, and development. Since then, the churches in Korea, China, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Brazil, Mexico, and many other countries have exploded in growth, adding millions of members to the Church of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 3: In 1960 Presbyterians worked primarily through one centralized international mission agency. Today there are literally thousands of Presbyterian “mission agencies”: congregational mission committees, international presbytery partnerships, and numerous Presbyterian mission organizations. This new context requires that, in addition to continuing to partner with churches around the world, Presbyterian World Mission partner with congregations and church members in the United States who are involved in God’s mission.
The need for networks
The changes in how the church does mission have brought positive effects: more widespread involvement, increased giving, and more opportunities for personal growth in discipleship and transformation.
Global partners of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have pointed out several problems, nonetheless:
• Mission efforts have become highly uncoordinated. For example, three congregations arrive at the same Central American community for a work trip.
• Mission outreach is less strategic. In a given year, for example, perhaps a hundred Presbyterian congregations take a mission trip to tourist-friendly Kenya, but only a few to neighboring Sudan, a poorer and less-evangelized nation with a longer history of relationship to the PC(USA).
• In some cases, mission projects are less responsive to the needs as perceived by the overseas local community. U.S. congregations offer what they have, which is sometimes not what the partner needs.
The rising tide of collaboration comes none too soon: in this age of rapid globalization, the causes of poverty and injustice often reach across national borders. To truly make a difference, Presbyterians must coordinate their work with each other and with the church’s global partners.
In many cases, global partners are unable to address the root causes of particular problems in their countries without the witness and advocacy of U.S. Christians.
Our partners request mission co-workers to fill positions that demand a long-term commitment and proficiency in the local language and culture. They need theological professors, primary and secondary school educators, physicians, community health and development specialists, and other highly skilled professionals to work for years rather than days or weeks. In fact, every year Presbyterian World Mission receives many more requests for mission personnel than we can fill. We celebrate that God continues to call people to work cross-culturally, and that every year new people enter Presbyterian mission service. However, too many of our partners’ urgent needs go unmet simply because there are not enough dollars in our budget.
How you can step into the circle
These challenges can be overcome, however. The more Presbyterians give, the more mission co-workers we can send and support. We are committed to being good stewards of the relationships we have built, the legacy we have inherited, and the funds we receive. Presbyterians can give with confidence, knowing that their gifts are wise investments in a ministry with a record of excellence and a commitment to a holistic understanding of the gospel. We are focused on making a long-term difference, working in partnership and grounding our efforts in cultural knowledge and sensitivity. These are the hallmarks of Presbyterian World Mission, characteristics that have been shaped by the hand of God.
Equipping the church for mission is a priority alongside sending mission personnel and empowering the global church as the three major functions of Presbyterian World Mission. We equip congregations by:
- Assisting nearly 40 mission networks that bring together people who share a common international mission interest.
- Offering numerous training opportunities including Webinars, conferences, Web-based and printed resources, an online wisdom community (missioncrossroads.org) and podcasts.
- Helping congregations and presbyteries in their partnership relationships and consulting with them as they visit with partners and engage in mission projects. Some of our mission personnel spend the majority of their time in this role.
- Joining with grassroots Presbyterians and global partners to create “communities of mission practice” that are guided by prayer, Bible study, reflection and worship. They address critical global issues together and develop a body of shared mission knowledge and practice. A growing number of mission networks, international presbytery partnerships, and other programs provide concrete examples of this emerging phenomenon.
Presbyterians are increasingly aware that God’s mission is not dependent on the World Mission offices, nor is it independent of them. Rather this third chapter of mission history is one of profound interdependence, where all members of the body of Christ bring to the common table all they have and offer it to God’s mission. Presbyterians doing mission as the body of Christ can testify, “We’re better together!”