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Mission: An Essential Guide
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Mission: An Essential Guide

by Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi

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"Mission" has become, for many North American Christians, an ambiguous and often uncomfortable term. To many it brings to mind a past in which western culture was identified with the gospel in missionary practice and programs. Distressed with this history and uncertain about how to overcome it, many prefer to ignore the New Testament mandate that the church must be in


"Mission" has become, for many North American Christians, an ambiguous and often uncomfortable term. To many it brings to mind a past in which western culture was identified with the gospel in missionary practice and programs. Distressed with this history and uncertain about how to overcome it, many prefer to ignore the New Testament mandate that the church must be in mission if it is to be the church. Others swing the other way, declaring that everything the church does is mission, depriving the idea of mission of its power to define those specific actions of God which proclaim the gospel and build God's kingdom.

"The church exists by missions, just as fire exists by burning." With these words of Emil Brunner, the author reminds us that to be the church is to be in mission. After describing the various "captivities of mission" which plague North American Christianity, the author argues for a robust and engaged practice of mission, beginning in congregations and extending to the broader community.

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An Essential Guide

By Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2002 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-6328-1


The Captivity of Mission in North American Churches

Mission is a term of multiple and intense meanings. On the one hand, it evokes responsibility, outreach, overseas service, funds, cooperation, unity, redemption, conversion, dialogue, witness, and so forth. On the other hand, it brings to mind such negative elements as colonialism, cultural and religious superiority, imposition of denominations, dependency, and exploitation. Historically, mission reminds the church of both its benevolent intentions with disastrous results, and its cruel actions with redeeming effects. Psychologically, reactions to mission swing from rejection and indifference, to passionate and enthusiastic engagement.

In many ways, mission simultaneously embodies the grace of God and the evil of human arrogance and worldly interests. Mission entails ambiguity and the risk of walking the narrow path with big stumbling feet! From a Four-Fifths World perspective—the perspective of the Southern and Eastern Hemispheres of the globe—it carries the bittersweet taste of hope from a flourishing and vital Christian faith with the sorrowful history of colonialism and cultural genocide: joy in the midst of tragedy. Mission carries the same uncertainty that the father of the possessed son experienced when he declared: "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).

Because mission imports such conflicting meanings, it is crucial for us to gain some historical and theological perspectives that will provide us with a critical foundation for our conversations. Moreover, we need to explore the context from which many of these meanings emerged, and to suggest some theological connections that will speak to Christians in the United States.

As stated in the introduction, this chapter offers an important theological lesson from missiology. When reflecting on our missional task, Christians in North America need to be aware of the contextualized character of the gospel. This means that the church needs to take seriously how the cultural, economic, social, political, and religious situation of its context shapes its understanding of the gospel and its missional task.

Frequently, however, it is difficult for Christians in North America (and in any other context) to discern and discover the contextualized character of the gospel. Many Christians assume that their Christianity is normative and pure; they are blind to the interplay between the gospel and their culture(s), the ways in which their faith shapes and is shaped by the context where they live. There is no "pure" faith, and mission is always shaped by the context. Hence, the Christian faith is always a contextualized faith, and this contextualized faith is also what Christians share in their missional endeavors. The contextualized nature of the gospel is based on God's incarnation in Christ. Contextualization, as we will see in other chapters, is a natural process in both the transmission and the reception of the gospel.

An important question, nevertheless, is: How can Christians in a particular context become aware of their contextualized gospel, and therefore, also become aware of the methods used to share the gospel? An important resource for such an exploration comes from cross-cultural mission encounters. The critical assessment of the cultural other—those to whom our mission work is frequently directed—significantly contributes to identify cultural factors that shape our understanding and practice of the gospel and our mission work. Their assessment often serves as a "mirror" in mission. They help us see who we are as Christians in mission.

But why do we need a "mirror" for our mission work? We need the assessment of the cultural other because it helps us look critically at the ways in which our contexualized gospel—the gospel we also communicate—is either open and congruent with God's missional work or under cultural captivity, bound to human values and interests distant from the values of the Reign of God. Regrettably, many times our contextualization of the gospel is not as healthy as we might think and it needs the renewal of the Spirit of Christ, renewal that usually begins with a critical evaluation of our mission work from those who have been missionized. As a result, contextualization is not discerned in isolation from the people who live in the context where mission is being done. On the contrary, contextualization requires an intentional conversation—a conversation between the missionaries and the context, between the missionaries and the people in the context, between these people and their own context, and between the three parties and God. It is a multidimensional conversation in which missionaries become partners and facilitators, and provide cross-cultural insights in the process of contextualization.

What follows is an essential step toward an evaluation of the contextualization of the gospel and of mission in North America. This step focuses on the mission practice of congregations. It also helps us see how missiology and cross- cultural mission, as theological disciplines, can contribute to the liberation of the mission of the North American church from the captivity that restrains it.

The Captivity of Mission: Five Mission Models and a Mission Framework That Restrain Mission

The five mission models and the mission framework that follow are a description of the practice and theology of mission in many congregations. They are an appraisal of the understanding of mission from a church-based perspective. They serve as a map by helping us see and evaluate the situation of mission in local congregations, denominations, and parachurch organizations. As models and a framework, they are not fixed, nor do they exhaust reality. Despite their limitations, they may help us understand the obstacles and tensions regarding mission in congregations and organizations.

During my teaching and pastoral experience in North America, I have witnessed the struggle of Christians, especially mainline Protestants, in coming to terms with "mission." To talk about "ministry" is fine, but once we begin conversations about mission everything becomes blurred. To some extent, theological categories such as "evangelical," "ecumenical," and others have created barriers that impede dialogue regarding mission at local and grassroots levels. There seems, however, to be a syndrome of ambiguity when speaking about mission. Everybody seems to know what "missions" is about without trying to understand the essence of "mission." This syndrome of ambiguity restrains congregations from engaging in mission, thus making them captive to their own ambiguity.

1. The first and most common model of mission is mission as an overseas task. On the one hand, mission is done for those unsaved and unchurched in the distant lands of Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Pacific. It is the task for the salvation of the "heathen," and the civilizing of the "savage." Mission is to be done "out there," not "in here." It keeps a very clear boundary between those who do mission—the subjects of mission—and those who receive mission—the objects of mission.

On the other hand, the model of mission as an overseas task takes another shape in Christian communities who claim a different relationship between those in the North Atlantic regions and those in the Southern continents. Framed under terms such as "partnership," "mutual dependency," and "learning from one another," mission as an overseas task usually continues to uphold a distance-learning attitude with very limited educational and missional structures to help the "learning of the other" and the "partnership" to become an integrated congregational experience. Regrettably, the dynamics of those relationships continue to be dependent on structures that polarize the missionaries and the missionized; the developed and the undeveloped; the faithful and the religious; the rich, the middle class, and the poor—thus sustaining, though in a more sophisticated way, the object/subject of mission dichotomy.

Some of the effects of the mission as overseas task model are: (1) the inability to see the interconnection between the two different contexts; (2) the lack of theological and ethical reflection regarding the economic and social disproportion found among the partners; (3) the lack of congregational or institutional structure to translate the missional experience into the worship life of the community; (4) the lack of congregational or institutional guidance to help the communities find spiritual connection between the missional experience and daily life in their respective contexts and in their mutual relationship; (5) the tendency of the stronger partner in moving on to another partnership without a suitable decision-making process with the weaker partner and a proper closure thatbenefits a more informal relationship and future partnerships. Unfortunately, we continue to preserve similar patterns of old mission theologies and practices that are unacceptable for the twenty-first century.

2. The second description of mission in congregations, denominations, and parachurch organizations is "to identify and solve problems" for a community. This concept of mission reflects the North American cultural trait of seeking to provide an effective and practical response to the unexpected, the discomforting, and possibly the conflictual and/or the controversial situations in the life of the community. It becomes a maintenance and problem-solving activity. It is in reality little more than an administrative task with a theological nuance.

Christian communities that reflect this cultural trait assume that their programs contribute to the coming of the Reign of God. Mission becomes the communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the service of the Christian community. Hence, mission is a corollary of professional ministry within the rhetoric of the Reign of God and Christian service. Mission is searching for solutions to problems, allocating funds to keep programs running, creating a committee to discuss and propose avenues of engagement for a communal problem, and, for example, sponsoring a week of overseas ministries awareness to receive economic support from the congregation. It is going out and making things right! It is part of an insider/outsider frame of reference where the insider has solutions and the outsider has problems.

At a deeper level, this model of mission is the act of imposing, restoring, or establishing a notion of order perceived as vital by the missionary community or Christian experience. It is nurtured by a cultural characteristic of efficiency and productivity versus a context perceived as chaotic. I call this second description of mission the efficiency model of mission.

Let me give an example. In many places around the world, women come together to wash clothes at public faucets. These public faucets are a social and cultural location in a community where women come together to discuss issues. They are a place of gender support, mutual communication, communal planning, and in some cases, communal protection in times of war. To build a water system for such a community is definitely a contribution to the life of a community, and particularly to the lives of local women. However, the efficiency of bringing water to the home becomes a destructive factor in the social and cultural webs of women in that community. What is efficiency for one group of long- or short-term missionaries is disruptive to the social and cultural relations of a community. The efficiency model of mission assumes that the missionary culture comes to solve the perceived chaos of another community without considering the cultural configuration that is in place in that perceived chaotic culture. Efficiency and productivity replace careful study and engagement with the missionized cultures.

I have heard the argument that the urgency of material need should prevail over the time-consuming process of careful study and engagement with the missionized cultures. This has been a persuasive argument to promote projects that have been strongly supported by missionized groups in the context of developing countries. Nevertheless, it should not be a surprise for a group of missionized Christians not to be aware of the impact of such projects on their own people. It should not be a surprise either for this group of missionized Christians to suddenly discover that the projects have disturbed the cultural process and configuration of their people, creating other problems and giving the impression of lack of gratitude to their missionaries from overseas. Consequently, I want to suggest that the problems of the efficiency model of mission are not intrinsic to the projects themselves, but to the lack of awareness regarding the changes that technology and productivity—as simple as they may be—create in a particular context.

3. The third model for mission is associated with the nineteenth- and mid-twentieth-century formulas proposed by missiologists such as the German Gustav Warneck and the missionary statesman John R. Mott. This formula is a combination of global evangelism, Christian education, and Western civilization. This particular description of mission results in the indiscriminate use of the term "missions." As a result, when "missions" is mentioned, multiple meanings are evoked. For example, "missions" can refer to: (1) the sending of missionaries to a territory; (2) the activities that such missionaries undertake; (3) the agencies that sponsor the missionaries; (4) the non-Christian world or "mission field," or "mission stations." "Missions" also alludes to the propagation of the faith, the expansion of the Reign of God, the conversion of the heathen, and the establishment of new congregations.

It is common to find in these elements a driving motivation for church members to get involved in mission. Such a driving motivation comes, as Orlando Costas said, from "the interplay between the American missionary movement and American imperialism." It nurtures a nostalgic vision of what American "misssions" was all about: the exportation of Euro-American Christianity and civilization as the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This description of mission I call the nostalgic model of mission.

The passion found in the nostalgic model of mission is striking. First, the nostalgic model romanticizes past memories of a perceived time of glory and triumph. It is nurtured by the religious messianism that has so intensely shaped the identity of the United States—an elected country for the salvation of the world. It is linked to patriotism and cultural superiority, identity factors deeply ingrained in the North American psyche.

Any critical engagement with these formulas is considered to be a sign of disbelief and distrust of the "gospel of Jesus Christ." In many Christian congregations and organizations, to approve of these formulas is to be a legitimate Christian; to disapprove of them is to relinquish the faith. Furthermore, in many circles the nostalgic model of mission is a fundamental criterion for evaluating one's commitment to the Christian faith.

The nostalgic model experienced a crisis in the early 1970s. Churches in the Southern continents lifted their prophetic voices to denounce the imperialistic, paternalistic, and Westernizing character of some of the missionary activity. During this decade, a moratorium on mission and missionaries was declared in a significant number of Protestant churches, denominations, and missionary organizations, creating confusion and tensions between the "older" (missionary-sending, subjects of mission) and the "younger" (missionary-receiving, objects of mission) churches. For instance, it is not uncommon to see congregations that are captive to the nostalgic model of mission debating whether or not to send missionaries to countries where Christian churches have more vitality and missionary activity than congregations in North America. Moreover, the model continues to focus on activities and funding to help missionaries in the foreign field in a laissez- faire mode, which creates tensions among leaders of the "sending" institution. For sure, in the nostalgic model of mission, the congregation seldom participates in the missionary activity that it supports economically.


Excerpted from Mission by Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi. Copyright © 2002 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, Ph.D. is Professor of Global Christianities and Mission Studies at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

Carlos F. Cardoza Orlandi, Ph.D. is Professor of Global Christianities and Mission Studies, Perkins School of Theology Southern Methodist University

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