Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about missions. The feature in this issue is Part 2 in a series focussing on partnerships between congregations and Witness workers. These workers were sent by Mennonite Church Canada on our behalf, to use their skills and their passions alongside local Christians for the work of God in those unique settings. (See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)
I encourage you to read this feature, and the one in the July 3, 2017, issue, if you haven’t already done so. You’ll learn about some unique ways Witness workers are sharing the good news, and how people here in Canada are a part of that ministry.
Then there are the accounts of what might be called career missionaries, stories we have told on these pages and online. Mary and Peter Derksen served for 45 years in Japan and made lasting connections that continue until today. There’s the tribute to Florence Kreider, who, along with her husband Roy, spent 32 years in Israel working in peacemaking and interfaith reconciliation. Last fall we carried a tribute to my father, Kenneth Schwartzentruber, who, along with my mother Grace, served for 32 years in Brazil, primarily with Christian literature. We carried the obituary of Peter Kehler, who served 16 years in Taiwan, worked in pastorates and conference leadership in North America, and, in later years, served in Ukraine. And Marianne Thiessen, whose January 2015 obituary states simply that she had a “lifetime of service,” serving mostly with Mennonite Central Committee in Canada and abroad.
I learned about a recent survey conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Missions Research Forum. The Canadian Evangelical Missions Engagement Study looked as people’s attitudes and involvement in “mission” or “missions.” Researchers polled more than 3,400 Canadians and conducted interviews with 56 individuals, examining why Canadians engage in missions, what the priorities are and how they promote missions. Two sections of the research studied people’s involvement in long-term and short-term mission work. (Note: MC Canada belongs to the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and a category of survey respondents was labelled “Anabaptist.” Our national church also connects with the Canadian Council of Churches.)
The researchers wrote “mission” and “missions” intentionally in quotation marks, because they found that people’s definitions varied as to what this activity entailed. That ambiguity is also present in Mennonite circles.
For some of us, the attitude toward missions goes beyond ambiguity. In fact, Mennonites have been accused of being “allergic to missions!” Hippolyto Tshimanga, one of the speakers at the Mennonite World Conference 2015 Assembly, challenged the crowd to get over that uneasiness around mission. “There is no such thing as a church without mission; mission is the DNA of the church,” he declared.
In recent years, we have been aware of the ugly legacy colonialism has left in many parts of the world. And we have seen how Christian missions—however well intentioned—have played a part in that legacy of paternalism and exploitation. Some suggest that the era of foreign missionaries is over and that North Americans should concentrate our efforts here “at home.”
Yet there’s something winsome about the stories of our current overseas workers, and of those who dedicated their entire work lives, sometimes even their retirement years, to some form of mission. Hearing their stories—and the stories of those they served with—we can see how God worked through these imperfect human beings to carry out the work of healing and hope.
Now is a good time to consider what we mean when we, as a Mennonite church, talk about and engage in missions in today’s reality. Do we want to continue affirming—and supporting—the calling individuals feel toward overseas work? As the structure of MC Canada embarks on new directions, we need to consider carefully what role we want the Witness program to play. And whether our congregations are seriously committed to mission work in the future.