Juan Francisco Martínez and Jamie Pitts, What Is God’s Mission in the World and How Do We Join It? Herald, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 2021.
87 pp. $12.99. ISBN: 978-1-5138-0566-5.
My husband, Todd, and I served in China with Mennonite Church Canada International Witness. When we were back in North America speaking in churches we noticed two distinct groups of people within the congregations we visited: One group was so excited to see us; they had been praying and giving generously for the ministry in China, and they held us up on a completely undeserved pedestal. The other group either skipped church the Sunday we spoke or directly confronted us to explain that mission work is colonial and evil. We often wondered if either group really understood what we were actually doing, or even what “mission work” meant.
Martínez and Pitts have a message for both of these groups and for the entire church: “It is not that the church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church. . . . God invites us to be part of the task” (40). This ambitious addition to the series The Jesus Way: Small Books of Radical Faith seeks to identify the incarnational mission of God in Jesus, outline the history of mission, and address key issues in mission. It goes in-depth on two main themes—incarnational mission and the church as missional community.
In the book Calloused Hands, Courageous Souls, Robert J. Suderman says that the Good News cannot be Good if it doesn’t fit into all cultures in all places of the world, and it cannot be News if it doesn’t challenge all cultures in all places of the world.1 Martínez and Pitts point out that “because humans both reflect the fact that we are God’s creation and are harmed by sin, our cultures and our churches also reflect both” (48). For them it follows that “there is no Christian culture or Christian nation” (48) and that “incarnational missionaries live in this tension between adaptation and confrontation” (51).
In our first orientation on our way to China in 1991, the late Atlee Beechy, Professor Emeritus of Goshen College, said, “When you get to China, take off your shoes. You are standing on holy ground.” He made it very clear to us that God had been at work in China long before we would arrive there and God’s work would continue long after we left. Our job was to see what God was doing and be signposts to God’s work. Martínez and Pitts add to this understanding, saying that as signposts we make visible what God is doing in the world through “communities of intentional invitation where mission is a natural part of who we are and how we understand our reason for existence in the world” (43).
For Martínez and Pitts, the church is mission: “God’s mission is at the core of what it means to be a community of believers in Jesus Christ” (41). This link between God’s mission and our vision of what it means to be church is not new. I am reminded of Anicka Fast’s 2016 article in Mennonite Quarterly Review, “The Earth Is the Lord’s: Anabaptist Mission as Boundary-Crossing Global Ecclesiology.” Fast writes:
An older generation of North American Mennonite mission scholars and historians, younger voices speaking largely from within a Mennonite World Conference context, and a variety of thinkers from the Global South are all richly expressing the key Anabaptist conviction that ecclesiology and missiology are essentially connected.2
This is an energizing view of what it means to be a church! Consider how Emmanuel Katongole—a Ugandan Catholic priest and professor at the University of Notre Dame—understands the implications of this vision: “The goal of mission is not primarily aid (humanitarian assistance); it’s not even partnership. We engage in mission to establish friendships that lead to the formation of a new people in the world.”3
Friendships and the Formation of a People
The goal is not for mission to build the church but for the church to form a new creation. Mission is integral to that purpose as it is formational to the community that engages in it.
It is on this point that I would have been interested to hear more from the authors. In what way does mission change the church? What happens within individuals, congregations, and larger church bodies as they seek to participate in God’s mission? Mutual transformation takes place when deeper understandings about what it means to follow Jesus arise through interaction with the other. There is something holy about the space where we meet together from differing cultures and backgrounds. How is this important in the formation of the new creation?
During a recent online conversation between the Colombian Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church Canada, Pastor Patricia Rosero from the Iglesia Cristiana Menonita Santa Marta (Usme, Cundinamarca) said, “The aspects of our faith that we don’t put into practice will remain ignored, neglected or spiritualized; they will never come alive.” Do we believe that God is active in our world, healing and reconciling? That belief comes alive in a personal way when we seek to join God’s mission in the world.
To those who put the mission workers of our church on a pedestal and for those who throw up their hands that mission is colonial, this book is a profound reminder of who God is, who Jesus is as God’s mission incarnate, and where the church fits into God’s mission in the world. It is an excellent resource for study and discussion in congregations that likely include members of both groups.
After twenty-five years of living and working in China, Jeanette Hanson, Director of International Witness for Mennonite Church Canada, is copying the Chinese three-generational living style in Rosthern, Saskatchewan.
Robert J. Suderman, Calloused Hands, Courageous Souls: Holistic Spirituality of Development and Mission (Moravia: World Vision, 1998), 58.
Anicka Fast, “The Earth Is the Lord’s: Anabaptist Mission as Boundary-Crossing Global Ecclesiology,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 3 (July 2016): 357.
Emmanuel Katongole as quoted in Fast, “The Earth Is the Lord’s,” 371.