When she was co-pastor with her husband of a mission church in rural Alaska, the Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble hosted many short-term mission trips from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations elsewhere.
“As time went on we struggled to continue to find work projects for these groups,” Gamble told the Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology Wednesday (April 24) at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS). “We began to ask whether it wouldn’t be more beneficial to create jobs in the village rather than mission projects for church groups.”
In her colloquium talk, titled “Right Mission,” Gamble ― mission advocate for hunger, poverty and peacemaking concerns for Pacific Presbytery ― argued that “our primary posture for mission ― as a relationship of benefactor/beneficiary ― is in need of a paradigm shift. Whether our mission has been primarily evangelical or charitable, international or local, we have been culpable of operating out of a framework that has been at times patronizing, disempowering, hurtful and ineffective to those we meant to help.”
With the denominational shift from churches supporting long-term mission workers to congregations increasingly engaging in their own short-term mission trips, the need for this paradigm shift is even more acute, Gamble said. Those engaging in mission must first acknowledge their own brokenness.
“Mission is not about us,” she said. “The mission to which we are called is God’s redemptive mission in Jesus Christ who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sets the oppressed free. It is about living into the kingdom that Christ proclaimed.
That mission is profoundly about relationships, Gamble continued. “Mission is not a list of things we do. It is a posture, an orientation. It is being in relationship with those who suffer and being willing to sacrifice on their behalf,” she said. “If we can identify our grief and pain and admit we are in need of God’s redemptive mission (ourselves) we will be further on the way to understanding mission in humility and equality with our brothers and sisters experiencing poverty.”
The new missional paradigm based on mutual transformation can only be created in the context of worship, Gamble insisted. “We simply cannot get there without intentional spiritual formation in worship,” she said. “If a missional identity is central to who we are, worship is the central gathering place that nurtures us in this new identity.”
Worship and mission are inseparable, said Gamble, echoing a theme that rose up repeatedly throughout the colloquium, which was also sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation. “We need worship to be the place where the vision of the reign of God is proclaimed … where we are trained in right ways of being and thinking in mission .. where our imagination is renewed and creativity is elicited … where we are sensitized to recognize the inbreaking of God’s kingdom invitation in our lives,” she said.
Seen in this light, Gamble said, quoting David Livermore from his book Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence, all mission activities are seen not as a penultimate act of discipleship, but rather as “’another expression of a seamless life of missional living that includes giving and receiving’ where our primary task is to learn.”
In her response to Gamble’s presentation, APTS second-year student Ruth Ellswood affirmed mutuality in mission, citing churches’ accompaniment of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida as an example of “people of faith coming together for support in their efforts.”
The Rev. Bill Clark of Austin’s Westminster Presbyterian Church also affirmed the integration of worship and mission Gamble posited but wondered if there are models of benefactor/beneficiary relationships that are positive. “We have people who can’t go on mission trips but who want to share their resources in helpful ways. Is that possible?”
Gamble answered that for such people giving to organizations that are operating out of partnership models can be helpful. “The benefactor/beneficiary model is very practical in situations such as disaster response,” she said, “but communities need to move beyond that. For all of us the task is educational ― all responses can be appropriate.”