Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Communities of Mission Practice

Lake Michigan Presbytery’s September meeting focused on mission. John Petro, an elder at Kalamazoo, First, and I reported on our visit with Ho-East Presbytery, our sister presbytery in Ghana July 17-25. The Rev. Kari Nicewander, a newly commissioned PC(USA) mission coworker to Zambia preached a sermon, “I’m Still Hungry” at worship. Our offering will support her PC(USA) mission; Sarah Wildt, a Young Adult PC(USA) Volunteer; and the Cherry Street Park Mission local in Niles where we met. Presbyterian Mission provided the frame for our debate of a policy to guide us when a Session and congregation struggles with their relationship with the PC(USA).

In my last blog I pointed to 2012 as the 175 Anniversary of Presbyterian World Mission, and how it has adapted to shifting contexts. Here I want to share my shock when reading the beginning history of our mission enterprise in 1837. Judson Taylor, in this summer’s issue of Mission Crossroads, our denominational mission newsletter, wrote about the historic context of our Presbyterian Mission Board, organized in 1837. The General Assembly which launched the Mission Board that year, was the same General Assembly that split the church in its second schism. Early “in 1758” writes Talyor, ”The church ”saw the healing of the Presbyterian schism between the Old Side and New Side…” “Seizing the opportunity to promote Presbyterianism in western Pennsylvania, the synod employed army chaplains and ministers to work that area to establish churches among the new settlers….When the Synod of Pittsburgh was established in 1802, the new body passed a resolution committing itself ‘to diffuse the knowledge of the gospel among the inhabitants of the new settlements; the Indian tribes, and if need be among the interior inhabitants, where they were not able to support the gospel.’”

“The missionary spirit of Presbyterians in western Pennsylvania must also be seen in the light of the larger Protestant mission movement in the first half of the nineteenth century….The American Board of commissioners for Foreign Missions” was organized in 1810. “Though largely an independent mission society of the Congregational churches, the American Board was a non-denominational mission society, and many Presbyterians supported its work. The controversy at the General Assembly in 1837 was: do Presbyterians need their own mission board? The existence of the American Board raised an important theological question for Presbyterians. Can the work of mission be rightly relegated to an independent society (essentially a para-church organization), or should it be seen as integral to the nature of the church and therefore an enterprise of the denomination? Those who took the former view, it was argued, might see mission as something that individual Presbyterians and congregations can do on an optional basis. Those who took the latter view saw mission as the heart of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ.”

“Overtures were presented to General Assemblies in 1812, 1828, and 1831 that called for the establishment of a Presbyterian mission board. The issue, unfortunately, became part of a new division of the time between the Old School and New School wings of the church. Those in western Pennsylvania who sided with the Old School also urged the General Assembly of 1831 to embrace a ‘conceptional change’ in mission thinking. When their overture failed, the Synod of Pittsburgh chose to create its own mission organization, the Western Foreign Missionary Society…The Western Foreign Missionary Society sent its first missionaries to Monrovia, Liberia, and Lodiana in the Punjab of North India (now Pakistan). The society also sent 21 missionaries to Native American tribes, and 39 missionaries to Liberia and India. “

“At the Philadelphia General Assembly of 1837 the theological dispute between the Old School and New School resulted in a second schism. The Old School wing adopted the Western Foreign Missionary Society as its denominational mission organization, changing its name to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions and moving the headquarters to New York. The New School denomination chose to continue to send missionaries through the American Board. However, by the time this latest division in the denomination was healed in 1869, the New School had already begun to support the denomination’s mission board.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Presbyterians arguing over the nature of mission! Passionately dividing and a generation later healing and reuniting? So it goes. FYI, I’ve been invited to join a consultation in Dallas this October on the nature of our mission over the next decade. I haven’t decided yet if I will attend. I have concluded, that we are called into communities of mission practice. Different communities will claim and carry out their divine call. Our challenge seems to be how different communities’ mission intersect and get coordinated. I think Jesus, the head of the body, has something to do with it.