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Essentials in the practice of mission

IN RECENT years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of mission trips to poorer countries neighbouring Singapore. This prompts us to ask, “What is it that helps towards an effective mission practice?”

There are three elements that can be identified as essential in good mission practice, namely, the head, the life and the heart. While each is important, it works best only when it works in tandem with the rest.

The head
Firstly, the head signifies the importance of being knowledgeable about mission issues.

There are some aspects of knowledge that those involved in mission should be familiar with:

a) Biblical knowledge, (eg, what is the Bible, how do we interpret the Bible, how do we relate the Bible to our life situations), b) Cultural understanding (eg, understanding the complexities of cultures and communication across cultures, differentiating between cultural values and biblical values, understanding ourselves and understanding others),

c) Ministry skills (eg, community development skills, teaching and preaching skills, communication skills, pastoral and evangelistic skills),

d) Contextual information (eg, the history and current context of the country and the people, their religious values, cultures and traditions).

Relevant training is often one of the more neglected aspects of mission involvement. Yet, with the various training options available, training is also one of the easier aspects to develop in our preparation for mission activity.

There is an unwise belief among some that training in missions is optional because we come from a “mature” church context or an economically richer country.

The life
Secondly, there is the issue of life, or of living with the community.

Much as the knowledge that we gain from our training is important, it must be complemented with a contextual knowledge that comes from living with the community. Our decision-making must arise from first-hand contact with the community, the people, the region and the country that we seek to be involved in.

One danger in the management of missions is centralised decision-making many miles from the context. And at times such decisions are taken by leadership which may not have had the opportunity to have sufficient engagement with the context other than short forays during mission trips.

Sometimes we are in grave danger of being “the one-minute missionary”. We enter a place, ask the people what problems they face or what they need and then we proceed to give the solutions to the problems. In this way, we deceive ourselves that it is all in a day’s work to resolve problems that communities live and struggle with for years, or even a lifetime.


‘While appropriate knowledge and an appreciation of the significance of a field perspective may pave the way for effective ministry, there is one other essential factor for good mission practice: we need a heart that is committed to God and has a genuine love for people.’

Speaking at a forum on “Transformational Mission”, Saul Crux, the founder of Armonia, a mission that works among one of the poorest communities in Mexico, said: “To work with the poor … we need to know and experience transformation ourselves through personal experience with the poor … There is danger today that we have experts on transformational mission who have not worked in the field before.” Let us work at making room to listen to the community and to those who work with the communities. This does not imply that the person who works in the field is necessarily right. However, a person who lives in a context of conflict, for example, may be able to give a perspective borne out of personal experience that will be important to consider as we evaluate the different options of action in a context of civil unrest.

The heart

While appropriate knowledge and an appreciation of the significance of a field perspective may pave the way for effective ministry, there is one other essential factor for good mission practice: we need a heart that is committed to God and has a genuine love for people.

In describing what he felt was important in working with the poor, Saul Cruz said: “ … We must be ready to make their lack our lack, their fears our fears, and their problems our own until we, by God’s grace, can empower them with our lives so that there is no more isolation, no more exploitation, no more powerlessness or lack of choices but an abundant life in Christ.”

It is an issue of commitment to a relationship and identification with the people. We need to go beyond our tasks and recognise that the poor whom we seek to work with are actually people with names, people with lives that we need to entwine with. Because of our commitment to God and to the people, we learn to walk with the community, to accompany them in their life journey. We need to focus on the people and their dreams, rather than on our agenda and goals.

Good mission practice calls for appropriate knowledge and skills, a participatory approach and a commitment to the community. I want to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13:13 that says it so well: Now there are these three, the head, the life and the heart and the greatest of these is the heart for it is the heart of love for God and the people that lays the foundation for all else to be built.