I’ve read with interest a bunch of stories surrounding the “rebranding” of the staff and environs surrounding 815 2nd Avenue, and its various non-New York satellite offices, to “The Missionary Society.” The quest to find a suitable name for the offices and staff that compose our churchwide governance has always been something of an unreachable goal – I suspect the church won’t ever coin a term that works until Jesus returns in glory. I can think of at least four names I’ve either used or been told to use over the years: “the national church,” “815,” “the Episcopal Church Center,” “the staff of The Episcopal Church.” I should admit up front that I have plenty of problems with the new name, and the way it’s being adopted and promulgated. I’m going to term the organization “The Group Formerly Known as 815.”
But I was surprised to read on the Episcopal Cafe the other day an article written by Torey Lightcap that rooted some of the deepest concern about the change with its use of the word missionary.
Here’s why it surprised me: if, at my funeral, someone were asked to describe who I was, and s/he were to answer “He was a missionary,” I’d consider it the mark of a life, a ministry, and a baptism well lived.
So, I want to respectfully disagree with some of the concerns that have been made about the use of the word missionary. I want to do this by engaging in what I hope will be a wholistic manner with the article, rather than doing the old-fashioned “point-by-point” internet rebuttal. That doesn’t leave room for conversation – which, well, is exactly what missionaries often wouldn’t do in the past.
Let me be clear that my argument is not that the current rebranding is, in fact, conceived in perfection, suavely executed, and a work of sheer genius. It isn’t. But actually, I’m not that worried about the decision. It’s neither here nor there for me.
The essay (read it in full – it’s absolutely worth deep consideration) reminds us of the great historical baggage attached to the word missionary both within the United States and abroad – an assessment that I don’t dispute in the least. I grew up in South Carolina, in the midst of a strongly Conservative evangelical Southern Baptist culture – and can readily feel within myself the word missionary rousing a picture of undying and unyielding certitude and one-size-fits-all packaged faith solutions that are tone-deaf, insensitive to the needs of the world. Most of all, it reminds me of a picture of emotional manipulation. In other parts of the world, the baggage associated with colonialism is even stronger: forced conversions to Christianity under threat of death, genocide, slavery, heedless exploitation and mastery of other peoples and cultures for profit.The baggage of language is intense, painful, and deep. So the term missionary, it is argued, doesn’t play, and can’t possibly play; the weight is too deep, creates too many barriers, it is fundamentally exclusive.
The baggage of the word missionary – as it speaks to the modern mind – needs to be owned by the church for what it is: sin. It’s sinful to force people to convert to Christianity, because it doesn’t respect their dignity as a human being and it leaves no room for the beautiful stirrings of the grace of God that move within the soul in a free and unforced choice to follow Jesus. It’s sinful to view other people as a mark on a “conversion tally sheet,” because it fails to even begin to try and see a person, with wants, needs, joys, and fears – it fails to see the image of God within them. The sins that so many associate with missionaries need to be acknowledged and repented of by the church – full stop.
I’ve always been a strong believer that our call as a church is to present to the world a new and different narrative of what it means to be a follower of Jesus – yes, a missionary of Jesus – than the ones that have caused so much damage in the past. We need to recall words like evangelism and missionary out from wreckage that we attached to it through our own past sins.
For a long time, I ran from these words, having grown up in a culture where they represent so much that is damaging, and hurtful, and sinful. I wanted to be called anything but evangelical, anything but a missionary. I was happy to be called an Episcopalian. At least that term presented minimal baggage I had to wrestle with.
But to create new words, or find new terms for those that the Church has distorted over time through its own sin is, in many ways, to avoid the issue of that sin, and make a deft maneuver away from a difficult conversation we need to have with the world about our own faults and failings. It denies us the opportunity to be fallible, to be human, to be vulnerable to criticism.
And, above all, it surrenders to the idea that things have to remain this way – that the baggage of a history is so great it can never be overcome; that the wounds are so deep, that they cannot be healed. The gospel tells us this isn’t the case – that Jesus loves us with no exceptions. Period. They tell us that God’s grace is open to all, and is the way that we are pieced back together so that, step by step, we begin to see that great work of reconciliation that is God’s dream for the world.
To run from the word missionary because of history is to avoid a conversation that we so desperately need to have with the world: it denies us the opportunity to show the movement of the grace of Jesus Christ in our lives that led us to realize the actions that created all this emotional baggage was sinful. It gets us out of the difficult task of telling our story, admitting our failings, and then telling how Jesus has changed us, shaped us, and pieced us back together.
So I firmly believe that for the church to run away from the word missionary is to run from the promises of our baptism, and the people the gospel calls us to be; witnesses to the grace of God, to the power of God’s reconciling love for all. The words missionary and the word mission – as I know is repeated ad infinitum in the church – come from the Latin word missio – which has at its core meaning, the act of sending and being sent. Missionaries, therefore, become people “people sent out” – people, who, following after the example of Jesus Christ, are given for the life of the world. People who bear the good news; people who work for justice and peace; people who seek nothing less than healing, wholeness and the reconciliation of the world to God. Missionaries are people fully given over to others. It’s the word – more than any other – that encapsulates what the Great Commandment and the Great Commission charge us to be. As Christians, it’s who we are. It’s who I want to be.
The church can debate – and should debate – about the process by which “The Group Formerly Known as 815” chooses to rebrand as “The Missionary Society.” We can ask whether it was an astute and well-executed choice, or one that is bound to invite snickers and disdain, and even whether it was canonically permissible. We can debate about the leadership choices and principles inherent in the process. There’s a lot to wrestle with there, that should be wrestled with.
But as to being called “Missionary” – well, that’s a title that I would love to be worthy of. By God’s grace, someday, I hope to achieve it.
Editorial Note: Several spelling mistakes and typos changed on a second read. Apologies for that!