“Language forms identity as words shape and express belief and ideals, choices and purpose. Notions conveyed in words and phrases provide framework on which life decisions are made and efforts are expended.” Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition, p. xv.
With these words, I open my long investigation into the enigmatic, muddled, and contested meaning and use of the word “mission.” Two years after the publication of Transcending Mission, I am more convinced than ever that something is amiss and mission language must change. For all the biblical, theological, cultural, historical, and relational reasons detailed in the book, we must redouble our efforts to speak in more descriptive and meaningful language regarding how the church views itself and how it engages the world. In fact, “we find ourselves in ‘the new post-foreign mission situation,’ requiring us to re-conceive the church and world encounter, not redefine or reform mission. More than ever, mission, its past and future, is in question. More than ever our pioneering task is to discover fresh impulse and renewed witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ” (TM, p. 353).
So, if a change is needed, what would be more appropriate language? Here is my growing lexicon, my list of alternative words and phrases: mission — witness, love, friendship, sacrifice missionary — cross-cultural worker, pilgrim witness, friend, brother/sister mission trips — cross-cultural exchanges, witness trips, pilgrimages mission field — Haiti, Beijing, etc.— call a place by its name missional church — the church, the people of God, the community of witness mission targets— neighbors, human beings — call people by their name mission churches — churches (e.g., Nigerian Church), brothers and sisters Whatever words we use, they need to reflect the aim and intent of mutuality, reciprocity, relationship, and love.
Changing our language is no longer just an option — it is an absolute necessity. One of the measures of our faithfulness to God and his gospel is the seriousness and intentionality with which we continually evaluate and adjust the way in which we speak about other human beings created in God’s image. A telling sign that we view ourselves as the center of the world and our brand of Christianity as the sole standard by which all other forms are to be measured and judged is our use of objectifying words. An indication that we are blind to ongoing unequal power dynamics that ruin relationships and spoil our witness is an uncritical use of us-them language.
Above all, change is an absolute necessity because of our need to be transformed into the likeness and ways of Jesus Christ. To have the attitude that was in Christ Jesus, we must go low, live in solidarity, and become servants. This kind of transformation surely begins with our words.