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Mission Musings

The Time of Mission is Over

By Üllas Tankler*

July 22, 2013In Estonia, Northern Europe, the public media is not very eager to cover issues relating to religion. In this extremely secularized country,  no one seems interested in matters of Christian faith. But surprisingly,  Rüdiger Noll from CEC (direktor der KEK-Kommission Kirche und Gesellschaft or director of the Conference of European Churches) was interviewed by the leading Estonian national newspaper last September.  The interview headline  read: “The Time of Mission is Over.“ This is indeed what Mr. Noll told the journalist in the interview. He also added,“The word ’mission’ does not belong to my vocabulary.“  Now, this caught my attention.

Ironically, just a couple of days before I saw this article in that newspaper, I happened to sit next to Mr. Noll at an airport on my way back to Estonia. If only I had seen this publication before that casual meeting, I would have had the most interesting conversation with him!Üllas Tankler, Mission Relationships executive for Europe, Middle East, and North Africa, examines the concept and meaning of mission.
Photo of Estonia landscape courtesy of ©Tuulum |

Methodists tend to speak a lot about mission. Are we thus discussing matters that belong to the past? Or is it rather that our interpretation of the concept of ’mission’ is still tied to views and ideas from the past? Some of the meanings commonly associated with the word ’mission’ are not something many of us want to identify with.

In this column we are going to discuss mission matters. By doing this I hope we will discover that this very concept is in transition (unterwegs). We may also discover that we don’t necessarily need to delete the word from our personal or denominational vocabulary. Rather, we may (re-)discover that a fresh look at mission as God’s mission (missio Dei) takes us into transition.

Anne doesn’t know she is a missionary

Anne is a piano teacher at a local music school in Estonia. She is also the organist at her local United Methodist church. Music is very important to her, and so is the Christian faith. She cannot preach in the music school, and she (fortunately) doesn’t even try because she knows she is not a preacher. However, Anne has done all kinds of other things in her double role as church member and music teacher.  She has asked her pupils to perform a piece of music for church worship, which could have been labeled under ’practice of public performance’.  Surely some of these pupils might have never experienced church worship before if Anne had not invited them to play.  Then, she proposed concerts in the church. Now, more students come to perform and of course, they all brought their friends and family members to church to listen to them. People came to church who otherwise would not attend.

Anne took another step further. She initiated an Easter concert where in one event both the pupils of the music school and various music groups of her congregation participated. Having music so much in her heart, Anne started a project that created an opportunity for students to specialize in Christian music at her school. Recently, they celebrated 10 years of that department and Anne did it by organizing an exhibiton of Christian music notes – again in her church, not at school.  Anne does not preach. She does not evangelize with words. But she participates in God’s mission. Therefore, I call her and all the Christians who represent their faith and values right where they are, creatively – a  missionary. Even as she does not think she is one.

A Swede in Moscow

My work takes me to Moscow at least twice a year. But this is a story that did not happen with me. It happened with my friend Hans. Several years ago, he was taking a bus to get to work, and somone approached him at the bus stop, asking for something—most probably about the bus route or a street in neighborhood. Hans didn’t really know how to respond, because he is Swede and his ability to speak Russian at this time was next to nothing.

Sounds like a most natural thing? People asking directions from other people. To get the point of this story, you need to be reminded that he is Swede. And the bus he was riding was in Moscow. Culturally, Russians and Swedes are very different, and to a good extent, these differences are often also outwardly visible. Usually, it is not very difficult to recognize a Westerner in Russia. But in this case, it appears Hans (who, by the way, was bishop of Eurasia UMC for many years) looked like ’one of us’ to this Muscovite – culturally similar enough to assume that he understands Russian and may be able to give directions to a fellow Muscovite.

Is this not something to indicate the beginning point for the church in mission? Do we look close enough to people next to us to create trust so that they believe we might understand them and even point the way?

There is actually an important follow-up to this story. When in the beginning Hans could only hardly respond ’I don’t know’, there came time when he was actually able to answer and help the other Muscovite with directions in Russian. To create trust is really the beginning. But to become able to communicate in the language of your culture is an essential step to further  participate in God’s mission.

*Üllas Tankler, executive secretary, Mission Relationships for Europe, Middle East, and North Africa.

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