I struggle with the “M” word. I have been uncomfortable with the words “mission” and “missionary” for quite some time now. I’m not certain whether my hesitations stem from my Catholic friends’ confusion about the concept of a “mission trip,” studying African history as a student of religion, or reading The Poisonwood Bible a few too many times. However, I’m certain that, in accepting a position with the word “mission” in the title, I have tied myself to a concept that is often associated with, and criticized for, a history of colonialism, cultural appropriation, racism, and my personal struggle with the “M” word. Of course, mission is much more complicated than that, but the term is laden.
In binding myself to this history, I cannot help but feel in some way responsible for promoting positive practices. In order for the international development efforts of the Church to outshine (and perhaps eventually compensate for) the actions of the past, there must be a shift in thinking, a redefinition, or perhaps a new category altogether. This category must distinguish itself from negative perceptions and misunderstandings that stem from the oft-scrutinized actions of the past; we will simply label this category Modern Mission.
Modern Mission cannot be a protected or sacred category if it wishes to interact with the world around it. However, for most religious organizations, it is still essential that the motivations remain rooted in theology. Yet, for anything to be truly effective, it must embrace the world in which it is working. Then, for Modern Mission to be effective it must reflect the modern world, shedding histories, traditions, and assumptions that hinder progress.
To effect positive change in a globalized, intertwined, increasingly secular, and remarkably skeptical world, there must be an honesty and a transparency about what is going on. There cannot be “cloak and dagger bible studies” in the back of a restaurant that you are invited to only after you have ordered pork products from the menu. Modern Mission must embrace the idea that Christians can work to make the world a better place without first insisting that the world agrees with their Christian theology.
I am fortunate to work for two organizations — CEOSS and Global Ministries—that strive to meet the broad definition I have laid out. These examples have allowed me to cultivate a list of more tangible features of this new category. Tangibles that might not necessarily come to mind when you think about mission, particularly the traditional image of the lone wolf pastor setting off the convert the masses.
Modern Mission has HR, PR, and IT. For the most part it is 9:00 to 5:00 (well, 8:00 to 4:30 at CEOSS), Monday to Friday, and 40 hours a week. There are meetings, trainings, conferences, and conference calls. It is less concerned with an individual’s religiosity, and more concerned with their humanity. In fact, if you did not read Arabic and wandered into the office building where I work, you might easily be convinced that it was an insurance company, paper manufacturer, or advertising firm.
CEOSS’ approach to Modern Mission has embraced a theology of involvement and transparency in tandem with 21st century sustainable development practices. The combination has created a successful civil society organization that can fluently speak the languages of religious civil society and secular development. This approach has made remarkable strides—in education, development, healthcare, publishing, business, gender equality, international dialogue, and agriculture—which benefit nearly two million Egyptians annually.
Beginning as a literacy program in 1950, CEOSS’ efforts have always been firmly rooted in an understanding of living out faith in an Egyptian context, advancing education, empowering citizens, and serving rural communities. The duality of CEOSS’ approach—as a grass roots organizer and international non-governmental organization (NGO)—has allowed efforts and programs to remain closely tied to the needs of Egypt’s most marginalized communities. Small farmers, women, and laborers enrolled in CEOSS’ literacy and adult education courses voiced concerns about working conditions, economic hardships, health, and social inequalities that gave rise to other programs. These initiatives have continued to grow and now include a hospital, a publishing house, bookstores, schools, agricultural collectives, and vocational training. Each of these programs comes not from a theological need to evangelize, but from a spiritual need to listen to those who are struggling and provide the help they need.
My favorite CEOSS program is the Mobile Prosthetics Workshop. Rural communities in Egypt have a notably high percentage of people with disabilities that require prostheses or other assistive technologies. While a number of charities and NGOs provided prosthetics and assistive technologies there was no system in place to provide repairs or routine maintenance. Local organizing committees brought this need to CEOSS’ attention. CEOSS developed a mobile workshop and trained technicians to repair and maintain prosthetics and assistive technologies, free of charge.
I love this program not because my sister does research in assistive technologies, but because it demonstrates the effectiveness of transparent, need-based, practices. A widespread need was identified, a solution was developed, and help was provided—no shibboleth required. While its motivations might be rooted in a theological desire to help people, Modern Mission is successful because it utilizes the best of 21st century development practices.
Will O'Brien serves as a Global Mission Intern with the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS). His appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Our Church’s Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.