Posted by: Titus Presler | October 11, 2009

Dialogical method ideal in parish mission teaching

A recent Sunday forum offered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., illustrates how the major missional themes needing emphasis in the 21st century are already embedded in people’s probing awareness.  And it illustrates how the teaching task, like that of Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues, is one of helping people discover and organize what they’re already aware of, not one of pouring new content into their thinking.

On Sunday, 4 October 2009, I was invited to offer a Sunday forum on the theme of world mission.  The Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson, newly appointed curate in the parish and a former student of mine at General Seminary, was keen to have a session that would rekindle the parish’s interest in global engagement, provide new perspectives on world mission, and motivate parishioners to undertake some kind of intentional involvement over the coming year.

The topic we settled on was this: Companions in Difference: Mission’s Shape in the 21st Century.  Here was the accompanying blurb: “What does it mean for a parish like St. Alban’s to engage with the world beyond its own community?  What are the opportunities and challenges of reaching out in Christ?  Is there a continuing place for mission after legacies of conquest and paternalism?”

Clearly I wanted to get at two concepts that I believe are central in Christian mission and which I’m doing a good deal of writing about these days: Encounter with difference is intrinsic to the nature of Christian mission, and companionship is the emerging mode of mission in the 21st century.  As on many past occasions, I decided that Socratic dialogue, not lecture, was the teaching mode to adopt, with the aim of discovering what was already there in people’s consciousness.  I also decided not to begin the dialogue with the word “mission,” lest the discussion become bogged down with people’s only partly accurate stereotypes about missionaries and mission history.

So, with the 40 or so people present, I opened with a pretty open-ended question: “What is the scope of what God is sending you and St. Alban’s to be and do?”  I explained that “scope” refers to what one has in view, the range of what one is looking at.  Obviously, I smuggled mission in through the reference to “sending,” but that was an implicit and subliminal mission reference rather than an explicit mention.

The responses were remarkable in working toward what I was driving at:

• “Arthur,” (assigned names), a physican or a researcher of some kind, picked up on “scope” and noted that a microscope has several lenses: a scanning lens for seeing the entire field of the slide, or most of it; then lenses of greater magnification; and finally an “oil immersion” lens, for seeing in greatest detail.  This he likened to the wide scope of Christian mission and to the very particular and narrow efforts that make up that wide scope.

• “Karen” said she wanted to be a pilgrim.  She wanted to “go out” and be a pilgrim.  As a pilgrim she would deepen her spiritual life as she would see how other people and other cultures experience God.  She noted that one of the stages of life in Indian spirituality is that of the pilgrim, and I confirmed that the sanyasi is indeed the fourth of the classical stages of life in Hindu thought, when the busy householder, businessman or person in public life retires to the forest to grow spiritually.  In current missiological thought, pilgrimage has become quite prominent, the notion being that the missionary discovers God and the gospel in the process of sharing it across cultural boundaries (see Horizons of Mission and Companions in Transformation for more on the pilgrimage theme).  Karen’s “going out” is intrinsically missional in its directionality.

• “Roy” said he thought God was calling him to “discover God’s creation.”  Here is the emerging environmental concern of Christian mission, explicit in the final item in the World Council of Churches’ thematic slogan, “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation” (JPIC), and the final item in the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

• “Hospitality and welcome” were the themes highlighted by “Andrea,” who said she wanted to “experience a rich tapestry of cultures here at St. Alban’s.”  The composition of that morning’s group indicated that diversifying to such a rich tapestry was a growing edge for St. Alban’s, but Andrea’s longing was intrinsically missional in that she intuited that the call to mission is a call to difference and that any Christian community needs to respond to that call if it is to be healthy and whole.  Hospitality was the theme of the 2006 annual mission conference sponsored by the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Anglican Communion’s oldest mission society.

• “William” said he felt God was calling him to “feed the poor and the homeless here in D.C.”  St. Alban’s is a reasonably affluent community, so this call was a call to go out beyond the parish community itself and to form community with those who are different, both intrinsically missional impulses.  In fact, St. Alban’s has a significant outreach to the hungry and the homeless, in which William doubtless participates.  I noted that “outreach” is the commonest synonym for “mission” in the church’s life and recalled to the group how rector Scott Benhase that morning had concluded his sermon with reference to reaching out “to the person next to you in the pew” – what we might term community life – and “to the people of the city outside our doors” – that is, in mission outreach.

• “Greg” said he felt God was calling him, the parish and the Christian community to “borderlessness.”  “We need to get to the point where there are no borders, where we realize we’re one humanity, whether here in D.C., or in Egypt, or elsewhere in Africa or Asia!”  “What do you need to do to reach that place?” I asked Greg and the group.  The answer was obvious: “Cross borders!” – the action that is implicit in the notion of mission as the encounter with difference.

• “The scope is infinite,” declared “Myrtle,” who then talked about the Millennium Development Goals: how they include the range of urgent human needs, and how the personal task is to decide where one feels called to focus, whether in women’s rights, or primary health care, or education, or poverty elimination.

You can see that with these rich responses it was easy then to introduce and develop my understanding of mission: “Mission is ministry in the dimension of difference.”  In doing so I was also able to tie in with the conclusion of the parish’s own mission statement: “We know that God is calling us.  To come together in joyful faith.  To go out, together, in the spirit of Christ” (my italics).

The second Socratic question was this: “So then: Sent into difference – but to do what?”  Here’s a list of the responses:

– to talk with, to be with

– to express partiality to the weak

– to break down barriers

– to respect differences (with a reference to Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference)

– to listen (with special reference to the turmoil of the Anglican Communion)

– to honor the truth of the other (with a reference to James Fowler’s thought)

Here again you can see that from this list it was easy to develop resonances that worked toward the theme of companionship as the paradigm of Christian mission in the 21st century, a theme that contrasts with fix-it and send-dollars approaches to mission.

So what I wanted to highlight was already there.  The pedagogical task was simply to ask the questions that would bring it to the surface.  Then it could be organized, developed and given its proper place in the parish’s ongoing discernment of God’s call to mission in their common life.  Yes, St. Alban’s parishioners are well educated and cosmopolitan, but I have found this method to be effective in virtually every setting I’ve tried it in, and that is a very diverse collection of settings indeed.



  1. A superb summary of this wonderful interactive exploration of what an expanded emphasis global mission might mean for St Alban’s. I suggest that these themes be explored further as a framework for a world mission committee or task force at St Alban’s/ I can see a compelling mission statement emerging from these thoughts. Am grateful to Titus for so effectively using the thoughts of parishioners as the grist for a very productive conversation. Richard

    • Thanks, Richard! I’m so glad this might be helpful in the conversation at St. Alban’s. My hope is that it may be helpful for conversations about mission in other congregations as well. Best, Titus

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