Posted by: Titus Presler | June 30, 2011

Presbyterian mission foci shift in preparation for World Mission Matters conference

As members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) prepare for their World Mission Matters conference at the denomination’s omnibus Big Tent event in Indianapolis from June 30 to July 2, it appears that the Presbyterian World Mission’s foci for the vision of God’s mission they wish to place before the 2.3-million-member church has evolved from the four “critical global issues” they articulated in 2010.

Justice, Witness and Reconciliation are the three themes for World Mission Matters, which sums them up as follows:

The World Mission Matters conference will equip you for more faithful and effective mission.  The conference will be shaped around three critical global issues that partner churches around the world have asked that we address together, to be part of the rain of blessing that God intends for all God’s creation:

Justice: Addressing the root causes of poverty, particularly as they impact women and children.

Witness: Together with other members of Christ’s body, sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Reconciliation: Working for reconciliation in cultures plagued by violence, including our own.

In its April 2010, document, “Global Discipleship: Four Critical Issues for World Mission’s Strategic Focus,” Presbyterian World Mission articulated four priorities that both share elements with and differ from this year’s three issues.  The first, “’Be My Witnesses’: Strengthening the Church’s capacity to survive, to thrive and to witness to the good news in Jesus Christ,” was similar to this year’s second issue, but the 2011 version focuses more on sheer witness and less on strengthening churches in other parts of the world.  Significantly, however, witness moves from first to second position this year.

Last year’s second issue, poverty, expressed as “Women and Children First: Addressing the negative effects of economic globalization on the poorest and most vulnerable in every society, women and children,” moves this year to first position,  reflecting the common view in mainline denominations that mission should focus first on poverty.  This year the issue is encapsulated in terms of justice, reflecting the important recognition that injustice is the most basic root of poverty.  I challenge the mainline’s reduction of mission to poverty alleviation in Going Global with God, my 2010 overview of mission developments in the mainline denominations.

This year’s third issue, reconciliation, reflects last year’s third issue as well: “Living God’s shalom”: Engaging in reconciliation amidst cultures of violence.”  In my survey of the mission priority lists of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians (again, in Going Global with God), I commended the Presbyterians as the only group among those four that highlighted the need for reconciliation so prominently in its top tier of mission priorities.  Given that reconciliation is the overarching direction of God’s mission, this is an essential priority, and it is good that the Presbyterians continue to grapple with it despite the difficulty of doing so.

What got dropped from last year’s list was environmental stewardship: “Restoring  and Caring for God’s Good Creation: Responsible and respectful care  of the environment and its non-human inhabitants.”  This is unfortunate, given the gathering evidence of impending catastrophe, the biblical mandate of stewardship, and the eagerness of people of faith to be mobilized on behalf of the environment.  Obviously, Presbyterians are concerned about the environment, and the paring of the list may reflect, more than anything else, a need to focus on a manageable three instead of a possibly attention-diffusing four.

As a world mission activist, I regret that the this third Presbyterian world mission conference has been lumped in with eight other conferences, with all of them constituting the Big Tent event.  Presbyterians inaugurated the new Mission Celebration conference in 2007 and held the second biennial event in 2009.  This year, it has been renamed World Mission Matters, a good name, but it is sharing time with eight others in Indianapolis: Clergywomen’s Leadership Institute/Young Women’s Leadership Development; Evangelism and Church Growth Conference; Healthy Ministry Conference; National Elders Conference; National Multicultural Church Conference; Peacemaking Conference; Presbyterian Communicators Network National Conference; and Racial Ethnic and Immigrants Convocation.  These eight are all good causes and worthy companions on the journey of the church’s life.  Logistical and financial concerns are understandable, but it could very well be that in this new arrangement the attention world mission needs will be diffused and its profile consequently flattened.

A similar conflation is occurring in the Episcopal Church, where the salutary Everyone Everywhere conference three years ago in Baltimore is this year being combined with domestic mission groups in an October conference of the same name, Everyone Everywhere, in Estes Park.  Such conflation continues a common narrative in the mainline denominations, where the important recognition that God’s mission occurs close to home as well as far away is transmuted over time into a general domestication of mission through which the church turns gradually but decisively inward rather than outward.


  1. Thank you for noting clearly the tendency of the mainline churches to redefine mission as simply addressing poverty and injustice. These are, according to Jesus, always going to be with us. We have Good News to offer that is far more healing and renewing, for more effective at addressing poverty and injustice, than anything else we can offer. Of course, we need to do it all, but our first mission should be to be, and invite others to be, disciples of Christ. Jim Boston

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