A letter from Eric and Becky Hinderliter in Lithuania
Our students at LCC often ask us, “What questions will be on the test?” We tell them, that’s not what you want to know. You don’t want to know the questions; you want to know the answers! Becky and I continue our extended time of ‘mission interpretation’ here in the U.S. What sort of questions come up — and what answers do we give when we talk about mission to Presbyterians?
The first question usually is, “Who are you?” After the obligatory introduction, we try to connect with Presbyterian missions. It’s a special ‘brand’ we say, marked by a distinctive Reformed tradition. We say, “We’re in the book,” the Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study. We’re part of the Presbyterian family, called by God but sent by the church.
The second question is, “Where is Lithuania?” Our answer is more than about geography; it’s about history, culture — and mission. We are in post-Soviet space; the Soviet legacy is long. Nearly all our students come from post-Soviet countries. They know about the dangers of ideology; they want to see authentic people, not ideologues with suspect motives. And our setting is unusual because our mission partner, LCC International University, is international. It has an expansive reach beyond Lithuania’s borders. We are a bridgehead to the east, serving students from Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine, as much as from Lithuania. Mission work in other contexts focuses on sub-groups or ethnic enclaves within a single country; LCC’s reach is to more than a dozen countries. Our airplane ticket may say “Lithuania,” but our location is the former Soviet Union.
We are often asked, “What do you do?” We say we are both teachers at a Christian liberal arts college. Our task is to be the best teachers we can be, and through this to be physically present daily in the lives of young people seeking an authentic relationship with an adult. And we know that for many of our students this is the first real opportunity to get to know people of faith.
This answer often prompts a further question, “But how is teaching ‘mission’?” Education has been and remains today central to Presbyterian mission. The change in economic systems created many false expectations — and much bad behavior. In the post-Soviet space, teaching about the strengths and weaknesses of the market economy is badly needed. So is the importance of civil society, democracy, tolerance, and ethical behavior. This is what we teach, from a Christian worldview. We are training lay leaders for the local church — and engaged citizens for post-Soviet societies. We’re equipping them to do the work in their home countries that outsiders like us could never do effectively.
A common question is, “What can I do?” In the past the answer was “pray for us — and send money”. Such a limited set of practices is no longer acceptable. Presbyterians and mission today is a changing scene. Former PC(USA) moderator Rich Ufford-Chase observed, “Presbyterians want to go out and do mission themselves and get their hands dirty.” Hunter Farrell, PC(USA) World Mission, wrote recently of a “seismic shift in the understanding and practice of mission (that) has opened the door to direct involvement of U.S. Presbyterians at unprecedented levels.”* We raise the question of what “faithful and effective mission” is these days. There is discussion today about the values and practices wanted in mission. The emerging mission strategy for Presbyterians recommends six “core values”: dignity, empowerment, holistic ministry, partnership, relevance to God’s world, and stewardship. These values prompt some hard questions about “mission.”
An elder recently asked, “What does the word ‘mission’ mean to you?” He continued: “At the last congregational meeting, I raised a question about how we were assigning the increase in pledges. I thought that some of the money should be allocated to local and global mission. There followed a discussion of mission and how we give to mission in ways other than money. I agree with that, but I began to wonder what do we include in our use of the word ‘mission?’ As I ’ve ruminated about this confusion, I wonder whether we now use the word ‘mission’ to include anything we want to count as part of our good work.” This elder asked a very good question; one that Becky and I are trying to answer as we move around to churches that support us. Just what is mission? The short answer (for Presbyterians at least) is Matthew 28: 19-20 — go therefore, baptize and teach — and John 20:21 — “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Called and sent — we all have a mission. So what is the mission? A fellow PC(USA) mission co-worker** says, God’s mission is redemptive activity, God’s intention to establish God’s reign in human history. God’s mission of restoration, salvation, liberation, and reconciliation is the foundation for the mission of the church. Thus, the church has a mission. It includes evangelism, compassionate service, and social justice. For us the difference between the work of the church in mission and other helping agencies such as the United Way is the underlying motivation — and who gets the credit. As biblical stewards of our fellow man, we do what we do because our motivations have been transformed from the inside out. And we know, as mere instruments, that it is God who makes all things possible. We do what we do in joyful response to God’s saving grace.
Finally, we are asked, “What are you trying to accomplish with this mission interpretation?” We want our faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God — and the faith of those we meet — to be strengthened. For Presbyterians it is very important to be “doing” something. But an important part of mission is “being.” Just ask, “What kind of a witness to others is your way of living among other people?” We want to live in hope. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Central to our message is how our faith has been challenged by the believers we have encountered in Lithuania — and here in the USA. Above all, we seek to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). It’s the goal for all of us.
So far we have visited 15 churches; our goal is to visit 20 congregations, both old and new, during our time in the U.S. This interlude has been a challenge to grow in faith. We look forward to returning to Lithuania and our mission partner in mid-August for three more years. Thank you for sending us.
Grace and peace,
Becky and Eric Hinderliter
*“GMAC approves new strategic direction for Presbyterian World Mission,” Presbyterian News Service, March 5, 2010.
**Sherron Kay George. (2004). Called as Partners in Christ’s Service: The Practice of God’s Mission
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 193