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The Great ‘Co-mission’

Sharing our faith to the ends of the Earth

by Josh Heikkila, regional liaison for West Africa | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Girls in northern Ghana walking to the river for water during the dusty dry season. (Photo by Josh Heikkila)

ACCRA, Ghana — Proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel and making known to others the teachings of Jesus has been integral to the church since its earliest days. We may ask, why does the church share its faith in Jesus Christ this way? The simple answer: We do it because Jesus commands us to do it (Matthew 28:19–20).

In mission, we share with others how Jesus inspires us to work for justice and reconciliation in the world, and how he gives us a sense of grace and peace in return. We also share with others how Christ’s blessings have transformed our lives, and we express a desire for others to experience the fruit of the Spirit, too: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23).

Faith in Jesus Christ touches the deepest parts of our being, so it is not always easy to articulate to others how he touches us and transforms us. But still, by the grace of God, we go out and we try, praying and working for the best, and knowing with certainty we will always fall short. We trust that Jesus himself, the redeemer of the world, can make up for where we fail.

The Bible itself gives an account of early missionary endeavors in Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. In the centuries that followed, missionaries carried the faith to the ends of the earth: to Ethiopia and Egypt, and the rest of Africa; to Armenia and India, and later East Asia; to Rome and the countries of Europe; and eventually to the Americas.

In some countries, early Christian missionaries are recognized as the patron saints of their lands: Saints Mark, Thomas and Andrew; Saints George, Patrick and Francis Xavier. There also were women among these early missionaries: Mary, as well as Priscilla and Aquilla in the Bible; Saints Helen, Monica and Theresa in years thereafter. Women’s names were often left off the historical record, and memory of their work has unfortunately been lost.

The accounts of these apostles and saints can sometimes make for interesting (and even humorous) reading. Take, for example, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, an apocryphal account of a young woman converted by Paul who survives being burned at the stake and later overcomes attacks by lions, bears, bulls and even seals, to go on to baptize and preach about Jesus.  The Church Father Tertullian lashed out against Thecla because he did not like its account of women preaching and baptizing in Jesus’ name.

Like all of us today, missionaries have been a complex assortment of people. Their intention, for the most part, was good — to share the love and light of Jesus Christ with others, being the hands and feet of God in the world. But at the same time, they were broken and sinful people, and as with any human being, it is necessary to consider both the good and the bad manifested in their lives.

In the last century, as Western Protestant Christian missionaries were sent out into the world, they were often accused of employing simplistic and colonialistic practices in their disciple-making efforts. While some of this criticism is well-deserved, the reality of mission has always been complex.

The Edinburgh Mission Conference of 1910, a historically significant gathering of Western Protestant mission bodies, articulated its desire for “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” It asked churches in the West to expand and recommit to missionary efforts in Africa and Asia. To this day, we are living in the legacy of decisions made in Edinburgh.

Even in 1910, the conference was attuned to criticism of missionary activity. The American politician and Presbyterian elder William Jennings Bryan defended the work of missionaries before the delegates gathered at Edinburgh. In an address covered by The New York Times, Bryan claimed that missionaries serving abroad got into much less trouble than businessmen seeking profit.

In its deliberations, the conference concluded that those sent into mission must be given “the opportunity of obtaining a knowledge of the country of their adoption and something of its traditions and its capacities before they become immersed in their work.” It saw a need to train more Indigenous Christian leaders and to eventually turn mission efforts over to them, The New York Times reported on June 27, 1910.

Edinburgh had a profound effect in transforming mission. In its wake, thriving and locally led Christian denominations eventually came into being around the world. Health and educational facilities, which continue to impact their countries to this day, were planted. There were repercussions, both positive and negative — and many times unexpected — to all this work.

In “Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” published in the American Political Science Review, historian Robert Woodberry argues that Protestant missionaries laid the groundwork for liberal democracy the world over. Another historian, David Hollinger, opens his book “Protestants Abroadwith this thesis: “The Protestant foreign missionary project expected to make the world look more like the United States. Instead, it made the United States look more like the world.”

In considering one of the ideas raised in Edinburgh — the need for mission personnel to be knowledgeable of and sensitive to the cultures in which they work, we can turn to an example from Scripture, the Apostle Paul in his missionary work in Athens (Acts 17:16–28).

Paul took the time to learn about the poetry, the religious practices and the yearning of the people he was among. He was taught by them, he appreciated their culture, and he affirmed aspects of what was good about it.

Informed by these elements of local culture, Paul then spoke to the people about Jesus, in a way he believed could enrich their lives. It was a delicate balancing act of both humility and boldness, which continues to inform the way we live our faith in relationship to others.

Women in Niger separating grain from chaff. A video of this can be found here. (Screen shot by Josh Heikkila)


The work of mission, of course, has always been shaped by the example of Jesus himself, who loved and valued the people among whom he worked. I am struck by the times when Jesus was conducting his ministry of healing, when after healing people, he speaks those confusing words: “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:50–52).

For those of us involved in mission — especially in areas like health, development and poverty reduction — the words of Jesus make wonderful sense. Although we may be supporting partners to improve human flourishing, it is ultimately the people themselves who bring about well-being in their lives. Mission at its best only helps push it along.

When working together with mission partners, there are many methodologies that inform what we do. Community organizing lifts up an “iron rule,” never do for others what they can do for themselves. And it emphasizes that leadership always needs to come from within the community. Participatory Assessment, which is used by the United Nations, involves listening to people and empowering them to organize for societal change.

Community Health Evangelism, a methodology now widely used in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) World Mission, describes itself this way: “CHE equips communities to identify issues and mobilize resources to achieve positive, sustainable change. Lives and communities are transformed as people come to Christ and work together to address local needs.”

In 1974, the All Africa Council of Churches, in the wake of independence movements that were spreading across the continent, called for a moratorium on the sending of Western mission personnel and financial support. Although the moratorium was never fully implemented, it pushed for the transformation of mission practice around the world. Anti-colonial and anti-racist movements fought for their voices to be heard. And although we still struggle to fully hear and listen to them, these voices have shaped how mission is now done.

Fishermen mending their nets in the seaside town of Cape Coast, Ghana. (Photo by Josh Heikkila)

At a recent gathering of African Presbyterian mission partners in Kenya, a colleague from Malawi referenced the well-known adage: if you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day; if you teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. She added, it is time to put aside any emphasis we once placed on giving and teaching. Instead, let’s go out and fish together.

The central focus of Christian mission, she explained, should not be what we do for each other. It is not a transactional relationship. Rather, it is that we “be” with one another, and how we live together as one Christian and human family.

Although evangelism is still central, and the health, education and development work remains a vital part of what we do, there’s a new aspect of how we carry out mission together.

We must first of all walk side by side and together with Jesus Christ. We must sit down and break bread together in Jesus’ name. We must get to know each other as siblings, and with the help of the Spirit, love each other as family. As we strive to do these things together, God will set our hearts aflame with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Josh Heikkila, mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), serves as World Mission’s regional liaison for West Africa. Before his appointment in 2009, Josh served for five years as an associate pastor of the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. He worked with the youth program there. He also coordinated activity for the Self-Development of People program in his presbytery. Subscribe to Josh’s letters. Consider supporting his ministry.

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