This issue of Missio Dei is about a spiritual legacy. Clyde Austin’s life confronts us with important questions, not the least of which is, Who cares? His story poses that question differently than the isolated missionary hears it, of course. The indifference of the rhetorical Who cares? still rings loudly in the ears of many struggling servants of the kingdom. So the question is indeed important, not on the lips of careless congregations but when senders truly ask themselves: Who cares? Who will?
The church might easily underestimate the importance of contemporary missionary care. Its emergence is so recent that one could imagine (wrongly) that missionaries have managed quite well without it for centuries. Not so long ago, however, William Carey’s life reiterated the Isaianic Who will go?—another enquiry1 the church had considered unnecessary. Just so, only a matter of decades ago, the avant garde of missionary care began posing questions that would move the church beyond caring about missions to caring about missionaries, from whether to send to how. Such faithful questions are a significant part of what Clyde Austin leaves us.
Yet, I call Austin’s legacy spiritual because it does more than merely pose important questions; it beckons the church to become the kind of caregivers who discover new questions and seek new answers. Here we have a vision of careful missions—not cautious but truly full of care. The ethics of sending, the virtue embodied in prudent practices of caregiving, the solicitude of sincere partnership: these give substance to the claim that missions is not simply the sacrifice of the sent but also the spiritual service of the sender. Who cares? The spiritual formation of the church in mission is at stake in the answer. Accordingly, I commend the present contributions to the reader and proceed to ponder some questions yet unasked.
What more might we say theologically about member care—or better, what care practices might grow out of a farther-reaching theology of mission? Conversely, what theology has, in fact, nourished current practices? If these appear to be a theologian’s rather than a practitioner’s questions, then we come yet again to that false dichotomy the church must steadfastly reject until our saying and doing are finally whole. In service of that resolution, I pose two ecclesiological questions.
Who are the missionaries that need care?
Altogether, this journal issue offers a snapshot of missionary care in Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and Churches of Christ (a cappella). It provides neither a sequence of shots nor a variety of vantage points; it is not even a panoramic picture. But it does give a glimpse of the subject matter from one angle. What we can observe in that single shot is a lacuna: domestic missions. According to C. Philip Slate’s article, working with the Exodus Movement (a US church-planting initiative) was an important part of Clyde Austin’s transition to professional member care. Yet, the possibility that domestic missions might require member care analogous to that of foreign missions lingers unaddressed as, in keeping with Austin’s own shift of focus to intercultural studies and cross-cultural reentry, member care seems to have concentrated almost exclusively on the special needs of foreign missionaries. Or so our snapshot would suggest.
The practical motivation for this focus is easy to understand: the especially challenging dynamics of crossing cultures, living in isolation from support systems, raising third culture kids, and reentering one’s culture of origin merit all the care that the present articles portray. Nonetheless, there may also be theological motivations for member care that challenge us to broaden the scope of the church’s practice. If missionary care is “simply the application of the biblical ‘one-another’ concepts to the context of missionary life,”2 a definition Dottie Schulz affirms in her article, then the theological meaning of missionary should indeed bear heavily upon the application of missionary care. In fact, the notion that missionary care is just an application of biblical one-another concepts so closely connects it with the normal practices of Christian community that it pulls the eye beyond the limits of domestic missions3 toward the ecclesiological claims of the missional church movement. Perhaps the whole church is sent as God’s missionary people and therefore relies upon mutual care. Perhaps so-called missionary care is simply Christian relationship with those disconnected from the community by physical distance—the geographical extension of normal Christian communal behavior, with special applications for special circumstances. And perhaps these ideas reveal that mutual care in the typical local congregation is actually too poor to sustain a missional lifestyle among all its members. It could be that the level (if not the specifics) of missionary care advocated in this journal issue, brought home to once sending and now sent congregations, is a missing piece of the Western church’s missional turn.
Moreover, it may be that missionary care has, of necessity, clarified the muddle that missions language recently became. (On that score, it should not surprise us that a practical discipline has managed what the theoretical discussion could not.) The local church is missional by nature, but it still fails to treat itself as such, which naturally makes the claim dubious. In order to resolve the ambiguity of our terminology, we must look to the concrete practices of sending—what Sonny Guild calls “seamless, comprehensive missionary care.” By equipping, commissioning, and caring for all those we would theologically describe as members of God’s missional people, with the same initiative and excellence we have learned to employ in the care of foreign missionaries, we begin to make sense of our language. Missionary care has much to teach us about what it means to be a missionary by virtue of the way the church practically treats missionaries.
What is the relationship of member care experts to churches?
The present contributions are written by member care professionals. Their expertise is the substance of the excellence we have learned to employ. For all its continuity with the normal practices of Christian community, missionary care at its best involves skills and insight that cannot be found in most local congregations. On one hand, a publication that disseminates knowledge about member care is, in its populist way, addressing that deficit. On the other, the same act of publication highlights the need to share resources strategically. Both of these—populism and strategic cooperation—touch directly upon the shared ecclesiological history of the two Stone-Campbell traditions that the authors represent. More specifically, strategic cooperation in missions was one of the key points of contention between the two.
The expertise of missionary care professionals was not, of course, in view during the late nineteenth century. The special skills involved in cross-cultural training, psychological screening, stress and trauma counseling, and reentry debriefing (to name only a handful of specialized care practices) now cast a different light on the question of organized cooperation. Clearly some mode of “networking resources” is necessary if every congregation is to provide comprehensive care to the missionaries it sends.4 Our missions experiences over the last hundred and fifty years, not least the urgent need for the care practices that have developed, have prompted us to look past old questions and ask new ones.
What, then, is the relationship of member care experts to the local church? This particular question was unimaginable only a short time ago in any tradition. It is admittedly not an unprecedented question, because numerous sorts of expertise have prompted similar reflection. Still, missionary care does create a new context for exploring these concerns. Specialized screening of prospective foreign missionaries, for example, raises questions about determining whom the Spirit would send. Is screening a determinative process by itself, or does it inform a congregational process of spiritual discernment? This is a practical question that deserves a theological answer. Similarly, should pastoral care of missionaries and missionary self-care be rooted in the spiritual practices of a Christian community? Can spiritual care be provided apart from community? And in any case, how do the roles of spiritual directors and shepherds relate to the work of member care specialists?
These questions are just examples. Every church tradition, whether its member care experts work within congregational or parachurch models, is obliged to continue seeking answers to the new questions that our participation in God’s mission generates. My hope is that the articles featured here will not only strengthen our current practices but enliven our imaginations, in order to contemplate what comes next in missionary care. God bless our enquiry. Soli Deo gloria.
1 I retain the British spelling of the word in homage to Carey’s momentous work: William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens: In which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, are Considered (Leicester, England: Ann Ireland, 1792), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11449/11449-h/11449-h.htm.
2 “What Is Missionary Care?,” http://paracletos.org/blog/article/what-is-missionary-care.
3 Domestic missions is an ambiguous term, usually reserved for church planting in a nation by persons of the same nationality. I lament that this is a working definition wanting badly for clarification, though here is not the place for further argument. Suffice it to say that in multicultural nations, particularly those with immigration patterns like the US, cross-cultural missionary care practices might often be applied to domestic missions with virtually no adjustment, but the assumed non-foreignness of such contexts often obscures the need for intervention.
4 My choice of words is a reference to Missions Resource Network, which is a clear example of the way Churches of Christ (a cappella) have begun to cooperate in missionary care while remaining sensitive to the tradition’s theological commitments to local church responsibility for missionary endeavors. Other examples of parachurch organizations that play care-related roles among Churches of Christ are mentioned in this issue: Great Cities Missions, InterMission, various universities, and Sunset International Bible Institute.