Deconstruction and Rebuilding in Community: Mission in the 21st Century

September 12th, 2011 – by Hannah Heinzekehr, Fall 2011, Issues

This post is part of a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope @emu.edu if you would like to contribute to the series.

Since moving to Southern California, my husband Justin and I have had a problem: we can’t keep plants alive. Our outdoor porch plants slowly withered and died –from overwatering, or conversely dehydration or for reasons unknown. Our first attempt at community gardening failed when our small plot was eaten alive by California critters that we didn’t know existed. Now, as we’ve started to grow some small potted herbs on our porch, we are watching with fear and trepidation, like worried parents, hoping that somehow, against all odds, these new plants will grow into fruition. We’ve had to deconstruct the ideas about gardening we learned in Indiana. We’ve had adapt and re-learn gardening here: what plants to grow, fertilizers to use, where pots should be placed, how to keep lizards off our “crops” and how much water to use.

Similarly, our ideas about mission have been deconstructed in Los Angeles. When we moved to California, I had already been working for Mennonite Mission Network for two years. I spent a lot of time talking with people about mission, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant. But moving to an area as cosmopolitan and diverse as Los Angeles County meant that my ideas about what mission meant had to change. I couldn’t make the same assumptions about what church looked like, how theology impacted mission, what language we worship in etc. This is a gift! But it also meant that some of the assumptions that I brought with me, as a European, middle-class, English-speaking, Mennonite from Indiana , were called into question simply by virtue of the place I was living.

Just like we had to reshape our models for gardening, our models for mission needed to be re-shaped. Some of the needs were the same. Just like our plants still needed water, fertilizer and soil (just different types and amounts), there is still a hunger here for church planting, church revitalization, and peace and conflict training, theological education and community outreach, but the ways that these needs are expressed and responses to them needed to change. Sometimes, it was little things that made me aware of these assumptions. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale here features Nigerian puff-puff (delicious) and kimchee instead of apple fritters and funnel cakes. “International mission” doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, many church leaders are actively involved in mission in their home towns in Nigeria, Belize and Indonesia.  Four-part harmony was not as familiar, and worship services are often conducted in two or three languages. Building space, which is highly expensive and limited in crowded Los Angeles County, was hard to come by, and many congregations share space and/or meet in homes or parks. And the list could go on…

I realized that I would need to sit at the feet of new teachers and people who had been involved in mission in Los Angeles for many years. I would need to be willing to stay still, listen and learn, instead of being in the middle of the action.  Mission Network has been working for a long time to cultivate radical and “post-colonial” ways of thinking about mission. But it took actually moving to a new and different space before my own structures about mission and church could be re-formed. So, when I think about mission in the 21st century, I think our first challenge is to examine our own assumptions about mission and expand our ideas.

The second piece of this process is to re-build a concept of mission in collaboration with the communities and people where we live, work and minister.  If we believe that mission involves finding the places and spaces where God is already at work in the world, and finding ways to join in that work, then what better way to discern this than in community? As Anabaptists, we are wrapped in a lineage and historical theology that emphasizes the role of the community: in interpreting the Bible, in prayer together, in hospitality and in a myriad of other ways.

As the Mennonite Church continues to receive the gift of increasing levels of diversity, it will be our challenge to find ways to sit down at the table together: to discuss, to argue, to pray, to discern and to laugh together. I believe that this act of coming together is an act of mission.

Hannah Heinzekehr lives, works and studies in Claremont, California. She is a Church Relations associate for Mennonite Mission Network, and a graduate student at Claremont Lincoln University, studying the intersections between community development and theology. In her spare time, she enjoys visiting the beaches in southern California, hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, and reading something that hasn’t been assigned for class!

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