Spiritual Growth through Mission Participation


Mission and service activities are increasingly the entry points through which people, particularly younger people, first connect with our churches. We hope that mission participation will help them understand who Jesus is, who God is, and how the church’s mission points to God’s Reign. We hope that it will lead them toward faith and into the church. But how do we nurture the connection between mission participation and this type of spiritual growth?

In this day, when many people are more attracted to our mission than our worship, it is essential that we learn how to recognize and nurture the spiritual fruits of mission engagement.

Often, the church has regarded spiritual formation and mission as two different realms. Dominant models of Christian formation see mission engagement as the end product of the discipleship journey. It comes after people have matured in faith through activities such as worship, Christian education, and small groups — things that tend to go on inside the church. Then, they head outside the church in mission.

One unfortunate consequence of the bifurcation of spiritual formation and mission is that our Christian service often isn’t much different than the work of secular community groups. The church group working on a Habitat House may not be having a significantly different experience than the Kiwanis’s Club group, except that they may have some vague notion that church people should do good in Christ’s name.

But at the same time, we know that God can use our mission endeavors to open our eyes to human need, instill compassion in our hearts, and inspire us toward generosity and sacrificial living. In this day, when many people are more attracted to our mission than our worship, it is essential that we learn how to recognize and nurture the spiritual fruits of mission engagement. So what are some key factors that promote spiritual formation through mission?

Getting beyond our comfort zones. So often, the conventions of our day-to-day lives prevent us from seeing the world through God’s eyes. But when we step away from what Robert Martin, Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary, has called “our addiction to safety, security, and status,” we open ourselves to experiencing God and others in new ways. This is one reason people often return from mission trips with a truer and fuller understanding of other people’s circumstances, more aware of their own social location and privilege, and more aware of God at work in the world.

We need to structure mission activities so that they lead people into what Bishop Robert Schnase calls “risk-taking” mission — mission that places people in situations that will change their minds. We don’t want to push people into the deep end before they can swim. But making sandwiches in a church kitchen or collecting toiletries can be a good and important starting point, especially if these activities are a window for understanding the needs of others and a doorway into more relational and collaborative ways of engaging. So a key consideration is: what are the stepping stones that lead participants to deeper, more sustained, and more transformational mission relationships?

Framing experiences. We need to give mission participants the lenses and vocabulary they need to make spiritual sense of what they encounter when serving others. This involves casting a vision for how faith is lived out through sacrificial service, telling stories of how Christian service transforms our lives and the lives of others, and continually contextualizing the meaning of mission through dialogue and teaching, prayer and preaching.

Group engagement. Everything we know about spiritual formation suggests that small group encounters are important vehicles of growth. One reason mission trips are often so formative is that they promote the kind of interpersonal bonding that facilitates spiritual exploration. We can bring this benefit to other types of activities, as well, whether it’s encouraging existing small groups to take on regular service commitments or using teams to implement ongoing mission activities. Mission is more spiritually impactful when we do it with others.

Ongoing reflection. There is a growing body of research on the effectiveness of short-term mission experiences. It points to the importance of integrating learning, debriefing, and reflection into mission experiences. We need to ask provocative questions that help participants connect the dots between faith and action. We need to help them understand how what they do relates to Christian discipleship. But the research suggests that spiritual revelation received on the mission field doesn’t often translate into sustained personal transformation unless this reflection is ongoing — before, during, and perhaps most importantly, after mission experiences.

Leadership. All of this underscores the critical variable of leadership. Because mission leaders frame expectations and contextualize the experience for other participants, we need to equip them as spiritual guides, not just project leaders.

Because discipleship is a learned behavior, leading people effectively in mission can help them learn about faith by living faithfully. While we never want to be accused of undertaking mission for our own sake, we can still be mindful of how mission engagement nurtures us in faith and discipleship.

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About Author

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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