“What exactly will you be doing in Bolivia?” We’ve gotten that question often in the last couple months and still get it here in Bolivia. First, I’ll explain then wrestle with whether or not this is missions.
We will be working with Low German Mennonites (LGM) in Bolivia on development issues and improving their agriculture. Low German is the language they speak and it actually predates German. It sounds nothing like German. They are Mennonites similar to the Amish, what we call Old Order Mennonites. They live in colonies throughout Bolivia, but mostly around the city of Santa Cruz. There are somewhere around 60 colonies and 45-50,000 LGM people.
I’m not an expert in their history and each colony has its own story. Generally though, they migrated from Europe, many from Russia during the Bolshevik uprising. Some migrated to Canada first and then made their way to Mexico, Belize, Paraguay and Bolivia. Others migrated directly to South America. So, they’ve been around a while.
When they first came to Bolivia, many of them were on the cutting edge of agriculture and were able to make land productive that Bolivians were not farming. Because they are very closed communities, over time they became stuck and now face many problems and are generally very poor. Their children are educated through 6th grade for girls and 7-8th grade for boys. Literacy is taught entirely in High German (what they speak in Germany) which they do not use except in worship using Luther’s translation of the Bible and their hymnbook. This means practically speaking they have a major literacy problem.
They have not kept up with soil conservation and erosion practices and often practice slash and burn agriculture. Because of droughts and some reluctance to use technologies like irrigation, they need alternatives that are not water intensive crops. There are theological reasons for why they shun technologies and do many of the things they do. The Amish Way is an excellent introduction to some of the Old Order practices and doctrines. I still have not met any of these people so much of my knowledge comes from others who know more than me or books.
So, my job will be something like getting to know these communities and helping them with their problems, improving agriculture, literacy, better marketing of their products, better relationships with Bolivians and the government. The question still lingers though, “Is this missions?” As always, I guess, it depends on your definition.
For me, the mission of God, missio Dei, revealed in Scripture is a broad and inclusive thing that includes all nations, foreigners, eunuchs, marginalized and outsiders. It also includes more than just people (Ro 8:19-22; 2 Cor 5:19). God’s work in Christ was to redeem the whole world, including all of creation. Our job as Christians is to participate in the mission of God in the world. We have reduced that beautiful mission to winning converts to our team. The work of the Spirit transforming lives as they encounter the Risen Christ is part of this mission, but it is not the whole.
As Darell Guder has pointed out part of our mission is The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Let’s call this discipleship. Many of our problems (and the problems faced by the colonies) is a problem of discipleship. When we learn what it means to be followers of Jesus together in the Body and practice that in our lives, many of these other problems will go away.
I also believe that part of our participation in the mission of God is to practice the incarnational life that Jesus modeled for us. This means we should find ourselves crossing over to the Other, the one we don’t understand and don’t know, and try to understand them the way Jesus did by becoming human. This may be one of the most crucial elements lacking in our theology of mission. Once you acknowledge that we are called to be incarnational many of our clear cut doctrinal issues quickly become muddy. Incarnational living is a messy process.
So, to answer my question… YES, this is missions. Not because we traveled to another country. Not because we’re working with pagans and heathens. Not because we’re racking up converts for our team. This is missions, because we are helping our brothers and sisters care for the earth, learn to follow Jesus better and practice incarnational living with our Bolivian and LGM brothers and sisters. It is also missions because through the process of cross cultural living and communication we ourselves will be transformed by the Spirit more and more into the likeness of Christ.