Missions, data, and listening to youth
A casual conversation with Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker
By Meagan Ewton
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker is the executive director for the Global Mission Connections Unit at Global Ministries. She sat down for a brief interview on May 28 after her first presentation to the Oklahoma Annual Conference. Questions and responses have been edited here for length and clarity.
Question: You’ve been described as a “reasonable enthusiast.” Tell me about some of that enthusiasm for missions that keeps you so involved, excited and passionate.
Answer: I just love God’s creation and God’s people, and I think that’s what has kept me so enthused about mission. It’s an opportunity to learn about God in every person that I meet. When I get to go to different places around the world, around the country, or my own neighborhood, I get to say, “Okay, God, what are you going to teach me about you today through these people?” And that’s what burns me, is to say, “goodness, God is at work in everyone I meet!” Some of them know it, and some of them don’t. That, I think, is the great gift of being in mission: you get to meet God in all kinds of places.
Q: In the opening session of Annual Conference, you shared that all who have professed faith in Christ are, in fact, missionaries. Would you expand on that?
A: To be called a true disciple is to love our neighbors. If we are truly loving our neighbors, and we mean all neighbors, then that is the mission, is it not? If the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves – which includes everyone – then that means that everybody who professes discipleship and professes to follow Jesus are missionaries. It’s because they’re sent. They’re sent to be responsive to God’s love and grace, and that means loving everyone. I think we limit our minds to what missionaries are, but we don’t realize that we’re all called to be missionaries – just some of us in different kinds of ways.
Q: In your phrasing, what would you say the purpose of going out and serving beyond your community is in relation to mission within your community?
A: I really think it’s about missional attitude. When I said (during the presentation) we’ve learned a lot in the last 200 years of mission, it’s really about the sense that when you go out, sometimes you think that you’re going to “save” the other. When you go to other countries, it’s easier to say, “I’ve got something to offer you, and what I have to offer is better, so let me offer this to you.” But that in itself is problematic because it’s more about you than it is about the relationship. I think that what we need to awaken in people is that discipleship is really about relationships, and whether they’re relationships in your community or beyond your community, all of it is the invitation to love our neighbor. The problem is when we think it’s about “saving” our neighbor or doing the “God thing” for others. Then we’ve lost the thinking. I’m not against those, but I am for long-term mission relationships.
Q: You co-authored a book about using data to help churches engage their communities. How can churches see the stories being told by their data to better connect with their communities?
A: I’m a total data nerd, I love it. I think the fear of data was that it would be used as a weapon, but what I tried to do when I was working with leaders was to use data to open up their minds, to ask more questions, to become curious about what the data was trying to tell us. If we were curious about what the data was trying to tell us, from there we could experiment and say, “I wonder, if we do this a little bit differently, will it help change the data?” The data gives you an opportunity to ask questions, to try something new, and see where the Holy Spirit might be leading. That’s why I think data is so fascinating and so wonderful. It’s just another tool for us to keep on learning how to be faithful.
Q: You said something interesting, that some people might be afraid that data would be used as a weapon. What would you say to people who might try to place a good/bad value on data instead of use it to see a larger story?
A: It’s human nature to place value on things. I think it’s important to say, “What is this data telling us, how does it help us make these different decisions, and how, through those decisions, will we continue to better the mission and ministry?” Data is good to open up some hard conversations, but data alone should never be the part that makes a decision. I think that’s where people are afraid: they’re afraid a decision will be made on data alone verses the qualitative information (stories) surrounding the quantitative information (data). If you don’t find out the stories surrounding the data, then you’re never going to be able to make good decisions based just upon the data. I’ll go to town with a scientist who wants to argue with me about that, but as Christians, we believe it’s in relationship where we make the better decisions.
Q: You were a youth minister, but you were also a youth delegate also. How would you encourage young people to get involved? Why should they go through the red tape and a system that’s not designed with them in mind to work to invest in and impact their church?
A: Their voice offers us new creation – hope. I told my team it was wonderful to be with the Youth (at Conference) because they give me hope. They’re thinking and they’re challenging and they’re wondering and they’re closest to their cultural context. If we’re going to want to reach that cultural context and have a church for the next 10 to 20 generations, then we better be listening to what they’re saying and inviting them and encouraging them to feel welcome in this space. There were many times I felt completely alienated and patronized and frustrated because they (older adults) weren’t taking me seriously. But it was the three or four adults who cared who kept me in, who said, “Say what you think,” “Don’t let them look down on you,” “Give your voice,” “Don’t be afraid.”
The church really does need to take seriously these voices and not only accompany them, but invite them to share – share their hopes, their dreams, and what the church is going to look like. Young people are so close to Christ. That’s why Jesus said, “Let the children come to me for theirs is the kingdom.”
If we’re not listening seriously to these young leaders, if we’re not taking what they say and what they think and what they dream and what they hope seriously, then we’re missing the voice of the Holy Spirit. So, I want to say to young people, let that voice come through you, and don’t be afraid.
Q: As we close this conversation, is there anything on your heart that you would like to share?
A: That book that I contributed to, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, honestly is weighing heavily on my heart. Maybe that’s why the tears came when we sang “What a Beautiful Name It Is,” because I kept thinking, what a beautiful name it is, Jesus’ name. And what a beautiful church we have been when we’re connected around Jesus’ name. What a beautiful church we can be when we’re connected around Jesus’ name and God’s love.
I think what really breaks my heart is that we’re letting our differences – the polity, the governance, the desire for “my” opinion, or the desire for firm boundaries – I think because of that, we’re losing the opportunity to really be who Christ is calling us to be as a church, as a denomination, and as a people of God. I think that’s where my heart is broken.
I hope and pray that mission is something that can continue to unite us. As one contributor said in the book, making it more about the division of labor and not the control of behavior. If God is calling us to go further into the mission field, into the harvest, then let’s bless one another and divide the labor so that the harvest is plentiful.