Welcome to the discussion!

As the articles below indicate, for a number of years I have being trying to understand the changing concept and practice of mission.

My search has moved progressively from ‘Is there still a need for mission?’ to ‘What should the new focus for mission be?’ and finally to ‘Where can we find examples for this new direction?’

Some progress has been made but the effort to get this far has brought up a wider question. Why are so few people doing the practical reflection and research that is necessary to bring mission out of its present decline?

Theologians produce books on the academic aspects of mission but those actively engaged in cross-cultural mission are not writing about the real-life issues that face them. In this age of dramatic changes most businesses and NGOs are plowing resources into research for their next step so why are Christian missionaries, especially Catholics, not doing so?

I’m sure there are many answers to this complex question but by naming them, one by one, we may get a better idea of where the problem lies and what can de done about it.

Have you any ideas to share on this topic?

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Completing the Missionary Task

            Like many of East Asia’s metropolises, the city in which I live is unashamedly attracted to the profit motive. There is a standing joke that the temples to which people go to worship on a regular basis are the banks. Indeed, both rich and poor share an interest in the stock market and each day anxiously examine the rise and fall in prices.
             However, impressions are deceiving. Having lived here for ten years, I find the people remarkably religiously-minded. On a daily basis I see indications they are deeply sensitive to the spiritual and non-material world, more so than most urban dwellers in the West.
            In this city there is scarcely a home or shop that does not have a well-tended family shrine. During the ‘Month of Lost Souls’ people burn incense and place fruit outside their door for passing ‘hungry souls’. The festivals of local deities are major community occasions and thousands queue up at temples to seek a blessing at the lunar New Year. The police (and the Triads) offer annual service to Kwan Ti, the deity of courage and loyalty. No building or new enterprise is launched without a religious ritual.
            I have found the ordinary people to be friendly, family oriented, law-abiding and hard working. While they have their human weaknesses, their efforts to live a moral and conscientious life are at least as sincere as those of any other nation.  
            With so much in common, and with freedom of religion and no dominant non-Christian creed restricting it, you would expect the church to be flourishing here at all levels of society.   
            However, in this city of some eight million people it is estimated that there are just 250,000 Catholics and that the total number of Christians of all denominations is about 10%. The Catholic Church has been firmly established here for many years and is the envy of other Asian churches for it range of educational, medical and social services. Many of the government officials are graduates of Catholic schools and many ordinary citizens have availed of its institutions. The bishop is well known and popular, in 2002 he was voted the city’s ‘Person of the Year’ for his stand on social issues. The vast majority of the clergy, religious and lay leaders are local, many of them highly talented and experienced. There must be no one in the city who has not heard of the Church yet only 3% are Catholic and this percentage is unlikely to grow unless there is a major change in the Church’s image.
            One undoubted element in this image, which it has in common with other Catholic churches in Asia and which is responsible for their limited growth, it is its foreignness – its distance from the religious thinking, experiences and approaches of the ordinary people. 
            This development is understandable, though regrettable. For most of the past hundred years the goal of mission, in Asia and elsewhere, was to establish vibrant and self-sufficient local churches. The original intention was that those churches would then take on the task of spreading the message among the local people in ways which would be more familiar to them and closer to their heart and situation. Eventually large numbers of individuals, families and communities would be finding it natural to turn to these churches in moments of need, truth- seeking or thanksgiving. In few cases has this dream been fulfilled and today many young churches are no closer to localization than when the missionaries left or took a back seat.
            Why did this happen? There are a number of reasons or, rather, a chain of reasons.
            The emerging local leadership had been formed according to the universal guidelines laid down by the responsible Vatican authorities in order to ensure that their training would be both comprehensive and uniform. Once in charge, the indigenous leadership felt its duty was to continue and stabilized the system they had inherited. It had not been made clear to them that they were expected to move out of their foreign shell and bridge the gap with the wider population by developing a church more suited to the local situation.
            The blame for this lapse can be put on the missionary societies which had focused too narrowly on establishing self-sufficient local churches. They had failed to remember that this was only a first step and a second one remained: for the newly established local churches to take responsibility for reaching out to all levels of society in ways that would be more intelligible and fruitful among the ordinary people. Setting up of local churches was meant to be a means and not an end.
            Undoubtedly there were also some missionaries who deliberately encouraged the young churches not to drift too far from the universal model of the Latin church. They feared that inexperience might lead them to be influenced by some of the less acceptable elements in their local culture. There were concerns that any tinkering with the existing system could lead to disagreements and divisions, based on a failure to understand fully the reasoning and justification behind existing practices and the need for unity. Others believed that, theologically, the church was never intended for all people anyhow but would always to be a ‘little flock’ or ‘tiny flame’ that would inspire and enlighten those in the surrounding darkness. It was more important for it to be ‘orthodox’ than to be ‘accessible’.
            These considerations may have some validity but they should not become obstacles in making the gospel available to all people, no matter what their educational level or cultural background.
            The challenge, then, is for the missionary societies to recall that their achievement in helping to set up local churches was a step in the road to proclaiming the gospel but not the end of the process, nor of their responsibility. They may now need to consider what they can do to encourage and facilitate the young churches in making discipleship possible for a larger percentage of the population.
Simultaneously, they need to use their experience and cross-cultural credibility to draw the attention of the authorities in the Vatican to the compelling case for inculturation. They might wish to use SEDOS to combine their resources and expertise in order to do the necessary research and help church authorities find ways of dealing with legitimate concerns about localization. Then the responsible decasteries could begin to encourage churches to open themselves to new approaches that will make them accessible to all levels within their culture.  
This would call for a five year plan to initiate the process and, then, a further twenty year plan to see it through its early stages. After that, the missionary societies might be in a position to claim that their primary missionary task has been completed.
 Hugh MacMahon    SEDOS Bulletin:   Nov/Dec 2006

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