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?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Has Missionary Experience Anything to Offer?

            I wonder would members of any western missionary society be surprised if asked how many of their confreres are still convinced of the need for ‘Ad Gentes’ mission? And by ‘Ad Gentes’ I mean going to countries where the culture and thinking of the people were still untouched by the message of the gospel?
            It is not so long ago that missionaries from the west were journeying eagerly to the east, confident they had something valuable to offer. In the early days, when they went by sailing ship, half of those who set out never got there because of shipwreck or disease. Those who got there had no expectation of ever returning home. Yet their commitment never faltered.
            Today it is different. The excitement of mission is gone from the west. Christianity is less important in people’s lives. Young people are willing to travel the globe to offer their services in humanitarian causes but most do not regard any one faith as superior to another.
            There are a number of reasons for this. One is disillusionment with the sad state of the Church in the west where it seems to have little to offer modern life or other cultures. Perhaps because of that, it had been stressed that every generation has to be re-evangelized and the situation is as urgent, if not more so, in the west as in the east or elsewhere. Others go further and, based on the observation that religious practices have a great similarity throughout the world, claim that looking on Christianity as being special is just the relic of a western superiority complex.

Similarities and Differences
            This last point is a good example of the confused thinking about mission today.
            There is no doubt that religious similarities and parallels do exist around the world. Anyone who has read Mircea Eliade’s works on sacred symbols will have been struck by the fact that rocks, trees, wells, fire and New Year festivals have been treated in an almost identical religious manner in traditional cultures all around the globe.
A similar phenomenon can be found in the ways people seek divine intervention or help in urgent financial, health or personal needs. I have witnessed this in places as disparate as Taoist and Buddhist temples in Korea and China, a cathedral in Cebu and the shrine of a holy man in Lahore. In each, the devotees performed basically the same devotions: humbly approaching or circling a sacred image, sometimes on their knees, offering candles or incense and repeating a prayer or sacred phrase.
            In their private live those believers were probably aware of precepts, similar to the Ten Commandments, which they knew they should be observing and felt guilty when they failed to keep them. They were good people, trying to do their best as their traditions guided them. Only the identity of the deity differed. If one of those religious acts was to be judged superior to any other it would be in terms of which deity was more powerful or successful in providing the desired help.
            Here I do not want to make too strong a distinction between people with a ‘favor seeking faith’ and a ‘spiritual search faith’. The reality is that the two are intermixed but at times, in individuals and in cultures, one dominates the other. To spell this out would take a book in itself, here I do not have the space and hope my point is not misunderstood.

Answering Questions
            In many parts of the world today, most pressing material needs can now be solved with human resources. In the 1980s and 90s when tens of thousand of young Koreans were drawn to the Church it was not in the hope of divine assistance in economic or other physical necessities but in a search to satisfy their deeper and inner yearnings. The Church’s stand for democracy and human rights on the national level had given them grounds for thinking it might have the answers.
            What they were looking for was inspiration in their lives, a source of encouragement and strength, a guide for moral conduct and a gateway to the transcendent they could vaguely sense around them. Young people in present day China show the same need for a view of the world that includes the timeless and profound in human nature.
            In my experience, Christianity, and no other religion today, has the answers to the questions emerging in minds both east and west. This is not to belittle the role of other faiths and the important contribution they have made in the human search for fulfillment. It was my involvement with oriental religions over a number of decades that led me to question what was of universal value in my own Christian tradition. In the process I also benefited personally from many of the insight and practices I found in the great religions of the east.
            It was my search that led me to discover what is unique in the message of the gospels. I had been warned by those closely aligned to modern thinking that it is not possible to isolate a core Christian message because of the bias of cultural interpretations. Theoretically that might be true, and indeed such considerations may have persuaded many to give up the effort. However practice shows a different reality. I have found that if the gospels are taken in their entirety they do give a clear and coherent message that is valid for any culture.  
            What I found in the human figure of Christ was his image of a compassionate Father, of the Spirit alive in the individual, the call to be part of a new creation, an answer to evil in the world, a spirituality that seeks the transcendent in ordinary life and a reaffirmation of the individual which challenges him or her in either western or eastern culture.
            Fortunately there are enough credible mainstream theologians in the Church today to reassure missionaries that what people in other cultures are seeking can indeed be found in the heart of the scriptures. 

            Unfortunately, many of the young Koreans in the 1980s and 90s did not find what they were looking for in the Church there at that time. Despite its public stand on political and social issues, on closer inspection the Church proved to be less democratic, individual-orientated, supportive and Korean than they had expected. While Korean society was becoming more liberal and forward-looking, the Church continued to draw on the nation’s Confucian past with its emphasis on formality, doctrine and hierarchy.
            Because of this, many of the young people left unsatisfied. That does not prove that Christianity is deficient, it just shows that in many Churches practice has still to catch up on teaching. As one Church leader recently put it, after the Reformation the Church moved from evangelizing to catechizing and has to return to scripture if it is to engage modern society.

A Further Role for Missionaries?
            If western Churches are to recover their vitality and missionary spirit, they could benefit from a reminder of how fresh and inspiring the Christian message can be when freed from it historical weights and presented in narrative form, relating to the life concerns of ordinary people.
            This is the challenge that missionaries faced when they tried to bring the gospel to people who could not appreciate the message when it was presented to them in terms, formulations and practices borrowed from another culture and age. Many discovered that they had not been adequately prepared for the task of identifying the essentials of the gospel and introducing them to another culture. As a result some took more time than others in making progress.   
For over four hundred years missionaries took a confident faith from the west to the east, knowing they were providing the greatest service by doing so. Now it may be the time for modern missionaries to take that faith, refined and renewed, back to their home Churches and help rekindle enthusiasm there.
                                                                                                          Hugh MacMahon    11/28/07

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