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, 11 March 2012

A Lack of Confidence?

           Is there a danger that missionaries, especially priests, are becoming more involved in social issues than in religious? Or at least, they are tending to put more emphasis on community service than religious leadership?
In a March 2010 speech, Pope Benedict spoke of the danger of priests being seen as social workers rather than as spiritual intermediaries.
A recent IMU Report (2010, No1) summarized a discussion among missionaries as to whether they had anything special to offer in the field to development. Their suggestions included: missionaries live closer to the people, witness by their lives, involve locals, look at development in holistic terms and so on. What was surprisingly missing was the absence of a religious element.
Perhaps the missionary focus on community development took the spiritual for granted but the writer of the report reflects an opinion that Vatican II “portrayed the missionary as an agent of human development, liberation, dialogue with other religions, justice and social change.”
            Should we be concerned? Recent history does show a deliberate move to downplay the religious aspect of mission. How this occurred is described by Oborji (Concept of Mission, p. 134 ff), Yale historian, Lamin Sanneh, (‘Disciples of all Nations’, p. 272 ff) and others. I will summarize Sanneh’s version.
            After World War I, there was a crisis of confidence about the value of the gospel following the mutual slaughter of so-called Christians. If ‘Christians’ could kill each other like that, what had the churches to offer the non-Christian world?
            At the second World Missionary Conference in 1928, the idea spread that the uniqueness and finality of Christ was no longer tenable in view of the reality of other faiths. In the spirit of the growing ecumenical movement, there was a further call for Christians to show an attitude of humility, equality and interdependence toward other religions. The mission of the Church would no longer be to share its spiritual message with the world. Rather, it should renounce any goal of conversion and devote its energies to improving economic and social life. A new international order of cooperation and autonomy would be initiated. There was a call to “End Mission Imperialism Now!”    
            At the beginning this was mainly a Protestant movement and at the 1960 conference of the World’s Student Christian Federation at Strasbourg the decisive step was taken of calling on Christians to shun primacy of doctrine and to commit instead to contextual social engagement. As a report from the World Council of Churches put it, it is the world, not the Church, that now writes God’s agenda. It did not take long for Catholic groups to join the movement and from then on Catholic missionary documents began to reflect the new attitude.
            Were there other reasons for this shift in mission focus?
            In a recent interview, Cardinal Danneels, former Primate of Belgium, stated, “The biggest obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel is the lack of confidence in those who want to evangelize.” There does seem be something holding back missionaries from addressing strictly religious concerns. Confidence in the message itself seems to remain but there is less confidence in the way it is expressed or practiced. Today, the Church’s traditional language, explanations and activities fail to attract, not just the millions of Asia, but people in the Americas and Europe.
            Many missionaries have experienced the problem of talking about faith matters with their own younger relatives back home. It is easier to chat with nephews and nieces about poverty, injustice, global warming or even sport.
The first question this poses is an alarming one: Do we consider our own faith worth sharing with them? Do we really believer it can make a useful contribution to their lives? This deserves more than a minute’s consideration, but we will take the answer as ‘Yes’.
The next question to be answered is whether it is just our type of religion that fails to interest them. Might they have their own valid ideas on religion? If we believe they have no religious sense at all, then we and they are in deep trouble. It would indeed be time to abandon any hope of talking with them about matters of the spirit and to turn our show of concern to financial, health or emotional areas.
If however we believe that everyone has a spiritual side to them, and that this can express itself in different ways, then we should be making efforts to understand where they are and how we can find common ground with them.
As professional missionaries we should have been trained in how to do this properly but our formations was designed for life within traditional parish structures and priestly activity. Those who saw the need to move out beyond those limits in order to engage the unreached had to find their own way by trial and error. Missionary work is not rocket science and some of the most valuable insights were gained, not from books, but from working with people.  It would be a pity if the experience gained by such interaction was not shared and built upon. So I am thinking of setting up a blog or discussion group to gather people’s ideas on topics like the following.
Listening: How do we listen without letting our own interests, such as a wish to talk about a particular spirituality, poverty alleviation program or caring apostolate get in the way?
Distinguish: How do I separate in my own faith what is essentially Christian and what are cultural and non-essential expressions I have inherited?
Articulate: How do I express my faith in ways that make sense to others, allowing for their particular background and concerns? Faith is not isolated from life. As Christians we should all be involved in the economic, cultural and social realities around us but, at the same time, how do I highlight the essential element for human wellbeing that only religion can offer?

               Hugh MacMahon     4/27/10

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