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?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Modern Missionary Success Story

                                                                                                Hugh MacMahon

            Word has spread about the small missionary society in Canada that shows impressive growth and regeneration while other groups are in decline.
            I asked their Vicar General what was the secret and he admitted that their vocation situation had improved and their lay mission program was generating new interest. “Actually it’s not that the numbers have greatly increased,” he said, “But the type of person we attract is encouraging.” Most of their applicants are in their twenties or early thirties and have a clear idea of what they wanted to do in life. Many have done graduate studies.
            What is the attraction? The Vicar General explained that it was probably because they highlight a single missionary challenge that appeals to young people. “We draw attention to something we call, ‘A Third Stage of Mission’ or ‘Third Generation of Mission’ and this makes people curious. They are looking for something more focused than what most missionary societies offer. Our objectives fit in with how they see themselves as Christians and they know that by joining us their creativity and abilities will be tested. Our older members have got new energy too. Many of them are off doing courses to prepare themselves to be part of it.”

How It Started
            When I asked him to describe this ‘Third Stage,’ he said that reaching consensus had not been an easy or rapid process. “Even three years ago the only thing our members were able to agree on was that we disagreed. Many felt a need to redefine our goals to serve the new world we live in but it seemed impossible to reach any common vision.”
Some thought it was too late to be making changes. The Society was still doing valuable work and most of the members were happy with it. They were not trained to look beyond parish or individual apostolates. They had done a good job and perhaps it was time to fade out. Some saw the present situation in a positive light. The Society was becoming a vehicle for those wishing to do Christian service either at home or aboard. Theologians were beginning to popularize this expansive vision of ‘mission’ so no other change was called for.    
A more optimistic group called on the Society to be engaged in issues that appeal to the modern mind. Traditional religious language and practices have lost their meaning for many, so new ways have to be found to relate to them. Involvement in seeking social justice, ecological awareness, political or religious reconciliation and assisting immigrants not only helped expand God’s Kingdom on earth but could also be a starting point for getting people to reflect more on the ‘voice within’ which was the inspiration behind their search for a better world.  This could be the start of a renewed interest in religion.  
Others, who worked in non-Christian countries of Asia and Africa, pointed out that the people among whom they worked still had a strong religious sense, coming from their spiritual heritage, but that religious reservoir had never been fully tapped by the church. As a result, even though the church was established among them it was still seen as foreign and failed to attract a significant number of the people. For them, helping to build a more genuinely local church was an urgent task and in line with the history and the traditional goals of the Society.

Reality Check
However, whenever the members got together to discuss these ideas, their different viewpoints blocked any progress. Eventually everyone became weary of meetings and wanted to avoid debates on goals or objectives.
“At that point,” said the Vicar General, “It became obvious that we were going  over the same old issues every time – mission spirituality, vocations, dialogue, partnership with laity, intercultural living, urgent global threats— but there seemed to be little progress in our common understanding or practice.”   
The underlying problem seemed to be the fact that members had no tradition of team work or joining together on missionary projects or issues. They were used to operating on their own and when changes were called for they waited for directions from their Superiors, the bishops or Rome. Something had to be done to get them to acknowledge the skills and experience of other members and develop a habit of collaborating with them. It was suggested that, before the next General Assembly, those interested in particular issues should get together to clarify their ideas and come up with concrete proposals.
At first only a few individuals responded to the urging and a number of proposals emerged. One in particular attracted interest. It drew on a concept in documents since Vatican ll that evangelization covers three stages: pioneering efforts to introduce the Christian message in a local language and culture; setting up communities and parishes where the people could learn, worship and be of service together; and finally a third stage of helping that Church to reach maturity as a ‘Local Church’.
The Vicar General explained, “Our members had some small involvement in the first stage. Looking back on it, we could have done more. We presumed that the people coming to the church had no serious spiritual background on which we could build. We just were not prepared to take their religious traditions seriously.
“Where we made our biggest contribution was in the second stage, by setting up new parish communities and getting Local Churches on their feet. That is what we felt we were sent to do and we had clear models to follow. It didn’t ask many questions about the sort of church we were helping to build.
“However we largely failed to initiate the final stage of convincing the local priests, sisters and laity that it was now their task to take the Western-style church we had given them and turn it into a genuine Local Church.”
The local-born leaders had also been warned in their formation against the superstitions in their culture and to stick closely to Roman practices. Before that mind-set hardened and became accepted as normal, the people needed to be reassured that God had always been present among them and it was now their task to build on that foundation. 
Since these ideas presented something new to think about they were debated at meetings before the next General Assembly and a degree of acceptance seemed to be growing. 

Finally a proposal was drawn up and, after some amendments were made, it was presented at the General Assembly as follows:
1. The majority of peoples in Asia, and other parts of the world, remain cut off from the Church because of its foreign or irrelevant image. We will focus our efforts on encouraging Local Churches to become more local.
 2. The local priests, sisters and laity will be the ones to decide the future shape of their church since they are closest to the people’s religious thinking, traditional ways of worship and sense of morality. Our role will be to encourage them to draw on this heritage and make the Christian message more accessible to the ordinary people. In post-Christian countries it could be a means of reviving the people’s relationship with God.
3. The renewed awareness of the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives and history will inspire the people in facing the challenges and opportunities of modern life. It will be the foundation from which their concern for others, the earth and society will develop.
4. The benefit gained from drawing on their religious heritage will not only enrich their own spirituality and practices but also those of the universal Church.
Of course there was some skepticism. It was suggested that while the task of making the church more local might apply to Asia, it was not so urgent in other continents. Also, would this mean that all the members are expected to become experts in religions and cultures? The lay missionaries wondered how they would be involved.
Supporters of the idea tried to meet these concerns by pointing out that is not just in the East that large segments of the population feel alienated from the church, the challenge of renewing churches by drawing energy from their traditional spiritualities was everywhere. Since the principal role of the members, clerical and lay, would be to encourage and facilitate the local people they would not have to be experts themselves, they only had to show and prepare the way.
            Most of the members seemed satisfied with these explanations and it was with confidence that the proposal was put to the General Assembly. However, to the disappointment of those who had worked hard on it, only 35% supported the motion, 41% were against and the remainder abstained. Once more, differences in backgrounds seemed insurmountable.

A Way Forward
            It was a crucial moment that could have set the process back ten years but fortunately the facilitator recognized what was happening. He pointed out that it was a fear of change that was holding the Assembly back. We are now in a different world from that for which the Society was founded, from which the members were ordained and for which they were trained. Ordinary people today were unfamiliar with the language of that church, they did not feel the needs it addressed or show interest in being part of it.
            The members too had changed individually with the dramatic shifts in theologies and each had adapted in his own way. But it was harder to change an institution. Altering the way an institution directs its energies or organizes itself can threaten the individual’s way of life. Transformation will come only when the need to change is fully understood and its effects are seen as acceptable.  
The fact that the Assembly rejected the proposal was not important. It was only one possible vision of how the Society could unite in making a significant contribution to world Christianity.  What would decide the effectiveness of the Assembly would be the degree to which it was willing to face change. It was not just the survival of the Society that was at stake but its ability to address the new needs of mission and attract new recruits to that vision. Once the need for change had been accepted, work could begin on clarifying a new direction or identity. First, a formal process of change had to be activated.
            The meeting took this to heart and elected a leadership team that was committed to change and a process that involved all the members. Obviously the Vicar General was one of those picked. The new leadership team immediately set up a communications office to ensure that the members were kept informed on up-coming decisions and their suggestions sought. The office makes good use of social media and deals with language and cultural differences. It helps bring the thinking of the Society to the wider Church and world.

The Outcome
            Within a year the effects could be seen. An up-dated vision statement was completed with which most of the members expressed satisfaction. 
            The priest members found new reasons for planning together. They realized that including the group’s priority in their current work did not detract from it but made it even more valuable. There was satisfaction in knowing that an enduring contribution was being made to the local church through their combined efforts.
            Those in vocation work and fund raising used the opportunities they had to explain the challenges and benefits of localization and report on the ways it was being done.
            Lay missionaries and associate priests wanted to join because they liked the idea of being part of  a new experience of church which they could bring back home with them.  
            Formation and on-going education programs now had clear goals for which to prepare new missionaries and up-date older ones. Courses on popular spiritualities, traditional religions and the role of local churches increased.
            Everyone involved in implementing the ‘Third Stage of Mission’ found that their own understanding of the Christian message was being deepened. Uncovering the spiritualities of ordinary people brought home in a concrete manner how the Spirit was active everywhere and in all of creation.
            What is the name of this rejuvenated missionary society? It could be any of the existing missionary societies who realize the need for a process of change, use it to articulate a fresh vision and implement it in their planning and ministries.    12/6/11

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