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?

Friday, 16 March 2012

Refocusing for the Future

            In recent years, the number of seminars organized by missionary groups on topics such as the environment, immigrants and reconciliation has been impressive. Concern for nature and human rights is an integral part of the Christian message and, as such, should rank high on the agenda of communities engaged in spreading Christianity.
            However, the primary contribution that Christians, as a Church, can offer the world today is not a special competence in economics, the environmental sciences or social affairs but the gospel message with its call for radical change based on a deeper bond with God, creation and others. We cannot presume that, without this commitment,  the majority of people are prepared to look beyond their own self-interest to seek a better world and only need to be told what they have to do.   
Since missionaries have the extra challenge of bringing the Christian message across cultural barriers, it might be expected that the first question at any conference on world concerns, organized by missionaries, should be: how successful are we in the specialized role entrusted to us? Are we making the Christian message intelligible enough, for example in Asia and Africa, to encourage people there to want to make the changes in their lives that alone can solve personal and world problems?
            Of course, that would draw attention to our own precarious situation: our confusion about missionary goals, the lack of skills demanded by the new challenges and concern whether there will be a next generation to continue our work.
            With forty years of mission in Asia, I am daily reminded of this reality and a number of the questions that require urgent attention at missionary meetings on local or international level.

1. Updating Terminology
            The first challenge in reviving a missionary spirit is to find a new and simple language to express the urgency and goals of mission. Once, when working with the Irish Missionary Union, I spent two years trying to find a satisfactory replacement for the old slogan, “Missionaries save souls”, an expression that had already lost its meaning. At that time we could not find a suitable substitute, but that was twenty years ago.
Today we need an answer to the question, “What to missionaries do?” that will not only restore the interest and support of lay people, but will help missionaries find focus and energy in their efforts and enable potential recruits to see the relevance and attraction of mission. It calls for discipline in peeling away the non-essentials of mission and re-expressing the original objectives in terms of today’s context.
            One of the key terms that need to be broken down and reformulated is ‘salvation’. How do missionaries ‘save’ souls today?  Missionary goals and methods will be determined by the answer given. One understanding of salvation can lead to an emphasis on church over message, with a focus on catechetics and adherence to a fixed set of beliefs and laws. A different interpretation of salvation might put more emphasis on a scriptural and spiritual search, seeking to help individuals develop a personal comprehension and commitment. In Asia, while the previous generation could accept the former, the more worldly-wise present generation look for the latter.
            Why is there a need for missionaries today? Finding a simple but compelling answer should provide material for more than one seminar and remove many of the distractions that are sapping missionary energy. If it cannot be done, the future of international mission is not too bright.

2.  Extending the Opportunities for Inculturation
            While much has been written and said about the need for inculturation, little has been done. When missionaries do discuss the topic they tend to focus on how to use the limited opportunities permitted at present (for example, in liturgy) rather than on how those opportunities can be expanded. There are other wider issues such as the need to revalue the role of  analytical theology in Asian and African cultures where ideas are transmitted through narrative and example. Grasping the message comes first, theological distinctions emerge later.
The Holy See has a responsibility to guard unity and uniformity in the Church but missionary societies have the complementary vocation to be pro-active in seeking diversity by lobbying for greater cultural latitude. The future of the Church in Asia and Africa depends on how active the missionary lobby is.

3.  Taking Lay Mission Seriously
            With the dramatic decrease in clerical and religious missionary vocations, the challenge of preparing lay missionaries to take a leading role in mission is an obvious concern that has yet to be faced.  
            While a number of lay missionary organizations do exist, most of them are engaged in auxiliary roles. Few possibilities exist for lay missionaries to engage in key ministries, there is  little encouragement or opportunity for them to prepare for the demands of transmitting the faith cross-culturally, and steps have yet to be taken to secure sustainable ways of financing them and their families.
            In recent centuries mission has been entrusted to priests, brothers and sisters, and the goals and methods of mission have been fashioned around them. The Church must now find new ‘workers for the vineyard’ and change the system to suit them. While the future of clerical ministry is a pressing one for the whole Church, the task of finding new full-time personnel for mission is even more compelling.

4.  Revitalizing Western Spirituality
            For many years, Church leaders have given lip-service to the role that the Churches in Africa and Asia can play in enriching Christian spirituality. At a time when Christianity in the West is losing its credibility as a spiritual and moral guide, any enrichment it can get from other traditions is not only desirable but necessary.
            This is more than a pious platitude. People in the West are being attracted to aspects of Eastern or African religions but the Church offers them little guidance or encouragement in discerning what is helpful. 
            Missionaries who have experienced the sacred in other cultures are those best placed to be a bridge and guide in promoting the exchange. Since their appreciation of non-Christian traditions comes from direct experience, they are the most credible witnesses of what other spiritualities have to offer and best positioned to share them with their home Churches.
            While a few individuals are already attempting to do this, it will take a more organized effort for the mutual enrichment to have any wide effect. Missionary gatherings would seem to be the most natural place to discuss and initiate practical steps.

            A final question can be asked: why have the above topics, which seem so obvious to those in the field, been neglected or ignored until now?
            Perhaps for too long, missionary societies have followed a pattern of parish-based mission that demanded little innovation or reflection. The system itself calls for unquestioning adherence and missionaries, as loyal ‘champions of the faith’, are inclined to be conservative. As a result, they tend to be ‘doers’ rather than thinkers, more comfortable in overcoming practical difficulties than giving time to speculation or speculators
            It is not surprising, then, that missionary societies till have to deal with the consequences of Vatican II. Since the Council, Papal documents have done their best to clarify the distinction between the evangelizing duty of Christians everywhere and the special role of Ad Gentes missionaries among those not yet touched by the Christian message. Yet, confusion continues and a vocal number of missionaries have come to see the ‘missio dei’, or activity of God that operates also outside the Church, as making the preaching of the gospel or spreading of the Church a less urgent demand. Their interest has turned to the cutting-edge social issues of the day, even in their home countries. This has become a sensitive issue among missionaries, one they are reluctant to debate in public.  
            Now is an opportune time for missionary gatherings to face the issues that will decide whether the Catholic Church becomes a slowly shrinking European/North American religious movement or grows as a world religion. At this turning point, missionaries, with their cross-Church and cross-cultural experience, can play a valuable role. Maybe this is one of the life-giving things that “missionaries do today”.
                                           Hugh MacMahon   SEDOS  2/6/08

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