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?

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

We Need to Work More on Our Identity


A recent article in a mission magazine provided me with some food for thought about our identity as missionaries today. One observation that caught my attention was how deeply the countries, or geographical regions, in which individual missionaries served have influenced their vision of mission.
  For instance, those working in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan or Pakistan were surrounded by a population with little experience of Christianity. There the priority for missionaries was to try to introduce the Church as the sign of the Kingdom and encourage the local people to join them as Christians. While this meant finding ways of  sharing their beliefs across cultural differences, often the establishment of parishes, or even dioceses, to accommodate the new Christians and provide social projects for the wider community was given precedence. 
On the other hand, those appointed to Latin America and the Philippines found themselves among people with a Christian tradition but, perhaps do to a shortage of priests, Religious and trained laity, needed help in broadening their understanding of the Christian message and renewing their commitment. Since many of those people were overwhelmed by unjust economic and political systems, that context had to be addressed in a genuine renewal process. As a result there was an emphasis on solidarity with the poor and the social teaching of the Church. 
I would not like to draw too clear of a distinction here, as if one group was concerned only with a spiritual dialogue and the other only with raising Christian social awareness. In both situations there was a blending of the social and spiritual messages but the different contexts inevitably meant that in certain situations more attention was given to one aspect of the Good News than to the other. The contrasting experiences and priorities that ensued were to have important consequences for the development of our Society’s identity.
On the one hand, it led to considerable expertise in the fields of international justice and the environmental threat. However, our knowledge of the field of religious studies was not refined to the same extent. For example, there is an opinion among a surprising large number in our Society that all religions are much the same and, therefore, going out to encourage people in non-Christian cultures to become Christian is out-dated.
I hope I am not misrepresenting the mind of the author mentioned above when I read one of his sentences in that light: “These realizations have demolished any lingering geographical basis for mission and made quite impractical any distinctions between a people, a culture, a community, an individual alleged to have heard the Gospel and those alleged to have not.”
There could be a number of reasons for this misunderstanding. One may be disillusionment with the sad state of the Church in the western world. Another, a belief that every generation needs to be re-evangelized so the task in no one culture is more urgent than in any other. A third could come from the observation that religious practices have a great similarity throughout the world and that thinking Christianity is better is just the relic of a Western superiority complex.
I think the third objection points to a key issue. There is no doubt that religious similarities and parallels do exist around the world when people, for economic or social reasons, depend on, or hope for, divine intervention to solve their more urgent financial, health and personal needs. I have seen this is places as disparate as Taoist and Buddhist temples in Korea and China, a cathedral in Cebu and a shrine to a Holy Man in Lahore. In each place the scene or ritual was similar: the devotees formally approaching a holy image, often on their knees, carrying candles or incense and presenting their requests with great respect. Usually they recited a prayer.
In their private lives those believers were probably aware of precepts, similar to the Ten Commandments, which they knew they should be observing and felt guilty about if they fail to keep them. They were good people, trying to do their best as their traditions taught them. Only the identity of the deity differentiated what they were doing. If comparisons were to be made between such religious practices, it would be in terms of which of the deities concerned was the more powerful or successful in providing help.   
But in many parts of the world today most material needs can now be solved by 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 economic or other immediate benefits but in a search to satisfy their deeper and inner yearnings. The Church’s stand for democracy and human rights on the national level gave 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 sense of their individual and personal worth.  Today young people in China are showing the same needs.
I believe Christianity, and no other religion today outside the small circle of mystics, has the answers to this search. The message of Jesus uniquely offers:   
--a relationship with God that is direct and personal, giving a sense of being valued, of being wanted or called; 
--a path in life that is inspiring, enlightening, encouraging rather than prohibitive, compassionate rather than judgemental;
-- a world view that is positive, with an active role for humans and uniting people.  
Again, 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 though, in individuals and in certain cultures, one can dominate the other.
Unfortunately, many of the young Koreans in the 1980s and 90s did not find what they were expecting. The Church in Korea at that time, despite it public stances, proved on closer inspection  to be traditional, hierarchical, restrictive and too dependent on foreign theologies. Many of the young people soon left unsatisfied. But that does not prove that Christianity is deficient, it just shows that in many Churches practice still has to catch up on teachings. 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.
It is possible then, and indeed it is stating the obvious, to say that there are geographical areas of the world today where the vast majority of people have not heard the message of the person Jesus, and could benefit from it. The prime example is Asia, with a third of the world’s population. There is much to respect in, and learn from, the traditions of the East but that should not dampen our confidence and enthusiasm for offering to them what we are fortunate to have inherited.
A problem remains in our Society of two streams of experience talking across each other rather than to each other. The loss is not just to the Society but to the world of mission in general.    
                                                 Hugh MacMahon.             11/15/07

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