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?

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why the Lack of Excitement?

            I wonder how many members of Western missionary societies would be shocked at the idea of my asking them if all their fellow missionaries were 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 is 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 share. In the early days, when they went by sailing ship, half of those who set out never arrived because of shipwreck or disease. Those who got there had no expectations of ever returning home. Yet their commitment never faltered.
Today it is different. The excitement of mission is gone from the West. Faith is less important in people=s lives. Young people are willing to travel abroad to offer their services in humanitarian causes but do not regard any one faith as better than another.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is disillusionment with the sad state of the Church in the West which seems to have little to offer the modern life. Another is the defense that every generation needs to be re-evangelized so the task in the West is just as urgent as that in the East or elsewhere. A third comes from the observation that religious practices have a great similarity throughout the world and that thinking the Christian version is better is just the relic of a Western superiority complex.
The third objection may points to the 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 in the religious practices of 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 holy site the scene or ritual was similar: the devotees humbly approaching a sacred image, often on their knees, carrying candles or incense and presenting their requests with great respect. Usually they repeated 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 differed. 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 today in many parts of the world 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 guide for moral conduct and a sense of their individual and personal worth. Today young people in China are showing the same needs.
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 though, in individuals and in certain cultures, one can dominate the other.
However, I believe Christianity, and no other religion today, has the answers to the questions emerging in both east and west. This is not ignoring the role of other faiths and the importance contribution they have made to thee wellbeing of the human family. I have spent many years immersed in, and studying, the tradition of the east and benefited from the experience. It was that involvement which led me to question my own religion and seek to uncover what was unique and of universal value in Christianity.  
What I found was the human figure of Christ with his message of a compassionate God, of the Spirit alive in the individual, the call to be part of a new creation, an explanation for evil in the world and a spirituality that seeks the transcendent in ordinary life, a reaffirmation of the individual while challenging him or her whether living in the west or in the east.
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 encounter to be less democratic, individual-orientated, positive, supportive and Korean than they expected. Many of them 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.
If the mainstream Western missionary movement is to recover, it may be time for missionaries who have worked in a predominantly non-Christian environment, and faced up to comparisons with other religions, to bring back what they have gained from the experience. In their efforts to communicate the heart of the Christian message to people of different religious backgrounds they had to peel off the layers of later cultural additions and try to uncover its core message.         
 If they have survived this far as missionaries it is because they have glimpsed the value, even the urgency, of Christianity for themselves and others today and this has motivated them to want to share it cross-culturally. Now that same clarity of vision and ability to apply the Word to the questions of modern life is also needed in their home countries to revitalize the missionary spirit there.
For over four hundred year 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 rekindle enthusiasm there.  
                                                                             Hugh MacMahon   SEDOS 2/6/08

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