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, 1 February 2012

Are We Really ‘God’s Entrepreneurs’?

During the summer I spotted a book entitled ‘God’s Entrepreneurs’ in a Dublin bookshop. The subtitle was, ‘How Irish Missionaries tried to change the world’. My first reaction was to wonder, “Why have I not heard of this book, it was published in 2010?” and my second was to get it. 
It was written by an Irish Times journalist, Joe Humphreys, and while I am a bit wary of  contemporary Irish journalists, a quick look at the book suggested that he was trying to be fair. A surprising number of his sources were Columban. Society members interviewed or mentioned include Pat Raleigh, Malachy Smyth, Neill Collins, Tommy Murphy, Dan Fitzgerald, Michael Healy, Donal Hogan, Alo Connaughton, Liam O’Callaghan and Shay Cullen. The Society’s origins and history are highlighted as important elements of the story.
The Preface explains what the author wanted to investigate and why.
He had observed that a generation of extraordinary people was disappearing who had never been given proper recognition or understanding. He was thinking of Irish missionaries but what he has to say is relevant to many other countries with a strong Catholic missionary background.
He wanted to know:  Why did these men and women join the missions? What motivated them?  Do they have regrets? Do they still feel an attachment to their native country?
He had examined existing resources on mission. There was the self-congratulatory missionary propaganda of mission societies. There were also the superficial expressions of approval by celebrities, politicians and journalists. Neither did much to deepen the general public’s  understanding of the real issues.
There were publications that expressed a less positive view: some saw missionaries as well-meaning but outdated, others believed missions were a failed and much-flawed enterprise. A growing number was openly suspicious and hostile, perhaps influenced by recent revelations of clerical abuse both at home and abroad.
The author went on to describe some of the difficulties he encountered in trying to cover the missionary reality.
First, each missionary society is different and independent of others. None of them are good at assessing or recording their activities. Their excuse is that immediate concerns take up all their energies. Most missionaries are not comfortable talking about their achievements, they do not seek publicity lest they be misunderstood. The variety of works that missionaries do makes it difficult to describe them as a unit: there are mavericks and pioneers, conformists, rebels, revolutionaries, conservatives and liberals. Each claims his or her own charism and that often outweighs whatever local policy may exist.
The Preface goes on to explain that the book is divided into two parts. The first is the historical background, based on interviews, and here the Columban experience is seen as trend-setting. The second part is thematic: the nature of mission today and the ideology, legacy and the future of missionaries.   
Interestingly, for a book by a secular journalist, each chapter is headed by a biblical quotation. The reason for this is, “They (the quotations) are used as a reminder that, for good or ill, missionaries are inescapably religious. It is tempting sometime to portray the best of them as somehow divorced from the Church, or even secularized, but that would be a clear misrepresentation… They are the Good News army. They are God’s entrepreneurs.”
Now for some of his conclusions. 
First, the criticisms. Some prominent Western historians and local writers, while holding great personal affection for individual Irish priests, nuns and brothers, accuse the missionaries of  furthering ‘Western imperialism’ through education that alienates the young from their traditional values. Moreover, in both religious and developmental fields, they are inclined to focus on local and immediate needs and lack a wider, strategic vision: “They carve out their own little space and then don’t go outside that.”
Yet, many recognize the positive sides. The missionaries did much to meet the needs of large numbers of people in dire poverty in Africa and bring their plight to the attention of the western world. In the field of evangelization, they were relatively successful in that they left many local Churches in a healthier state then when they found them. Yet, some missionaries insisted that their congregations had moved away from the ‘conversion’ model. Here, the author and some of those he interviewed seem to regard ‘evangelization’ as efforts to increase church membership rather than to engage with the people’s existing religious outlook.
He noted that missionaries often insist that their work cannot be evaluated in human terms because of it spiritual nature. He pointed out that this could become an excuse to avoid scrutiny and a source of self-delusion.
Here are some of the comments made concerning the future of missionary societies.
“A particular phase of missionary work is coming to an end.” (Donal Dorr)
“Idealistic young people today have different –and maybe better—ways to make a difference… Having a religious faith is not necessary to do this kind of work.”
“Whether the Columbans opened up (to local vocations) in sufficient time to secure their future is uncertain.”
“Once missionaries commanded awe, they now tend to attract pity.”
 “What’s worse, this predicament is part of their own making. Reluctance to investigate abuses within, and loath to discuss past mistakes, missionary congregations are actively contributing to their own self-alienation.”
He agrees with many of the missionaries he met that, “To tap into the idealism of young people, you need to offer them certainty and a unique life-goal, rather than a wishy-washy notion of religious commitment.”
The challenge for our next General Assembly is to come up with such a fresh, clear and challenging expression of what we are about. However, while ‘God’s Entrepreneurs’ may encourage us to do this it will not tell us how, as the author is a journalist and not a missionary. What will guide us is a reflection on our own history:  how the first generation of Columbans broke new ground in the unfamiliar cultural landscape of China, the second generation built up the Churches of Asia and Latin America and now the third generation is called to help those Churches make the Christian message more their own, in their particular situation and traditions.

                                    Hugh MacMahon    9/12/10

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