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

Good Reading On Mission

Is it just by chance that I have already come across two excellent mission-defining books in 2009? Not long after I had finished Oborji’s Concepts of Mission, I encountered Translating the Message by Lamin Sanneh.
Sanneh was born in Gambia, brought up as a traditional Muslim family, became a Catholic, is professor of history in Yale and is a member of two Pontifical Commissions. His main interest is religion in the world and, in particular, the influence Christianity has, and can, have.
His specialty is history, not mission as such, and that brings a fresh perspective to a field that can easily get sidetracked in theological disputes over unhelpful definitions. What interests him is the practical challenge of bringing the Christian message to people and cultures unfamiliar with it, and missionaries happen to be those who have been historically entrusted with that task.  
Being brought up in an Islamic background, Sanneh has a valuable viewpoint from which to interpret many of the problem facing religious believers today. He sees the basic difference between Christianity and Islam as coming from the fact that Christian scripture is open to translation into many tongues while Islam restricts itself to Arabic. In the process of translating the bible into local languages missionaries have had to study the culture and traditions of the people and came to discover positive elements which they sought to preserve. Islam, on the other hand, does not have to dialogue with local cultures.
Reading his description of this phenomenon, missionaries will recall their own early efforts to find equivalent words for god, grace and sin, and how this led them to find out more about the people’s historical religious experience and vocabulary.      
A benefit of Translating the Message is the fresh approach it brings to describing the task of mission today. We are at a moment when the old ways of presenting mission, which were useful in their time, no longer have the same impact. Meanwhile, the new expressions we are grasping at in our desperation to be relevant are being shown to lack depth and lasting value. Sanneh articulates the missionary challenge in a way which is both true to its roots and speaks to the spiritual thirst in the modern world.
He recognizes the inevitably tension in the Church between those whose task it is to preserve truth and unity and those responsible for bringing the Christian message to a variety of cultures and situations. The tendency of the first is to seek uniformity in expression and practice, the task of the latter is to promote variety so the Church can grow in different environments. At present the emphasis is on the former and attention to the second is being sacrificed.
Sanneh does not take up this issue in his book, he just describes the historical influence the Church has had due to its openness, first to the Greek world and later to other civilizations. Today missionaries are responsible for continuing that openness, to help people find God in their own traditions, to leaven the seeds of the Gospels found there with the message of the scriptures and the accumulate experience of the Church.
This is a challenge that has to be faced both at the cautious highest levels of the Vatican and each time a missionary open their mouth to share their faith in a new situation. It is not only a matter of making the scriptures available to all people but has the potential of enriching cultures, churches and the spirituality of individuals. Expressed that way, it has the ability to capture imaginations today.
One thing Columbans have is a treasury of missionary experience. A book like Sanneh’s can help them reflect on it, evaluate it and draw valuable lessons for our future. 
                                                                Hugh MacMahon 4/16/09

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