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, 10 March 2012

How A Missionary Society Can Change Its Identity Without Noticing it

My New Year got off to a good start with a book that gave me a valuable insight into where we are as Columbans today. The book’s title is Concepts of Mission and what attracted me was that its author, a Nigerian priest, is professor of missiology at the Urban University in Rome. With his qualifications he is well placed to provide definitive statements on missionary issues.
The author, Fr Francis Oborji, begins by acknowledging that mission is in crisis today and goes on to try to unravel the reasons why. His first chapter alone should have satisfied me. In it the author spells out in detail his reasons for stating, AThe development in mission theology after Vatican ll has brought to the fore the importance of safeguarding the validity of mission ad gentes.@
 Drawing on John Paul ll=s Redemptoris Missio, he explains: “The expression (mission ad gentes), when properly used, describes the mission of the church directed to >peoples, groups and socio-cultural contexts in which Christ and his Gospel are not known, or which lack Christian communities sufficiently mature= (RM 34). Mission ad gentes is the effort of evangelization directed to people or groups who do not yet believe in Christ, who are far from Christ, in whom the church has not yet taken root and whose culture has not yet been influenced by the gospel.@
He proceeds to distinguish it from evangelization in general, pastoral activity at home or abroad and re-evangelization or the new evangelization.
I went on to read his chapters on mission as conversion, as church planting and growth, as adaptation and inculturation, as dialogue, as Missio Dei and as service in God’s reign. The section on Missio Dei held my attention. When I delved more into it, bits of a jigsaw that that troubled me for years began to come together and make sense. I began to see where the confusion about our identity and role originated.  
According to Professor Oborji, the idea of Missio Dei as the basis for mission emerged from the writings of Karl Barth as developed at the mission meeting in Willingen (Germany) in 1952. At that time, the world was recovering from the shock of thousands of missionaries being expelled from China. Some thought that this indicated an end to church planting and was a wake-up call to get involved in the great issues of the time, political and economical. God is the author of all movements seeking peace and justice (shalom or the Kingdom), including mission. The church, they said, is only an instrument of God=s work so maybe it was time to move beyond a focus on institution to participate in God-inspired world-bettering movements.

This concept of God being active outside the church had the positive effect of encouraging a more open approach to other religions and an appreciation of the secular. However, since 1972 it also led to a split in Protestant missionary circles between those working to establish churches and those moving beyond church concerns to getting involved in the great issues of the day. Among Catholics influenced by this thinking was the theologian Ludwig Rutti who does not accept conversion to the faith or to the church as any part of the goal of mission. It must also be said that this radical reading of Missio Dei never caught on among the majority of Catholic or Protestant missionaries.
Exactly fifty years later, in August 2002, another meeting was held at Willingen to review the situation. The positive aspects of Missio Dei theory were again acknowledged: the fact that mission comes from God and not the church, and that there is need for the church to escape from self-engrossment by taking the side of the weak in the social and political issues of the day. However, the shortcoming of some Missio Dei thinking had also become apparent. By accentuating the role of God the creator, it downplayed the importance of Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. It did nothing to help clarify the distinction between the Kingdom of God and human actions, between Christian faith and the value of other religions, between the unity of the church and the need for inculturation and between God=s particular activity in the Church and God=s overall activity in creation.
Thinking over this, I began to understand a major shift that has changed Columban identity. It was something I first experienced at the General Assembly of 1982, without understanding the background. The context in which it emerged was the call for solidarity with the oppressed. I was in the committee given the task of drawing up a statement on the Society=s commitment to solidarity and I completely agreed with the concept. I was also at home with the idea of a Trinitarian or Missio Dei approach to mission although I was not conscious of its more radical interpretation and it was never openly mentioned. However in our group discussions I felt there was something missing, something I knew to be important from my almost twenty years in Korea.
It is only now, looking back, that I can put words on it: it was the lack of interest by many of my fellow-committee members in topics such as inculturation, dialogue or better ways of expressing, sharing and practicing the wider Christian message. I have been critical of the Church in my time (and still am occasionally) but I still see it as an integral part of life for followers of Christ and the Kingdom. Believers need to gather in communities to support each other, expand their understanding of scripture and to work with others for the Kingdom. Eventually communities evolve into a church (or churches).
Since then, radical Missio Dei thinking has found a place in our Society, mainly in our formation and lay mission programs. To a large degree it now determines where our younger members want to go, what they are qualified to do and how they see their future.  
How did this version of Missio Dei come to influence our decision making process? My view is that, after Vatican ll, there was a reluctance in the Society to take up the radical implications of the council for the motivation and practice of mission. For instance, even though we are officially an ad gentes mission Society, when was the last time a General Assembly, or other Columban gathering, grappled with any of the topics listed in Fr Oborji’s book: the challenges of direct evangelization, church development, inculturation, dialogue and witness?
A vacuum was created after Vatican ll and a minority view seeped in to dominate key decisions in areas in which the majority of members had little interest or say, but were of major consequence. It happened quietly, probably unconsciously. No one noted that we had taken a new direction, it just happened.
So what can we do about it now?
We must begin by becoming a Society that is no longer afraid to publicly and formally address the issues that challenge us, beginning with the question: What does it mean to be an ad gentes Society today? Reading and discussing Professor Oborji’s book would be a good starting point to reach agreement on terminology and clarify the key issues.
We also need to ensure that all future assessments of our formation and lay mission programs be done by qualified people outside the current programs, with the participation of all interested members. In-house reviews tend to build on present trends rather than correct them.
Finally, all present members should be reassured that efforts to re-focus on ad gentes mission will not mean major changes in their lives. The goal is long-term and geared to the future, no criticism is intended of present day involvements.    Hugh MacMahon.  1

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